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Teaching Students To Write Expository Text for the Content Areas

by Dr. V. Pauline Hodges

Steps for Developing Student Proficiency
Answers to Questions About the Process


Some of the worst student writing is in the expository mode, both in classroom assignments and on state writing tests. This is unfortunate because the major form of writing students do outside the English classroom is in this mode. In high school content areas, in college classes other than English, and in the business world, students are expected to write expository text. However, we English teachers often do not like to teach this mode because it is difficult to find topics, it does not seem as exciting as persuasive or narrative text, and it takes a long time for students to develop proficiency.

However, teaching students to learn how to do research, to verify facts, to explore ideas outside of our subject area, and to connect them to the English language arts curriculum can be exciting and rewarding for both students and the teacher. If we teach students to write well in the expository mode, it takes much time that we would rather use to teach literature or persuasive writing. That time can be justified, though, because one does not need to teach all the elaborate steps involved more than a couple of times in the high school curriculum. Teaching the process during the ninth or tenth grade (depending on the grade structure of the school) and then again in the last semester of the 11th grade works well. An entire nine weeks' grading period should be allowed for the assignment, although, of course, other language arts activities are interspersed with work on the expository writing assignment.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this technique is the collaboration with other content area teachers. Combining the English assignment with science topics, social studies events, or math concepts (or history-of-math concepts) lends itself to expanding student knowledge and to seeing connections between disciplines. The collaboration usually results in better writing/research assignments in the other content classroom.


Following are steps in the process of developing student proficiency in writing expository text:

Step 1: Collaborating with other content teachers

Brainstorm topics (these should be common to both disciplines, such as the Puritan influence, the Jazz Age, war literature, and the postwar literature of the 1920s).

Decide on scoring procedures (who scores for content; who scores for usage, grammar, mechanics; how much does the final product count). I suggest that the English teacher have a score for each step, then collaborate with the other content teacher for a final paper score.

Decide on deadlines for completion of final project (be sure to allow time for both teachers to evaluate and score the projects).

Step 2: Helping students make the connection

One hopes both teachers, in collaboration, will do this, but the English teacher definitely should discuss how all research papers are based on knowledge from/about other disciplines (we DO have to have something to write about!).

Brainstorm to help students select topics. Provide information to students to help them make the connection between literature and history, math, or science. For instance: What historical events were taking place when Charles Dickens wrote Tale of Two Cities? How were the poor treated? How did the lack of a strong middle class influence the downfall of the monarchy in France?

Help students develop a sense of audience by having them address questions like these: Who will read this? What will they already know? What will you want to do: change their minds, provide information, make them think about another point of view? (If you can enlist community members to read and judge essays, with later recognition of both the readers and the students, it works wonders in developing a sense of audience.)

Step 3: Giving the Assignment

Your written instructions should include the following:

  • The parameters of the topic (for example: background and time frame for the topic—someone's whole life, only a few years, or his or her influence on a certain period, such as all of WWII or an aspect of the Holocaust)
  • Steps in finding information, organizing information, writing the rough draft, etc. with deadlines in writing for completion of each step
  • How the final product will be evaluated and by whom
  • How much this product will count in the grading period evaluation

Step 4: Prewriting

Help students access prior knowledge by using the following techniques:

  • Make a chart of what they already know about their selected topics.
  • Fill in the chart with what they do not know but need to find out (a variation of Donna Alverman's KWL technique).

Have students read an article on their chosen topic in a general encyclopedia. (They are not to take notes at this time.) After reading the article, students add information to their charts.

Develop a SOAP1 (subject, occasion, audience, purpose). Help students:

  • limit their subject (how broad the coverage).
  • think about the occasion (formal research paper for a major grade).
  • write down who their audience is.
  • decide the major purpose of the paper (for example: to show the reader that WWII was more than just the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the Holocaust, to show how the change in morality in the 1920s grew out of WWI, or to show that the effects of the Dust Bowl extended beyond migration to California).

Have students write down, without consulting any notes or books, all that they think they already know about their topic. Tell them that this does not count for a grade (unless they do not do it, of course). They are to worry only about content, not about spelling, sentence structure, and organization.

1 SOAP was developed by Tommy Boley of the University of Texas, El Paso.

Step 5: Investigating Sources

Review with students novels or nonfiction books they may have already read on their topics, such as Night by Elie Weisel, The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck, Hiroshima by John Hersey, or The Diary of Anne Frank if they are writing about WWII; if their topic is the Dust Bowl, review Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck or Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.

Have students write down, using Double Entry2 note taking, what they remember from these books. (Double Entry allows students to write their notes in their notebooks, keeping multiple information about individual topics parallel and easily accessible. Have them label topics in bold print.)

Have students use computers to begin accessing information. Be sure to give them guidelines and descriptors to begin their search. (For example: Show them how to use key words to search, such as King Arthur, Tintagel, Guinevere, Glastonbury, Camelot, Avalon.) Warn students that just because information is on the Internet does not necessarily make it accurate! Have students print the information they feel they can use later and file it in their notebooks or in a vertical accordion file.

Take students to the library to access multiple sources and take notes (using the Double Entry method in their notebooks). They should use the following sources: the encyclopedias they read earlier and other specialized encyclopedias to compare information. (For instance, does the information about King Arthur in The Encyclopedia Britannica agree with that found in Compton's Encyclopedia? Or with Encarta on the computer?)

Other Library Sources:

  • Almanacs
  • Yearbooks for the period of their topics
  • Vertical files
  • Newspapers (microfiche, if available)
  • Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature
  • Professional journals
  • Film
  • Audio books

Have students plan to interview at least one authority (preferably some local source if one is available, depending, of course, on the topic. For instance, there are still veterans of WWII, Vietnam, and Desert Storm available, as well as survivors of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the social struggles of the Sixties and Seventies.).

Provide guidelines for interviewing and have students submit questions to you prior to the interview. Check out tape recorders, if they are available, and be sure students know how to use them. Have students call and make appointments for interviews. (Emphasize that they show up on time, be articulate, then write a thank you letter after the interview. The thank you letter should count for a grade, of course!)

Have students try to find (by asking relatives and friends and by searching the literature) journals, diaries, letters, or medals that relate to the topic or period about which they are writing.

If such a site is available and you have resources to do so, field trips can be most beneficial. For instance, a social studies teacher and I took both his and my students (often they were in both classes) on an annual field trip to the Battle Site of the Washita where Custer killed Black Kettle, then tied our topics to Custer's life and the disaster at Little Big Horn. We also took them to the local cemetery, then tied our topics to the colorful history of our area of "No Man's Land." Another field trip was to the local Jones & Plummer Trail Museum to study the cattle and wagon trails through our area, which then led to research projects about cattle and wagon trains in general. When I taught in Colorado, another history teacher and I took our students to visit the local cemetery and find the gravesite of the "Snow Shoe Priest," which led to research about that era in Colorado history. A science teacher and I also took our students on walking tours of the town to study the buildings made from the historic mines of rhyolite south of the townsite. This led to many topics about geologic formations in the area and in general.

2 Double Entry note taking was developed by Dr. Hodges and first printed in her book Reading/Study Skills. Kendall Hunt Publishers. 1978.

Step 6: Helping students make sense of their notes

Help students develop 5 to 7 main questions about their topics that their papers will answer. (For example: Were captive countries in WWII all treated the same? Were the natives all taken to prison camps? If so, where were these camps? How many survived? How were they liberated?)

Have students sort their notes by categories, based on these questions, then bracket and number their notes in their notebooks. Or you may have them make vertical accordion files, a system which also works well.

Have students organize their notes in either chronological order or order of importance, whichever method makes sense to them.

Step 7: Writing the Paper

Use class time for writing the paper. Have students write their drafts on the computer in 12 pt. simple font style while you walk around and help as needed. (This prevents the creative but lazy students from using 23 pt. Italic type to take up space while they say nothing! Besides, you are emphasizing professional looking papers.)

After students have written two or three pages, assign writing partners and have them listen to each other read aloud from the computer screen to see if what they wrote makes sense to themselves and to their partners. Ask partners to comment on what is missing or not clear. Then, have students read their papers aloud to themselves.

Have students divide their papers into sections, using subtopic labels before each section. These section topics should be typed in bold face font flush with the margins. You could copy a page or two from a professional journal for them to use as an example.

Step 8: Making the bibliography or reference page

Explain to students how important it is that this page be accurate since both teachers and publishers check for accuracy. (I once had a student too lazy to look up his sources so he made up an entire bibliography. Creative but not accurate. He did not realize that I would know the difference.)

Explain to students about the different styles, such as APA, MLA, and others. Emphasize that they need to check with the teacher or professor since different disciplines and publishers expect different formats. Tell them that most disciplines in colleges and universities use APA or their own style manuals, not MLA.

If your school has a software program to organize and format these pages, teach students to use it. If not, see if your school will purchase one. They are available in most college bookstores, as well as in computer stores, and are relatively inexpensive (less than football shoes, for example!). If your school does not have such a program for organizing references, be sure your students know how to find such a program on their own for their future use.

Step 9: Making the final copy

Have students maketheir copies under your supervision. Walk around and read over their shoulders. Make suggestions as needed. Give compliments and encouragement. INSIST that they proofread their papers twice! Also, INSIST that students use spell check. I am always amazed at how many students do not want to take the time to do this.

Step 10: Putting it all together

Have students print two copies of their papers, one for you and one for the content teacher. Have students make a cover page. Type out specific instructions for what you and the other teacher want on this page. Have students put the final copy in a cover.

Step 11: Final piece of writing: self-evaluating

Have students write a 500-word essay in which they explain what they learned about expository text, about the research process, about authentic sources, and about the SOAP terms.

Step 12: Evaluation of Student Papers

Content 500 points
Readability 250 points
Format 100 points
Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics 150 points

You and the other content teacher will want to develop your own system, but this one works for me since it counts as the equivalent of 10 grades when I average grades for the nine week grading period.


How much class time will I have to devote to this process for it to work at its maximum benefit to students?

You should devote about nine weeks, but, of course, you will not devote class time every day. You will intersperse other language arts activities among the process activities. I always included reading and vocabulary assignments, with some mini-lessons on mechanics and usage, or on how to write bibliographic entries, thank you letters, and letters of inquiry—all of which fit into this project.

How can I justify taking all this time to teach something students should have already learned?

Students have not necessarily been taught to research and write expository text before the ninth grade (nor should they be, in my opinion). By the time they are in the ninth or tenth grades, they are in need of exploring content in depth in classes other than English, so this is the ideal time. Then students have the skills for use in the rest of their high school years.

You will need to take this much time and monitor each step only once, then expect and require students to use these skills with other assignments in both your classes and in other content areas. Also, you will probably need to have mini-sessions to review different parts of the process, but certainly you will not need to take nine weeks again to repeat the entire procedure. Remember, too, that you can combine a number of standards and curriculum objectives through this project via the topics you select for your students. Having students read their papers aloud informs all the students. Besides, you are teaching a number of English curriculum objectives through this long process and reinforcing them by having students produce a written product.

Does every student in the class have a different topic to write about?

The answer is "Yes," although there may be variations of the same topic. For instance, if the general topic is the War Between the States, you may have students draw for topics that include various battles, various people, economic situations, Reconstruction, the Underground Railroad, etc. I have also let students in the ninth grade work in teams of three, with each team member researching and writing on a different aspect of their main topic, then putting their writing together into one paper. This worked very well for me, but only after I had gone through the complete process with each student producing his or her own paper.

How can I get other content teachers to work with me on this process?

I have found that most of them are excited to do so if the assignment covers topics they are teaching anyway and if you "grade" the writing for them and let them grade for content. (Of course, you also will grade for content for your own class grade.) They are usually quite willing to let you actually assign and monitor the porcess, as you should since you ARE the writing teacher, after all. The other plus of working with content teachers, I have found, is that many of them continue to expect students to use the process and produce a quality product, even though the content assignment is not done collaboratively every time.


Teaching students to write expository text and to do authentic research is not an easy task. However, since it is the mode most often required by business and industry, as well as in college classes other than English, it is imperative that we English teachers teach it, and do so early in the students' high school years. Ninth or early tenth grade is the best time, with a review or a mini-version in the late 11th or early 12th grade.

By working with other content area teachers, one hopes that students will see the need for prior knowledge in order to write well, and that content teachers will use these skills the students have acquired through this process when they create their own independent research/writing assignments. Students will find a real sense of accomplishment once they have completed the entire process and see their finished products.