Writing An Expository Essay Lesson

A Lesson with Menus

If the Internet is not readily available for students, interactive activities still can happen in the classroom. Giving students a topic and turning them loose with a notepad is not one.

Teachers can be "interactive" through the whole writing process, which means discussion with the whole class and small groups. For example, teachers can create a menu to choose from in the classroom for topics, organizational patterns and graphic organizers.

On the Internet, there are many websites that have ideas, such as PowerPoint presentations on the Lee's Summit R7 School District website, the PPPST.com website or the Teachers.Scholastic website. The Read Write Think website has an essay map for students to use.

Paper Menu Suggestions

Students should choose one topicto write the essay.Teachers can, of course, add to the list:

  • school rules
  • current fads
  • conflicts with friends
  • music
  • sports
  • video games
  • fishing
  • fashion

Example Organizational Patterns

Expository essays can be organized into several organizational patterns. Students need to choose one and stick with it.

  • cause and effect
  • description
  • problem solution
  • sequential order
  • report
  • news article

Example Graphic Organizers

Once students know their organizational pattern, they can choose a graphic organizer to help them brainstorm and organize ideas for their papers.

The websites Education Oasis, Educplace.com and Freeology.com have many great examples of these types of graphic organizers that teachers and students can use.

Steps to Create an Essay

  1. Before students begin writing, teachers can share how the students will be assessed. One way to assess the writing is by using a rubric. The criteria could be the following: flow, voice, writing conventions, organization, word choice, etc.
  2. Through large group classroom discussion, students can discuss the topics, organizational structures and graphic organizer.
  3. After each student selects a topic, organizational structure and graphic organizer, the students will need to fill out the graphic organizer. Students can work with a partner to help develop ideas on the graphic organizer.
  4. Then, students need to write a draft. Depending on the age of the student, teacher can assign a length. Elementary students may be working on the basic paragraph. For most middle school students, a three to five paragraph essay is great. High school students can be longer.
  5. After the rough draft is complete, students need to share their work with another person. If the teacher handed out a rubric, the peer should use it to assess the student's writing strengths and weaknesses.
  6. Next, students should write their final copy.

The expository activities should help students to write strong essays and to be interactive. How the interaction occurs is up to the teacher.

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.


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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