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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Improving Student Expository Writing

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

In Texas we have a new state test called the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and some schools like mine, were surprised by the student poor performance in writing. As I was reviewing the low scores, I began thinking, "What else can I do to help my students write better?"

Later, I asked the same question to my son in-law, a graduate professor at Missouri State. His answer surprised me, but it makes sense. He responded, "Get the students to read more."

I thought some more about this, and I can see the wisdom behind those simple words. The question is, "What should they be reading?" My son in-law answered this question also, "They need to read the same type of things that you want them to write." So, there you have it. Our students were doing poorly on expository writing so they need to do more expository reading? Well, perhaps not. I'm not sure exactly what expository reading is but what the students need is to read more writing that is expository in nature.

Just getting students to read at all is a battle some times, but I definitely see the advantage of having the students read what they are going to then mimic in their writing. I might be able to sell the students on this kind of reading, if they know that they are going to do that sort of writing. Especially in expository writing, students have issues with two things: creativity, and literalness. Some students believe that they do not possess creativity, or possess it in enough quantity that they can "create" an expository paper.

Outside of the Box

Other students simply believe they have nothing to write about any subject. I believe that both problems (excuses) stem from the same issue: reality versus imagination (creative truth-telling).

If a student is given a topic upon which to write an expository paper, they have a definite format or process that they must use. They should have a thesis or main idea, they must give examples, supporting evidence or facts to support their opinions and they should have some sort of introduction and conclusion.

Some students get stuck with the thought in their heads, "I don't know anything about this topic! I do not have any experience with this subject! How can I write about it?" That is where the creative truth telling (imagination) comes to play.

In answer to an expository prompt, all the student has to do is follow the format, and other than making some sort of sense, and coherence, the content is irrelevant. So all they have to fabricate some content by asking themselves, "What if I did know something about this? What would I say?" "What if this really happened to me? What would I do?" Some times the most outlandish and obtuse responses are the best ones. They should have fun with it.

As long as they follow the format, anything they write does not have to be the exact truth, verifiable or even close to the truth. Mind you, this is for expository writing. Research reports and persuasive arguments should be truthful and verifiable, and you can help the students make the difference.

Moving the Line

Let's say the prompt was an experience that they had with their dog. So if they never had a dog, they can pretend that they did. Not only can they pretend, they can say it was a Great Dane. Not only was this dog huge, it believed it was a lap dog and constantly would sit on anyone who sat on the sofa. Then it would lick the face of their captive, just as a child licks a lollipop. You get the idea.

Then after they have written their interesting expository response, then they have other students read it. Once again, not necessarily for content, but that is the motivational part of this exercise, but for the format. They should use a sort of checklist to see if all of the necessary pieces are there: intro, evidence, transitions, and conclusion. They also can have a good laugh while reading for content. Put yourself in the place of the readers of standardized tests.

When an expository submission is the right format, engaging, and interesting, it would be like a breath of fresh air among all of the other stale and rigid paragraphs. I am very curious on ways you inspire your students to write (and read!)

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (9)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

withem's picture

I agree that we need to expose students to more expository writing in order for them to understand how to write in that format as well. We are all navigating the new STAAR expository writing...even at the 4th grade level!

Jeff Stanton's picture

Correct me if I am wrong, but the example prompt about an experience of a dog would be a narrative and not an expository text right? My understanding of expository writing is it explains how to, describes, or gives facts about an event in the manner you suggested. A narrative tells a story about an event. Some students would have taken this and ran and created an expository description, but others would probably have confused the "creativity" part of it and turned it into a story. I understand the line separating the two is blurry but I thought it was worth mentioning, as this is a common problem. I could be totally wrong though so if I am, someone please correct me.

Mindy Keller- Kyriakides's picture
Mindy Keller- Kyriakides
High school english teacher and blogger.

I love the idea that reading will help students write--it sure will! However, mostly what I come across in the writing lab are students who do not understand what a thesis is or what it does. Thus, they don't respond to the prompt. They are disengaged before they even start, meandering about in disconnected, superfluous details/research.

Helping students understand that a writing prompt implies a question that must be answered seems to help. They are pre-wired to answer questions and seem to find more to say and more authentic stuff to say when presented with this strategy.

A thesis, I explain, is the "short answer". The essay is the "long answer."

: )

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Mindy:

Thank you for sharing your technique. Helping students to find the question in a prompt will help them be able to formulate an answer. The question may be stated outright, but the more interesting ones must be discovered. For example: Write about an embarrassing experience that you have had and how you dealt with it. What is the question in this prompt? Well, the focus is on the word embarrassing-- Some possible questions could be, what kinds of things embarrass me? How do you experience embarrassment? Dealing with embarrassment can have long lasting consequences, If I am still embarrassed did I really deal with it?
Thank you for your prompt/question. It got me thinking!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas
[quote]I love the idea that reading will help students write--it sure will! However, mostly what I come across in the writing lab are students who do not understand what a thesis is or what it does. Thus, they don't respond to the prompt. They are disengaged before they even start, meandering about in disconnected, superfluous details/research.

Helping students understand that a writing prompt implies a question that must be answered seems to help. They are pre-wired to answer questions and seem to find more to say and more authentic stuff to say when presented with this strategy.

A thesis, I explain, is the "short answer". The essay is the "long answer."

: )[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Mike and Jeff:

I look at expository writing as explaining. It could be what happened, what you believe, or what you want others to believe, but the most compelling expository writing also includes why it happened. In my opinion, narrative does not imply this sort of analysis like expository does. I agree with Mike, that expository can be to entertain and to convince, but I also need to agree with Jeff in that we need to careful about the words we use and clear about their meaning, especially if we are trying to get students to understand them and use them correctly.

Thanks for your comments,

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I believe there is narrative for the purpose to entertain and narrative to inform. Narrative expository, using narrative as an adjective, would be describing actual events, informing the reader of what took place. New articles are narrative expository pieces. Narrative in the form of a fiction novel would indeed not be expository. This is how i understand it to exist.[/quote]

Chris Van Arsdale's picture

So many disheartening things about the article and comments. First, Mr. Johnson apparently never read any of the students' writings. Why not? I do agree with the conclusion that reading is crucial, but I'm not sure the reading of more expository text is the answer. Yes, it always helps to see a model of the outcome, though this can sometimes be limiting in itself, but if I want my students to know how to use language, I want them to read widely and read often, and I want them to read the authors who use language best. I also want to provide them with meaningful writing opportunities and individual feedback. Standardized writing tests are not famous for either of these.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

This is an interesting idea--a blend of creative and expository writing.

"Pretend you're an _______. Now argue for/against _______,"

Depending on how far out of the box you go, you can generate some really wild ideas. I like it.

Jim Samsel's picture
Jim Samsel
HS English & Reading Teacher

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (great name for an author)

Jim Samsel's picture
Jim Samsel
HS English & Reading Teacher

Sorry, no italics or underline for title in text box (unless I'm missing something)

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