An Explanation of Expository

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That word that makes you cringe.  That word that creates so much stress.  That word that makes you go, “Hmmm..”

I’ve had several requests lately for more information about expository writing.  I’ll do my best to explain some things that I feel are very important when teaching expository.  (Disclaimer: This is from MY brain…and MY experience as a writing teacher.  This is in NO WAY an all-inclusive list!)

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1. Kids need to know the PURPOSE of expository writing: to explain something.  In 4th grade (in Texas), this means that they will explain something they like, usually in the form of their “favorite.”

2. Writer’s use the SAME TOOLS (thoughts, feelings, descriptions, etc.) with expository as they do narrative.  They don’t have to reinvent the wheel just because their purpose changes.

3. Expository writing happens in PRESENT TENSE.  When students start reverting to past tense verbs, it becomes narrative.  However, if students are giving an example, they may use these past tense verbs.  I tell my students that their examples need to be 2-3 sentences and no more!  Otherwise, the reader feels that the writer does not really know the purpose of expository.

4. In my experience and research, the 3’s and 4’s have lots of INFORMATION/EXAMPLES to back up their reasons.  Sure, you can make a giant list of reasons you like something, but if you want the higher score, you have to have some meat to your paper.  Rather than listing several reasons, only list two or three and really develop those reasons by adding in an anecdote or thoughts about it.

5. You can write about the SAME TOPICS in expository and narrative.  Just like you can write about a time you spent the day with Grandma, you can write about what makes Grandma so special to you.

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I’ve heard several people say that an expository piece can’t use the word, “I.”  Friends…these expository papers that our 4th graders are expected to write are PERSONAL expository pieces.  They CAN use “I,” and really…they SHOULD!  Using “one” or “people” makes the paper impersonal…and they sound robotic.  Leave that for grad school!  We want our kids to shine.  We want to hear their voice.  We want them to be themselves.  In fact, if they use those bland words, they are going to get knocked in their score.  Why?  Because KIDS DON’T WRITE THAT WAY, and…clearly…they have been taught that “formula.”  If you’ve looked at the rubric…and I KNOW you have…you see that word, “formulaic” A LOT!  Don’t fall into that trap!

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1. Allow your kids time to do a genre switch.  This is an activity where you allow your students 3-4 minutes to write about the same topic, but change the prompt from narrative to expiatory.  For example: Give 3-4 minutes for students to write about a time they went to their favorite place.  Stop them and have them draw a line across the page.  Then tell them to explain what makes this place their favorite.  They get 3-4 minutes to do that, and then call time.  Ask students to share out one of their pieces.  The class tries to decide if what the student read was narrative or expository.  This activity helps students identify what narrative and expository is supposed to sound like.  It also allows the teacher to give pointers on exactly what to do in order to turn their piece into what it is supposed to be.  My students LOVE this activity…and it has really helped!

2. Use text structures with your kids.  If you haven’t ever done this…it’s not too late!  Text structures is HUGE!  The idea is NOT for them to memorize a bunch of them…the idea is to give kids a bank of ideas of how authors organize their information when they write.  Eventually they will begin coming up with their own structures.  I know…some of you are reading this and saying, “Yeah, RIGHT!  Not MY kids!”  And my words to you…TRY IT!  I used to say that, too.  But now…well…just look for yourself:

I gave my kids the prompt: Everyone has a favorite animal.  Think about all the animals you like.  Write about your favorite animal. Explain why it is your favorite.

Here are some of the text structures they came up with:

  1. My favorite animal–>what it looks like–>facts–>reasons I like it
  2. My favorite animal–>what it looks like–>what it’s good at–>what he does–>how it’s special to me
  3. Your favorite animal–>why it is–>how it looks–>why I want one
  4. My favorite animal–>what it looks like–>how it keeps me company–>why it’s my favorite
  5. What is it–>how it looks–>a reason–>where it lives–>final thoughts
  6. My favorite animal–>why it’s my favorite–>how he acts–>how he looks–>why I want one
  7. My favorite animal–>reasons it’s my favorite–>what it looks like–>what they eat–>that’s why ____ is my favorite

All of them were different…but I KNOW that they know their purpose for writing…and ALL of these would make wonderful expository pieces.  I didn’t have them actually write it.  I just wanted to see if they could come up with a structure for HOW they would write it.

Is there a text structure that works for ALL expository writing?  Sure.  It’s this one: My favorite–>reason 1–>reason 2–>reason 3–>My opinion again.  Is it good?  Ummm…that depends on your opinion of good writing.  Do I use it?  Only with students who have shown MULTIPLE times that they are unable to create a text structure…and those kids are few and far between.

Why don’t I introduce this to my whole class?  The reason is simple…and it goes back to that formulaic writing jargon.  When students can come up with an organic structure, it allows them to naturally transition from one paragraph to another.  The STAAR rubric specifically mentions natural transitions.  When you give them the reason 1, reason 2 text structure….they end up writing: My first reason is… My second reason is… My third reason is…  Yep.  Formulaic.  In order to avoid that and allow students an opportunity to show personality, we use text structures that prompt them to use their OWN words to get this point across.

Did I mention how much I believe in text structures?  :)  Thank goodness for Gretchen Bernabei.  She has truly been a Godsend for me.  Her theories have totally changed my classroom…all for the better!  If it weren’t for her text structures, I think I would still be banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what in the world to do and how to teach expository writing.

So…there you have it.  These are some of the MAIN things that I focus on in my classroom.  If you want to hear what the STAAR writers have to say about what kids do wrong…click here and scroll down to 2013 TCTELA Young STAAR Writing 4-7.  This is from Victoria Young…I’d pay attention to what she has to say!  😉

If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask away!  I do my best to answer everyone who comments or asks questions.  And just like we tell our kids…I’m sure you aren’t the only one who is wondering…

Over and out.



  1. Kayla,

    Do you share your talents with teachers through workshops? If so, would you be interested in presenting at our annual literacy conference in June on the 15th/16th?

    I’d love to hear from you.


  2. Kayla,
    Thank you for sharing what kids need to know about expository writing and ways to implement this in the classroom. Teaching this type of writing seems like a daunting task, but you have broken it into achievable portions. You have a wonderful site and I am glad to have stumbled upon it. I will continue to glean from the resources you have provided in the future!

  3. Now rewrite this for my freshmen expository writers

    • Kayla Shook says:

      Hi, Susan! I’m pretty far removed form kids that big and scary! Haha. In all seriousness, though, I wish I knew how to help you, but 4th grade is my forte. I can even help a little with 7th…9th, not so much. I’m going to be doing lots of research over the summer to try to learn a lot more about other grades. Check back! 😉

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