The Expository Essay


Of course, one of the biggest components of the class every year is improving expository writing. Yes, I teach the five-paragraph standard, not because it’s the only way to write an essay, but because

  1. it’s expected knowledge in the Upper School
  2. it’s a handy go-to when one has to write an analytical essay in a limited amount of time
  3. it’s a good base to diverge from

I explain it in architectural terms: When one has to sketch a house, one automatically sketches a box with a roof on it. Not every building has to follow a generic template, but knowing the ins-and-outs of how to build a standard house will give you a good starting point when you want to try to make a different kind of building—and when you want to play with people’s expectations.

Depending on which grade I’m teaching, I might start with simple, clear descriptions and summaries, and then expand to subjective statements that need logical support. At the same time, I teach different categories of conjunctions to show how to properly link sentences and ideas together within a paragraph.

We then talk about cohesion within paragraphs and the various forms of textual evidence to support literary assertions…

Then the linking of paragraphs to form three-pronged arguments…

Then the formulation of strong, clear thesis statements…

Lastly, the construction of satisfying introductions and conclusions.

The vast emphasis of my instruction is on the rhetorical solidity of the paper. Every essay is, at its heart, a persuasive argument, and I stress that the argument needs to be clear, focused, and substantive. In this regard, the five-paragraph paper is a beautiful example of how form follows function, and I will occasionally show how its basic structure is evident in rhetorical examples all around. Barack Obama’s historic campaign speech in Philadelphia on race, for example, roughly follows this structure, and we picked apart the text of the speech after we watched its delivery.

I also try to use student models and models of my own device. One of the most manic lesson plans I ever gave was when I crafted, for each of my eighth grade classes, a brand-new five-paragraph in-class essay in response to a prompt in real-time, commenting on what I was doing as I was doing so. Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of that, but here’s an example of an essay I drafted after my 7th grade classes read a translation of the original Brothers Grimm version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Note that there’s three drafts of the same essay: one an outline of ideas, the second a rough draft translating the outline into a thesis and three supporting paragraphs, and lastly another draft adding various textual evidence into the supporting paragraphs. I deliberately picked a thesis that was a bit eyebrow-raising to show the persuasive power of a tight argument bolstered by textual evidence.


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