Overview | What are the qualities of good expository writing? What is process analysis, and how can it help us write for clarity? In this lesson, students examine and evaluate a Times slide show that explains how to pack 10 days’ worth of clothes in a carry-on suitcase. They then generate qualities of good process analysis or procedural writing and create their own physical, video or explanatory, audio demonstrations or explanations.
Materials | Student journals, computer with Internet access and a projector, copies of the handout
Warm-up | As students enter, ask each to them to write instructions for doing something that can be done in the room with available materials, such as tie a shoe, make a paper airplane, do a dance move, play a basic game like duck-duck-goose, and so on. For an alternate opening activity, see our 2008 lesson Show Me!.
Once students have finished, ask for three volunteers to read their how-tos aloud as one or more other students – or even the entire class, depending on the activity – follow the directions. Introduce the caveat that they cannot fill in the blanks – they have to follow the instructions exactly as written. See what happens. (It may be quite humorous!)
Then discuss what happened. Ask: Were the directions you received clear and easy to follow? What assumptions did the writer make that led to difficulty in executing the directions exactly as written? What would have made the instructions easier to follow?
Move the discussion to the use of written instructions in life: Where do you tend to encounter and need how-tos, directions and explanations of procedures? (Students might consider computer manuals, explanations or sidebars in the news, directions for completing projects in school, protocols for emergencies, etc.) Why are they useful? When are written or verbal instructions enough, and when might illustrations or demonstrations be crucial? What are some of the qualities of good how-tos? (Encourage kids to think about clarity, conciseness and useful details, as well as not assuming too much.)
Use responses to this last question, and the lessons learned from the opening demonstrations, to generate a list of ideas for how to write good explanations of procedure. If you’d like to offer your students more guidance and provide a model in one fell swoop, share eHow’s How to Write a Process Analysis Essay.
Related | In the Times slide show “10 Days in a Carry-On,” flight attendant Heather Poole demonstrates how to fit 10 days’ worth of clothes into a carry-on suitcase. In the related article “Packing Tips From Travel Pros,” Christine Negroni explores how the professionals prepare for travel:
Now that nearly every airline is charging baggage fees, travelers are motivated to pack as efficiently as possible. And who knows more about packing than professional flight crews? In interviews with a dozen flight attendants and pilots, one theme emerged: to pare down and still have everything needed at the destination, think strategically.
Show the slide show to your class and read the article, using the questions below.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- What tips struck you as most interesting or useful? Are they memorable?
- How do the photographs and captions work together? Would one or the other be sufficient alone?
- Evaluate this article and slide show according to the criteria we developed in the warm-up. Is it clear? Is it useful?
- Could you follow these directions?
- Why do you think this slide show spent several days on the NYTimes.com most e-mailed list? Why do you think more readers e-mailed the slide show than the article to their recipients?
Activity | As a class, look at two or three more how-to articles or videos. Choose among the following items and the Times articles in the Related Resources list, or explore the sites to find pieces that fit into your curriculum and/or interest your students.
How to Close Chip Bags Without a Clip or How to Draw a Basic Cartoon Face from Wonderhowto.com
wikiHow’s How to Make a Lava Lamp With Household Ingredients or How to Taste Dark Chocolate
Howcast’s How to Dip a Woman While Dancing or How to Make Your Own Dolly
Turbo: Oil Change on HowStuffWorks
the Slate Explainer series, such as How Do Movie Theaters Decide Which Trailers to Show? or How Do Food Companies Determine ‘Serving Size’?
How Silly String Works or the video How It’s Made: Accordions from HowStuffWorks
Discuss the effectiveness of each of the pieces you examine, using the criteria you came up with during the warm-up and these questions:
- How would you describe the tone, form and content of the demonstration?
- Was the topic interesting or useful to you?
- Were the pieces interesting to read? Were the videos engaging to watch?
- How did the videos differ from the written pieces?
- Were the instructions and explanations clear and easy to follow?
- How did the presenter use verbal or non-verbal language to convey the instructions? Did words help?
- Were they always necessary?
- How did the setting or use of technology contribute to the overall effect?
Ultimately, students should build on the list they began early in class about what makes for good process-analysis writing. In addition, they should use what they’ve seen to brainstorm the necessary elements of a good how-to demonstration.
Armed with these two lists, students will now create their own how-tos or explanations using writing and/or video or slide show. They might also plan a live demonstration.
Assign or allow students to choose one or all of the following options:
Create a physical demonstration documented in illustration, photo or video (à la “10 Days in a Carry-On”) of a basic, practical activity – such as tying a tie, making scrambled eggs, sewing on a button or applying cosmetics – that people might need or want to know how to do in real life. These might include school-specific scenarios, like “how to drop a class” or “how to try out for a play” along with academic activities, such as how to write a works cited list or how to set up for a lab experiment. Students begin by analyzing the process step-by-step (and perhaps even interviewing others) and then writing a script that ties visuals with written “blurbs” or aural instructions.
Create a video or written how-to instructing lay people in doing or understanding something technical, like how to write HTML code, how the oil spill containment cone works or how to fix an engine. As in the first option, have students begin by analyzing the process step-by-step and then writing a script that ties visuals with written “blurbs” or aural instructions. If students are writing an article without visuals, encourage them to think about clarity, keeping their audience constantly in focus.
Explain something in life or the news that people may not fully understand, like British politics, how the financial crisis in Greece affects the U.S., how to buy a house, how compound interest works, or how Kentucky became horse country. This option will likely consist only of expository writing. Share writing tips.
To help them tackle any of the above, give students the planning handout (PDF) and have them work individually or in pairs to flesh out an idea. And if writer’s block strikes, wikiHow will even suggest a topic.
Going further | At home or in future classes, students create their slide shows, videos, live demonstrations and/or articles or lists, then present them and/or make them available on their class or school Web site. Students can also post articles on wikihow.com and videos on SchoolTube.
If more than one group is doing this activity, you might have classes evaluate one another’s work for effectiveness.
Standards | From McREL, for grades 6-12:
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
7. Uses the general skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Arts and Communication
1. Understands the principles, processes, and products associated with arts and communication media
2. Knows and applies appropriate criteria to arts and communication products
3. Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings
4. Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication
Life Skills: Working With Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills
Life Skills: Life Work
1. Makes effective use of basic tools
2. Uses various information sources, including those of a technical nature, to accomplish specific tasks
6. Makes effective use of basic life skills
7. Displays reliability and a basic work ethic
Life Skills: Thinking and Reasoning
2. Understands and applies basic principles of logic and reasoning
6. Understands the nature and uses of different forms of technology
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
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