Recipe for a Level-4 staar expository Essay

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Recipe for a Level-4 STAAR Expository Essay

One of the things that I think STAAR does well, as compared to the standardized tests that I took when I was in school (TAAS and TAKS), is that it discourages formulaic writing. It used to be that if you wrote a five-paragraph essay (introduction, body paragraph #1, body paragraph #2, body paragraph #3, conclusion), you would score highly. On STAAR, if your essay reads like it was written by a robot, you won’t do well.

But while there’s not a failsafe procedure for earning a four, standardized test writing is a genre (that means a “kind” – think of that word you probably learned in biology, “genus”), which means that it works a certain way. I think the best way to approach the process of writing an expository essay is by thinking of it as a recipe. The way that I make chicken soup and the way that your grandmother makes chicken soup and the way that Emeril Lagasse makes chicken soup may all differ to some extent (maybe one is spicy, maybe one has matzo balls instead of noodles), but in the end, it should be some sort of liquid-y dish with chicken. If you wind up with a cheesy sandwich, you have not made chicken soup. If you wind up with a story about unicorns, you have not written an expository essay.

So feel free to make adaptations to this process, as you would a recipe. Stick to the essentials, but don’t be afraid to change it to suit your purposes or put your unique flair in it (or as Emeril might say, your “essence”).

Guiding Principles:

  • The expository genre is about exposure, particularly exposure to ideas. Stories from your personal life as helpful as evidence so long as they support your ideas. Your purpose is to explain, not entertain.

  • Word choice is a big deal on STAAR. You have a thesaurus – use it. (Note though, that if you are at all unsure of the precise meaning of a word you find in the thesaurus, look it up in the dictionary and make sure that it will fit.) You need three

  • There are two main ingredients that make up a successful expository essay – the thesis, and the illustrations.

    • A quality thesis takes a clear stand on an issue. Often times is has a tail – a “how” or a “because” that adds a layer or complexity onto the idea.

    • Illustrations provide concrete (that is, real-world) proof that your thesis is true. Quality illustrations can be tied back to your thesis at multiple points, so that you spend an entire paragraph using them to support your thesis. Often times your own life and experience are strong sources for anecdotal illustrations. I want to strongly encourage you to avoid trite, over-used pop culture examples (Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber come to mind). Think of what you have learned in academic subjects – science, geography, and history are great sources. (Note though, that you need to be sure of the information that you present – Martin Luther King did not free the slaves. Also try to avoid simple, superficial mentions of historical figures without detail and development – some problems I see frequently occur with Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, and Christopher Columbus.) Remember that you need commentary (explanation) on your examples – you can’t rely on your reader to see the connection to your thesis without you explaining it.


1 high-quality thesis

2 or so examples (from your life, the news, history/geography, literature, science, etc.)

4 – 6 transition words or phrases, as needed (see your handout)

3 “wow words” – specific, high-level words that demonstrate that you really know what you’re talking about (remember that you can use a thesaurus)


  1. Begin by assembling all ingredients on a pre-writing page. I like to just scatter things all over a blank piece of paper, but that’s my method – choose what works for you. You may want to come up with your thesis after you have thought up examples, or you may want to decide on your thesis and then find examples to fit. Before you begin writing, make notes to yourself on your examples to really develop them.

  2. Start writing. Remember, you need to write small, neatly, and precisely. This will give you more room for development (because you are going to fill up the entire page).

  3. In the first few lines, propose your thesis/point/idea to your reader. It doesn’t have to be your very first sentence, but it needs to arrive quickly.

  4. Write several (how many is up to you and your purposes) paragraphs for your examples that demonstrate the truth of your thesis. While you are writing about your anecdotes, never lose sight of the fact that they must tie back to your thesis.

  5. If you can, close with a concluding sentence. Your concluding sentence should not just be a restatement of your thesis. It should offer the reader a new insight.

  6. Read over your draft of your essay. Issues to watch out for include:

    1. Do you start all (or many) of your sentences in the same way?

    2. Are there words that are vague and imprecise? (For example, “things,” “stuff,” “they,” “them,” “good,” “bad,” “nice.”)

  7. Before turning your essay in, highlight the following items in different colors:

    1. Your thesis

    2. Three “wow words”

    3. Four to six transition words from your list

    4. Three concrete details

Expository Essay Prompt

Read the information in the box below.

Jane Austen (1775-1817) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924) are considered great writers. Their books continue to sell, and they are widely read and studied in schools everywhere. Neither of them, however, received much recognition while they were alive.

Should people do things only to be recognized? Think carefully about this question.

Write an essay explaining whether a person must always be acknowledged in order to have accomplished something.

Be sure to –

• Clearly state your controlling idea (thesis)

• Organize and develop your explanation effectively

• Choose your words carefully

• Use correct spelling, capitalization, punctuation, grammar and sentences


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