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April 1, 2013

Making a Plan for Expository Writing

By Julie Ballew
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    I can hardly believe it, but April is already here! With it comes a season of rainy days, beautiful flowers, and — in many parts of the country — standardized tests. In Texas, our 4th graders are preparing for a two-day writing test, which requires that they compose an original personal narrative and an expository essay, both in response to a prompt.

    At my school, all teachers use the writing workshop approach. This means that all students are given time to write every day, and they are exposed to a wide variety of genres each year. Each writing workshop begins with a mini lesson related to the genre they are currently studying, but students are very rarely given a prompt. By the time they reach 4th grade, this is probably the biggest roadblock to overcome. Particularly in expository writing, I see many students struggle to understand what the prompt is asking them to do. Naturally, this makes responding appropriately a challenge.

    Gena Izat, a 4th grade teacher at my school, asked if I would brainstorm with her some possible scaffolds she could put in place to support her writers. We sat down and looked at some of the essays they were writing, and when we saw that many of the problems began with poor planning, we knew this was the best place to start. After all, if they don’t know how to plan well, how can we expect them to write well?

    The Five-Paragraph Problem

    We had been teaching our students to plan for their essays by thinking of a thesis statement, then deciding on three points to support it. We expected a classic five-paragraph essay: an introductory paragraph, one paragraph for each supporting point, and a one-paragraph conclusion. This made sense and gave students a clear structure for building their essays, but considering that our state test has a one-page limit, five paragraphs were problematic. Again and again, we saw supporting paragraphs that were only one or two sentences long. The essays sounded formulaic and flat, and the writer’s voice was nowhere to be found!

    We wanted to provide students with a structure that was supportive but not restrictive. We also didn’t want to completely derail what they had already learned this year. Ms. Izat also mentioned that she had taught her students how to support their theses in a variety of ways (narrative vignettes, lists, etc.), but they tended to forget that and just rely on stating the obvious.

    Quality vs. Quantity

    Because of the length limitations, we decided to take a chance and encourage students to develop only one or two reasons that support their thesis. Our hope is that lowering the quantity will allow for higher quality. Ms. Izat reviewed some of the ways that we can support a thesis with her class, and she encouraged students to keep the voice in their writing, even though it is expository.

    Students chose three methods for supporting their thesis and based their planning on this. In the photos below, the students chose to use comparisons, short stories, and lists to explain why they prefer to work alone or in a group. This type of planning has helped them think all the way through the essay before they begin writing. They are able to decide what will fit and what won’t, as well as which method of support works best for them.

    Student working on plan for expository essay

    Student holding chart of writing plan      Sample student chart with plan for expository writing

    This work is important because it’s more than just preparation for a test. Ms. Izat has also held whole-class debates and given students many opportunities to share their thoughts and defend them. These skills will stay with them beyond any standardized test and beyond 4th grade.

    Do your students take a standardized writing test? How do you prepare?

    I can hardly believe it, but April is already here! With it comes a season of rainy days, beautiful flowers, and — in many parts of the country — standardized tests. In Texas, our 4th graders are preparing for a two-day writing test, which requires that they compose an original personal narrative and an expository essay, both in response to a prompt.

    At my school, all teachers use the writing workshop approach. This means that all students are given time to write every day, and they are exposed to a wide variety of genres each year. Each writing workshop begins with a mini lesson related to the genre they are currently studying, but students are very rarely given a prompt. By the time they reach 4th grade, this is probably the biggest roadblock to overcome. Particularly in expository writing, I see many students struggle to understand what the prompt is asking them to do. Naturally, this makes responding appropriately a challenge.

    Gena Izat, a 4th grade teacher at my school, asked if I would brainstorm with her some possible scaffolds she could put in place to support her writers. We sat down and looked at some of the essays they were writing, and when we saw that many of the problems began with poor planning, we knew this was the best place to start. After all, if they don’t know how to plan well, how can we expect them to write well?

    The Five-Paragraph Problem

    We had been teaching our students to plan for their essays by thinking of a thesis statement, then deciding on three points to support it. We expected a classic five-paragraph essay: an introductory paragraph, one paragraph for each supporting point, and a one-paragraph conclusion. This made sense and gave students a clear structure for building their essays, but considering that our state test has a one-page limit, five paragraphs were problematic. Again and again, we saw supporting paragraphs that were only one or two sentences long. The essays sounded formulaic and flat, and the writer’s voice was nowhere to be found!

    We wanted to provide students with a structure that was supportive but not restrictive. We also didn’t want to completely derail what they had already learned this year. Ms. Izat also mentioned that she had taught her students how to support their theses in a variety of ways (narrative vignettes, lists, etc.), but they tended to forget that and just rely on stating the obvious.

    Quality vs. Quantity

    Because of the length limitations, we decided to take a chance and encourage students to develop only one or two reasons that support their thesis. Our hope is that lowering the quantity will allow for higher quality. Ms. Izat reviewed some of the ways that we can support a thesis with her class, and she encouraged students to keep the voice in their writing, even though it is expository.

    Students chose three methods for supporting their thesis and based their planning on this. In the photos below, the students chose to use comparisons, short stories, and lists to explain why they prefer to work alone or in a group. This type of planning has helped them think all the way through the essay before they begin writing. They are able to decide what will fit and what won’t, as well as which method of support works best for them.

    Student working on plan for expository essay

    Student holding chart of writing plan      Sample student chart with plan for expository writing

    This work is important because it’s more than just preparation for a test. Ms. Izat has also held whole-class debates and given students many opportunities to share their thoughts and defend them. These skills will stay with them beyond any standardized test and beyond 4th grade.

    Do your students take a standardized writing test? How do you prepare?

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