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Explanation Writing

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Last updated by Jill Hammonds


How to  

Explanation writing is about telling how or why something happens.  In choosing a topic for this writing, it is important to ensure that the topic requires that.  For example "Caterpillars" is not a topic for explanation writing, but "How a caterpillar turns into a butterfly" is.  Equally "Summer" is not a topic for explanation writing, but "Why we have 4 seasons" would be.  Some topics allow the possibility for explanation writing, but do not guarantee it e.g. "Making Pancakes".  This could be an explanation or a recount.  The recount would be a retelling of a personal experience of making pancakes, where an explanation would provide not only the process but the explanation of the process e.g. that beating the batter is necessary into order to get air into the mixture that will then expand or rise on heating in the pan.  For good examples of explanation writing to share with students you could check out the NZ Curriculum Exemplars or go to sites such as How Stuff Works or WikiHow.  The WikiHow Popcorn page shows a great combination of text and visuals and could give you some good ideas for getting students started on explanation writing supported by a camera.  (NB. You should check for relevant topics before working with your class - you need to select age appropriate material as some is quite technical.)


  • Explanation writing usually has a logical sequence that enables the reader to build their understanding more easily.  Often uses time vocabulary - e.g. first, next, following, once, then, finally, before, after and these may be used as conjunctions (stir the mixture while you add the flour)
  • The writing illuminates cause and effect e.g. the expansion of the air bubbles in the pancake mix causing the mixture to rise
  • Verbs are important and should be selected for accuracy and impact - action verbs (the mixture rises), passive verbs (the wheels are rotated as the pedals ...)

English Online has a comprehensive list of these features.
Features of explanation writing  


Ensure that the topic selected is suitable for explanation writing.

Flow diagrams and mindmaps (see eTools) are helpful in determining causal relationships and sequence prior to writing. Illustrations, photos and video footage can also be useful in this planning so a camera is a great resource.
Popcorn flow diagram  

Students will also benefit by deconstructing good examples of explanation writing.
Deconstruct good example  

e-Learning Tools to Support

There are also many apps and web 2.0 tools that can assist with the stages of their writing.

Popplet web 2.0 tool and Popplet Lite iPad app (free)
Bubbl.us (free)
CMap Tools download (free)
Mindmeister (free trial only)
InspirationKidspirationMy Webspiration (30 day free trial only)

Presentation Tools to mix text and illustration.
Book Creator is a free iPad app that allows for inclusion of text, images and sound in creating eBooks.
Comic and Meme Creator is a free Android app for making eBooks.
Powerpoint or Keynote can also be used to create eBooks.

Using a camera to record the steps in a "How to" text will assist planning and can enhance the presentation. Photos can be cropped, rotated and enhanced using free software or apps.  Check out Gimp for Macs, Photoscape for Windows, Photo Editor HD Litefor iPads or Aviary's free Photo Editor for Android mobiles. Alternatively check out the Software for Learning site or do a Google search for "free photo editor" apps or software and you'll find plenty.

Links to resources

NZC Exemplars for Explanation writing - a good selection available for each year level.

e-asTTle has specific exemplars for explanation writing included on their Marking resources section in downloadable pdf format.

WikiHow and How Stuff Works website

Weather Wizkids - lots of great explanations about weather with illustrations