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Writing Essays for Class (and STAAR/ ECR)

"The expository essay is a genre of essay that requires the student to investigate an idea, evaluate evidence, expound on the idea, and set forth an argument concerning that idea in a clear and concise manner. This can be accomplished through comparison and contrast, definition, example, the analysis of cause and effect, etc."

                                                                                                     - Online Writing Laboratory,

                                                                                                         Purdue University

The 6th-8th [grade] ECR items will be either information, argumentative, or correspondence. The genres of the ECRs will not be released before testing. The student’s responses will be based on a passage they have read. Information from the passage will be needed to answer other items as well. The student will be expected to cite evidence from the passage in their ECR. Their response can be up to 2300 characters long, not including spaces. ECRs will be scored by two human scorers*, each using a 5-point rubric.

*We've been told the ECRs would be graded by computers.

Anchor 1

Before we begin, here are some "never do's":

Do not use first person;

Do not refer to the reader;

Do not refer to the paper itself.

Avoid writing things like this: In my paper, I'm going to give you three reasons why...; There is a lot of evidence to support my claim; The evidence above...; My reasons prove...




Make sure you have at least three sections: Here's a nice graphic.


I. Introduction (HoTT)

     A. Hook (lead, connect)

     B. Transition (bridge, summary)

     C. Thesis (claim)

            SOaR: Subject, Opinion, Reason

II. Body Paragraph One (TEEC)

     A. Topic Sentence (Reason #1)

     B. Example (HELPS)

     C. Explanation / Elaboration

     D. Concluding Sentence

III. Body Paragraph Two (TEEC)

     A. Topic Sentence (Reason #2)

     B. Example (HELPS)

     C. Explanation / Elaboration

     D. Concluding Sentence

IV. Conclusion (XYZ)

     A. Explain/ restate the thesis

     B. Why should audience care?

     C. Zing audience with concluding


hourglass writing outline image.png


The introduction has three parts:

1. Hook, Lead, or Connect

2. Transition, Bridge, or Summary

3. Thesis/ Claim (SOaR - Subject, Opinion, and Reason)

The lead is a broad introduction that starts the reader thinking about the topic. It can "hook" your reader's interest or "lead" them into your topic. Use the lead to connect the ideas of your essay to something the reader may already be familiar with: text-to-text; text-to-self; text-to-world.

The prompts for the 7th grade Writing STAAR test always began with a quote, such as "A famous businessman once said, 'Players win games; teams win championships' ", giving students their lead. (The essay prompt that followed was: WRITE an essay explaining whether it is better to work by yourself or with a group.)

The ThinkCERCA writing program begins with a connect, "Describe a time when you argued about something with a parent or teacher. Think about what you did or said to them that was convincing and what wasn't." (The prompt that followed was: How did the SCLC and SNCC successfully work to get the Voting Rights Act passed?)

You can see how, in both cases, the first bits of directions give the students an idea to start their essay with that will get the reader thing in general terms about the topic of the essay.

But what is a student to do when they're given nothing? 

Our beloved Grammarly suggests:

(1)Starting with a shocking or amusing fact

(This doesn't help on a standardized test when students are not allowed outside resources, so I will say nothing else about it.); 


(2) Dramatize a scene: 

"The rain pounded against the roof, loudly drowning out any conversations we attempted to have. I’d promised them I’d play the latest song I wrote for guitar, but Mother Earth prevented any concert from happening that night.”  

“Imagine you’ve just gotten off an airplane. You’re hot, you’re tired, you’re uncomfortable, and suddenly, you’re under arrest.”

This I actually like. I often start example essays with, "Imagine....."

(3) A quote:

The Writing STAAR, as mentioned above, gave students a quote, but like statistics, if you don't have something memorized, you're out of luck on standardized tests. However, you can certainly use them when you're allowed internet access.

(4) State your thesis directly:

We don't like that in middle school, but at least you'll know you have a thesis.

(5) Ask a question:

This is the most difficult for students. So much so, that a university in New Zeland has this to say:

Responding to an essay question with more questions is annoying. So, try to avoid posing direct rhetorical questions to the reader in an essay. These are usually tiresome to read because they shift the burden of answering the question to the reader when the reader just wants to sit back and let you do that. Rhetorical questions are useful for the person writing the essay (i.e. they help you come to grips with the topic), but it is best to rephrase them as statements or as indirect questions.

In an essay about personality traits, one student wrote

What would someone say if someone asked what your personality is like? Many people struggle to find the right words to describe their personality.

The question adds nothing to the conversation. The student should just begin with the second sentence.

How would you describe your personality? The article discusses the five personality types using the acronym OCEAN.

In this case, not only does the question add nothing to the introduction, it's asked and then ignored.

How many personality traits do you use in your daily life? People are able to have multiple personality traits from the big 5: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Once again, the question does nothing for the reader.

The transition connects the lead to the thesis by introducing the text the essay is based on. It bridges the two parts of the introduction and can be a simple summary of the passage.

Going back to the Writing STAARREAD the following quotation is followed by THINK carefully about the following statement.

In our example about working in groups, the statement is Sometimes you can accomplish good things by yourself but better things with other people.

This sentence can serve as the transition from the hook to the thesis.

A famous businessman once said, “Players win games; teams win championships" and though it's true that you can achieve a lot with other people, sometimes you can accomplish good things simply by working by yourself.

In ThinkCERCA, students write a summary of the passage. After writing a connect about convincing parents of this or that, the student incorporates the summary into the introduction.

After explaining to my parents how useful it would be to have my own cellphone, they bought me one. The right persuasive approach/ argument can achieve much. For example, in the early Sixties, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Black American leaders, along with college students and white supporters, were able to use various persuasive techniques to ultimately lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act.

When writing a text-based response with no additional assistance, the student can still write a brief summary of the passage as a transition.

The thesis contains the subject of the essay, the opinion that is being discussed, and the supporting reasons. We like the acronym SOaR: Subject, Opinion, and Reason. It is the answer to the prompt.

The origins of many traditions followed today are often not known or practiced anymore. Some people celebrate Christmas without any regard to Jesus, and most girls celebrating their Quincenera have no intention of getting married right away. Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," tells about a small village that follows a disturbing tradition every June. However, the behavior of the characters reinforces the theme that traditions are often followed long after it's forgotten why they were established because they've forgotten many parts of the lottery and seem much less enthusiastic than they should.


II. (and III.) - The Body Paragraphs

Your body paragraphs are very similar to a short answer response: TEEC

The topic sentence is one of the reasons from your thesis, the evidence and explanations are from the text, and the concluding sentence closes out the paragraph.

The body of your paragraph is where you use evidence to prove your answer. Use my page on paraphrasing and quoting for guidance. And my new page here.

(Eventually, I'll have all of this on one or two pages, so there's less jumping around.)


IV. The Conclusion

Don't ignore the conclusion.

It IS the last thing your reader will read so it needs to really put an end to the paper, but you must avoid going overboard.

Focus on three things:

     First, what's your last sentence going to do?

     Second, how does it relate to your thesis?

     Third, how many students end their papers with a "call to action"?

Look at page 10 of this booklet  I made for information or check out this little slideshow someone else made.

STAAR Prompt

(Click the underlined sentences for more information.)

Most Americans use lots of electricity without thinking about it. Two of the biggest culprits are running the air conditioner instead of using fans and forgetting to turn off lights. keeps lights and appliances turned on. This waste puts a huge strain on our energy supply. With the development of a process called fracking, companies have been able to extract natural gas and oil from areas previously unattainable. Despite the benefits of fracking, it should not be used because it harms both the environment and people.


Fracking is bad for the environment because it affects the groundwater with toxins. Fracking pumps millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals into the earth (7). According to the passage, this creates toxic and potentially radioactive wastewater, “which can seep into the groundwater, poisoning drinking water” (7). Any process that has the potential to poison drinking water is a process that should be avoided.


In addition to the toxic chemicals polluting the earth, it is also dangerous for humans.  The author states that “25% of these chemicals could cause cancer” (8).  Fracking companies seem unconcerned about this risk because they have “found legal loopholes that allow them to circumvent federal environmental protection laws, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act” (8). These loopholes allow this dangerous process to continue, putting lives at risk.

Though fracking has benefits such as job creation and reducing carbon pollution, it poses too many risks to humans and the environment. The text states that improvements are being made, but until the risks are diminished, fracking in the United States should be banned.


The Scoring Rubric is actually rather generous.

The new STAAR essay is worth 17% of the total score, and that's a lot. Fortunately, if you have good writing and typing skills, you can get an 8 or 10. (It's scored from 0 - 5, and then it's doubled.)

There are two sections: Development of Ideas (0-3) and Conventions/ Grammar and Punctuation (0-2). However, if you get a 0 for Development of Ideas, you get a 0 for the whole thing.

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