Saturday, May 17, 2014

Formal Academic Writing + Student Creativity

The Common Core expectations are high for student writing. Students in third, fourth, and fifth grades are expected to write formal informational and persuasive pieces, using introduction and conclusion paragraphs. As a teacher, I appreciate the need to help students write longer and more complex pieces...but I also want to help them expand their creativity! To teach some of the basics of formal essays, I love to use the genre of expository fiction.

Expository Fiction
    Expository fiction is text written using expository text structures, but with fictional details. Your students are probably reading these books without even realizing it! Star Wars: Epic Battles is one common example--this book explains the epic battles from the Star Wars universe in an informational way. Fictional battles, expository structure. Many of the Pokemon handbooks are the same way, as are books like The Care and Feeding of Sprites.
   Expository fiction is fun. The details are interesting and imaginary, but the structure is real-world and businesslike. What better way to introduce the conventions of academic writing?

Design A Land


 I first started doing this project years and years ago, and I've refined it over time. The basics are simple: Students create their own imaginary country, and then write an essay to describe it.

   But this simple description can't capture what really happens during the experience. Students go deeper with their details, collaborating with each other to dream up new ideas. Students try out different genres, writing narratives to tell stories about their lands and travel brochures to invite tourists. Students learn new vocabulary words as they describe the features of their lands and how they came to be. It is the perfect extension of early childhood play into middle childhood academics.

    Even better, this project also helped to integrate some important skills and concepts into language arts. Middle level writers are still struggling with capitalization of place names (for example, Chocolate river is a common transcription) and this project lends itself to repeated practice with this skill. Students write the place name on their maps, on their outlines, and in their rough drafts...I remind them to capitalize both words over and over and they get instant feedback.

    This also helped students to become more interested in landforms. During the mapmaking process I walked around with copies of United States maps to demonstrate landforms. "What is a bay, really?" was a common question, and I showed bays on the map. I also spotted a major misconception about rivers--students thought that they went from ocean to ocean--and we were able to look at some maps and talk about how rivers flow.

    This activity from Project WILD (you can find one version of the lesson plans here, although there are many others if you search) is another fun project for expository fiction. Students create their own fish by combining characteristics. Different characteristics are best suited for different habitats and habits, and students then dream up more details to describe their fish. When I did this project several years ago, students pretended that they were biologists who had discovered a new species of fish and wanted to share their discovery with the world.

The Writing Lessons
    Throughout the entire process, my lessons focused on aspects of expository writing, such as topic sentences, transitions, and introductions. Because students had a deep understanding of their topic (it was their own creation!), they had more processing power to focus on these aspects of writing. Of course, they were motivated to write a strong piece of writing. I told them, "You are the only expert on your land! If you don't write about this, no one will ever know these details."

    Expository fiction is a wonderful way to engage young writers in formal writing. They can experiment with the forms and conventions of this kind of writing in a fun and engaging way.

Design-A-Land: Introducing Formal Essay Writing with Creativity is available from TeachersPayTeachers. It includes lesson plans, troubleshooting guides, and handouts to help students write strong essays.


  1. I love your design-a-land project! How great, and you can take it in so many directions. I used something like that when I had to teach the 5 themes of geography awhile back. The students described their invented countries through the 5 themes. Do people even teach the 5 themes of geography any more? Haven't taught social studies in about 15 years!

  2. Thank you for your comment! I'm just the opposite--I've been teaching for 16 years, but just picked up social studies 3 years ago. I do like the 5 themes as a framework. :)