As readers, we encounter how-to writing all the time. Whether it’s trying a new recipe or driving to an unfamiliar destination, we value instructions that are clear and concise. Tackling this genre in the writing classroom is time well spent.
Melissa Lepley from West Vigo High School (Terre Haute, IN) engages her students in a how-to writing exercise that is both purposeful and funny. She puts on a pair of pantyhose according to the directions given–but over the pants she’s already wearing. (The directions never say to take off your clothes first or to be bare down to your underwear.) Putting the hose on over your pants makes it bumpy, droopy, and funny, and it gets the point across: How-to writing requires exact and careful word choice. What a great trigger to introduce this genre!
As a spin-off to this activity, Melissa has small groups work to write directions for a “secret” action. She assigns each group a different action (e.g., jumping jack, skipping, shooting a basket, etc.). Groups must keep their topic a secret. Each group writes the steps for their secret action and gives the directions to another group to act it out. Without adding a title (the action), the groups attempt to follow the directions with hilarious results! When you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, that’s when it becomes clear what word choice is vague or what steps are missing or what confusions are present.
Then she asks the students to revise their directions with an emphasis on action verbs and concrete nouns. She also encourages them to add tips, tricks, and cautions. With these guidelines, students can write more specific directions with the hope of achieving expected results.
For elementary grades, consider using a mentor text to show how instructions are often written. Many directions include a sequential format with either numbers, letters, or steps. In The Pumpkin Book, page 24, Gail Gibbons outlines six steps for carving a pumpkin.
With this kind of text, you can point out the skills and format of a step-by-step process. Then, ask students to write their own directions for another age-appropriate craft or task.
How-to Writing Skills
Whether you’re 5 or 15, how-to writing involves some trait-specific skills beyond good word choice and organization. Here are some key skills to target within your mini-lesson instruction:
- Writer needs to be knowledgeable about topic/process.
- Subject is narrowed to a small/manageable topic.
- Writer clearly introduces subject and purpose.
- Each step is clearly explained and broken into simple actions.
- Unfamiliar words or concepts are defined.
- There are no gaps or missing information in the steps.
- Pre-write often includes a time-line or flow-chart approach.
- A focused beginning introduces the process to be explained.
- Sequence of steps is in an order that makes sense.
- Transition words, phrases, & sentences link inpidual ideas.
- Ends by explaining the results of the process.
- There is a sense of audience.
- Point of view stays consistent.
- The vocabulary is suited to the audience.
- Each listed step includes an action verb.
- Sentence beginnings vary.
- Sentences are written in a parallel format to make it easy for the reader.
- Common punctuation marks utilized in process writing are commas in a series, colons, and bullets.
- Each step in the process often begins a new paragraph.
Visit the Idea Library for an article that features ways to incorporate list writing in the primary grades.