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The Best Laid Plans: Literary vs. Expository Prompts

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
November 1, 2021

Glasses on a book

Good afternoon, Dr. Louis:

Please see below a prompt that I made for our students this week on Chapter 6 from Of Mice and Men. If you have time, let me know what you think and what changes need to be made to make this an effective writing prompt. Thank you.

Tim B.

Los Angeles County Office of Education


Of Mice and Men / Chapter 6 

Original Prompt: George and Lennie had a friendship that was rare during the Great Depression as it was every man for himself.  Think about the dream George and Lennie shared of having a farm. How did this dream keep the two men going during a difficult time? In a (2+:1) expository paragraph explain what the dream of owning a farm meant to George and Lennie. 

Dear Tim,

I love your background sentences in your prompt and the trigger sentence, the sentence that focuses the students' reading and leads to the task. Here’s my question: Isn’t this a literary analysis? If it is, the ratio would be 1:2+. This prompt gives me a perfect opportunity to illustrate the difference between literary analysis and expository writing!


Let's start with LITERARY ANALYSIS, also known as RESPONSE TO LITERATURE. We'll focus on your prompt, and I'll guide the thinking behind creating a sample one-chunk response to literature paragraph with a 1:2+ ratio.

TS: The dream of owning a farm meant a sense of freedom to George and Lennie.

CD: Here, the students open their novel to Chapter Six and find discussions between George and Lennie, which provide evidence of their dream to own a farm.

CM: What does the evidence above (CD) say about the characters' attitudes. What tone is created within their discussion?

CM: Why is it important for George and Lennie to dream?

CS: Thematic – Why is setting their sights on this dream about owning a farm important Steinbeck's purpose and/or themes in this novel?


An EXPOSITORY piece would ask students to explain a concept (e.g., the meaning of success; the importance of having a dream; how perseverance can make a difference in a person's life). The students would need one or more examples to support their thesis statement. They would also need to write more sentences to explain their selection of evidence within their body paragraphs, and for that reason the ratio for Expository is 2+:1. We train students to access their knowledge or research evidence from history, entertainment, literature, people, sports, or science (HELPSS).

Perhaps, one student decides to use his or her knowledge of how dreaming was an important theme in Of Mice and Men to explain the importance of having a dream.

TS: Dreaming gives a person hope for the future. (Notice how this sentence is about life, not OMM.)

CD: In John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men, Lennie and George dream of owning a farm. They discuss what will be on the farm, including rabbits . . .

CD: Even Candy, the old ranch worker, considers investing his own money to help buy the farm. He and George put pencil to paper to determine how much they will need.

CM: The dream of owning a farm in gives George, Lennie, and Candy something to think about and hope for during an era filled with struggle and defeat.

CS: Dreaming helps people to get through the mundane and difficult times in life in hopes of a better today and tomorrow.

Next, the student decides to access his or her knowledge of a famous person in history to support the idea in a second body paragraph:

TS: Furthermore, many important changes in history started with a dream.

CD: On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave the historical speech, “I Have a Dream” in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

CD: In this speech, he discusses (create a list of what he discusses).

CD: Add more evidence from the speech.

CM: King’s dream was so vivid and convincing that we as Americans believed in it and embraced it.

CS: Sometimes people with dreams can significantly change history.


The final suggestion for high school writers is to teach them how to use the literary present tense when they are writing about literature. Longfellow said, "Time is fleeting/Art lasts forever." So, one hundred years from now, George and Lennie will still be discussing their dream in Chapter 6. So, you might consider writing your prompt in the present tense.


Prompt: George and Lennie have a rare friendship during the Great Depression of the 1930s because this difficult period in history left almost every man for himself. Think about the dream that George and Lennie share about owning their own farm in John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men. Consider how this dream keeps the two men hopeful during their struggles throughout this harsh economic time in history. Then, in a one-chunk literary analysis (1:2+), analyze what the dream of owning a farm means to George and Lennie. 


So, Tim, the difference between literary analysis and expository writing is that in literary analysis the writer focuses on plot, conflict, setting, social mores, characters, and style devices that reveal the author’s purpose and message. Whereas, expository writing occurs when the writer uses examples from HELPSS to define a concept, in this case -- the importance of dreaming.

Thank you, again, for an important question!

Keep reading and writing!

Warm regards,

Dr. Louis

Does Your Prompt Actually Prompt?

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
May 17, 2021

Pen writing on paper


We have all heard students exclaim, “I don’t know how to start!” The Jane Schaffer Writing Program® (JSWP) was designed by Jane to remove that thought from their minds. From the prompt to the final draft, JSWP teaches students the cognitive thinking process behind the execution of writing.

Let’s start with the prompt.

We have found that students encounter difficulty in writing because they do not understand how to “decode” or “deconstruct” writing prompts. Once students understand our color-coding system, we teach them how to use it to comprehend what a prompt is asking.

Guidebooks 2.o Sixth Grade Prompt Hatchet

Select an event from Hatchet. What did Brian do to aid or hinder his survival? Does Hatchet have instructional value as a survival guide?

Write a multi-paragraph report explaining how Brian was successful and/or could have improved his situation if he had followed the steps provided in the article case studies. Conclude the report by making a claim and providing clear reasons and evidence about the instructional value of Hatchet. Be sure to use proper grammar, conventions, spelling, and grade-appropriate words and phrases. Cite several pieces of textual evidence, including direct quotations and page numbers.

"What Are They Asking Me to Do? Decoding the Prompt"

Introduction and Thesis Statement: In the JSWP, we teach students to start with a broad, thematic, universal idea about the human condition. For example, what is meant by success? Start your introduction by answering that question. Then, narrow the introduction, observing the fictional idea and nonfictional texts that deal with the concept of survival as success. The thesis has the potential of being two-fold: Was Brian successful and/or could he have improved his situation? This is the key question, and from this question the student will derive the first part of the thesis statement. The second part of the thesis statement will defend or challenge the idea that Hatchet is of instructional value. Because of the complexity of the questions, the thesis should probably be a compound sentence (a compound-complex sentence, if the teacher wants a counterargument regarding the argumentative portion of the assignment). The thesis may be a framed thesis in which the writer names his/her reasons, which will lead to the topic sentences or an open thesis that “hints” at the topics. We teach all of this in the Jane Schaffer Writing Program.

Topic Sentences (TS): Topic sentences provide reasons that support a writer’s thesis. From where in the prompt could topic sentences come? Options abound: (1) each body paragraph could begin with a TS that names different successes that Brian experiences that aid his survival (beginning writer); or (2) perhaps the student would like to focus on what Brian did that hindered his survival and how he could have improved on that situation (intermediate writer); or, (3) perhaps a student wants to approach main ideas that emerge from the article case studies and use that concept to lead the discussion (advanced); or (4) a combination (highly advanced).Since this prompt requests two different modes of discourse, literary analysis and argumentation, the student will end his report with one or two body paragraphs. In that case, each TS will be the writer’s claim with a “clear reason” about the instructional value of Hatchet.

Concrete Details (CDs): In this assignment, concrete details (evidence) are derived directly from the multiple texts (not other forms of evidence which we discuss in our trainings). That evidence will come from Hatchet and the articles. Using the “Evidence Chart,” students will write the concrete details in red. We recommend teaching students how to embed quotations while they read rather than paraphrasing at the 6th grade level. You’ll also notice that we place the prompt as well as key ideas on the “Evidence Chart” to keep the students focused. Once the reading has been completed, discerning which pieces of evidence are the most important is an essential skill that we teach.

Commentary (CDs): Commentary is always the most difficult to teach because it asks for students to give insight into their reading and provide interpretations about life and the human condition as well as the significance of the evidence as it pertains to the thesis and the topic sentences. Thus, it must be both insightful and logical. We teach students how to take the ideas of a prompt (abstract nouns, powerful verbs, etc.) and Web-off-of-the-Word™ in order to make inferences about the selection of evidence and how those inferences relate to the prompt, the thesis, and the topic sentences.

Concluding Sentence (CS): In an academic body paragraph, each body paragraph must have a concluding sentence. Concluding sentences come from commentary ideas that provide a finished feeling to the body paragraph. For 6th graders, we tell the students that the concluding sentence is a reflection of the topic sentence but does not use any of the same words.ArgumentationThis particular assignment has an argumentative piece in the final section, so we must teach students how to take the different parts of an academic body paragraph and build the claim, concession, counterargument, and refutation. The latter three may not be necessary at the sixth grade level.The ConclusionThis particular assignment does not end with a traditional, classical conclusion since it combines two modes of discourse. If we were to teach the conclusion, we would start with a restatement of the thesis (not a repeat) and broaden the idea to the significance of the assignment. That task is actually being accomplished in the second half of the assignment through argumentation.

Generating Commentary with a WOW Factor!

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
April 10, 2021

Smiling/writing student

Dear Dr. Louis,

What is a WOW sheet?

- A. Stout,

AP® English Literature Endorsed Consultant, Boise State Writing Project Fellow

Dear Mr. Stout,

Thank you for your insightful question!

"WOW" stands for the "Web-off-the-Word"™." It is one of the steps and graphic organizers in the JSWP thinking and writing process, developed by Jane to help students generate commentary. It was originally designed for the Analytical Response to Literature and Style Analysis workshops although it has evolved and is now included in Expository, Argumentation, and Narrative.

On the WOW sheet, a student starts with a single word that gives insight into a text and addresses the prompt's request. Often, the word is a tone word or an abstract noun. Next, the student provides a synonym -- one with the same tone or feeling. The student then moves to the two cloud images, and here s/he provides "lofty thoughts," phrases that develop the single words into ideas. Once the student has generated these single words and phrases, the final step is to "pick-n-stitch" the selections together into insightful sentences of commentary (analysis).This method prevents the redundancy we so often see in students' commentary; they come to us simply not knowing how to produce analysis from their analytical mind, their heart/soul, their gut, instincts, and intuition. The WOW sheet teaches them how to give life (form) to their inner thoughts.

Here is how our leadership and program coordinator, Mr. David Dorn describes it: "The WOW sheet is designed to guide students to “dig deeper” or broaden their vocabulary development in order to build their commentary sentences and revise their topic sentence and concluding sentence based upon the prompt and text- based details. In essence, it is a graphic organizer for students to utilize, which enhances word usage, stretch their thinking and structure their thoughts.

Keep writing and reading!

Dr. Louis

Weaving: Moving Beyond the Structure One Student at a Time

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
February 9, 2021

Students sitting around table

Dear Dr. Louis,

How do I teach weaving?


Dear Scott:

"Weaving" is Jane Schaffer’s integral step of blending concrete details (CDs) and commentary (CM). When a student demonstrates his/her ability to identify and understand CDs and CMs and when he/she is able to apply the concept/ratio correctly, then you should expect him/her to move beyond the structured format to weaving. You'll notice that in the previous few sentences, I spoke in the singular case for the student. That singular case was intentional because you would never (and I mean never) see me walk into a room of thirty-five students and say, "Today, I am going to teach you weaving." One of the difficult aspects of teaching writing is that it requires an individual approach at various junctures of the process. Teaching weaving is one of those junctures.Sometimes, depending on the grade level and the special needs of students in your classroom (SPED, ELL, G/T), teaching the fundamentals could take three weeks, three months, or three years. If I were to present weaving to the entire class while some of the students hadn't mastered the ability to differentiate between CDs and CMs, then I would lose all of the time I had spent, and those students would be back to square one. For that reason, you want to spot the students who are ready for weaving and then have individual conversations with them.In the beginning, however, you teach them to separate the CDs from the CMs for multiple cognitive reasons. Here are three: (1) the students do not truly know the difference between evidence and analysis until they have been required to separate them; (2) the students learn how to embed quotations much more easily with plot than with commentary at the beginning; and (3) the students learn that in literary analysis, a 1:2+ ratio gets higher scores.How do you spot the students who are ready to weave and those who are not ready to weave?In one-to-one conferences or when you are "row-running" (walking up and down or around the physical or cyber desks while reading their work), you'll see students who have written their CD sentences but have intermixed CM words or phrases within their CD sentences.Let me show you two examples from two different students:Prior to reading a certain section of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, we give students a prompt to write a one-chunk short answer (1:2+) that analyzes how the Mary archetype shapes Lily’s understanding. With a short answer, a concluding sentence is not necessary. If I asked for a paragraph, then we would need a concluding sentence.Student #1 wrote the following short answer:Lily’s world is shaped by the symbol of Mary.  Mary was perplexing “[. . .] mix of might and humble all in one” (70). Lily wants to be like Mary.  She wants to make her own decisions.So, you're row-running, and you spot a student who has written the above sentences. You say, "I see Commentary in your Concrete Detail sentence." The student looks up at you, and she gives you the following response:

First Response:

"No, m'am. I do not have CM in my CD sentence."

"Yes, m'am, it's there." 

"I don't see it." 

You show her the word "perplexing" and explain how that is a CM. Mary was a perplexing “[. . .] mix of might and humble all in one” (70). 

Student #2 wrote the following short answer:

Lily’s understanding of the world is shaped by her understanding of the Mary archetype.  When Lily recognizes that Mary “[. . .] was a mix of might and humble all in one” (70), Lily begins to see the power in herself.  Though she is only a child, there is within her the power to have might as well.  Lily can have power and make her own decisions.

You say, "I see Commentary in your Concrete Detail sentence." The student looks up at you, and she gives you the following response:

Second Response:

"Yes, m'am, Dr. Louis, I put it in there because I think it sounds better."

"Show it to me. Highlight it." The student picks up her green highlighter or green pen and highlights or underlines the sentence correctly:

When Lily recognizes that Mary “[. . .] was a mix of might and humble all in one” (70), Lily begins to see the power in herself.  I smile and say, "That's exactly right, and you know what? It is better! You are ready to weave. You have intention. You know what you are doing and how to manipulate the fundamentals to create voice and style and purpose. Go forth and conquer!"

Other Ideas:

  1. In a one-to-one conference, ask the student to combine her CD sentence with one of her CM sentences into one sentence. When she asks, "Do I need another CM," you respond with "Yes, get it from your leftover WOW page."
  2. Then, after she proves she can do #1, have her combine thoughts and sentences  as she "moves and improves" from her t-chart to a second draft and then a final draft.  The shaping sheet might be removed at this point, but do not remove the requirements you have set forth for revising and editing (my 15 rules, right?). These are decisions for you as her writing coach to make. You know her strengths and weaknesses. Guide her accordingly. 
  3. She will write all of her weaving papers in black ink for all drafts (first draft and final), but sometimes I'll have these kids highlight or underline in color the words and phrases in order to make sure they still adhere to the mode's ratio and to make sure they do not return to bad habits.
  4. In any order, teach these possibilities:
  1. Add 1 or more CM words to the CD sentence (sentence #2) wherever they fit best (beginning, middle, end -- all OK).
  2. Do a weaving one-chunk paragraph with 4 to 6 sentences.
  3. Flip the chunk (CD-CM-CM) so it is CM-CD-CM.
  4. Weave back and forth and back and forth.
  • To periodically check that they know what they are doing, have students underline or highlight in color after they write it in black (for a grade).

(Note: The Secret Life of Bees unit is in our featured guide this week: Biblical Allusions: Christian Scriptures.)

Keep writing and reading!

Dr. Louis

From Formula to Freedom, Part I

Dr. Deborah E. Louis
January 9, 2021

Child holding on to adult's pinky finger

Dear Dr. Louis,

"For the synthesis question on the AP Language exam (which is basically an argument prompt but the students have to use  sources as CDs),  I've heard much talk from other AP teachers that the commentary should still be more than the CDs. I've prepped my students like this in an argument prompt, but I'm nervous because, if I teach them the wrong way, I fear they won't  qualify for college credit. Should I be teaching them to write a 1:2+ chunk for synthesis for the AP exam? I've looked at high scoring essays that are both 1:2+ and 2+:1. Either way, I'm trying to teach the students to be flexible with the structure. It's tough for them to make those decisions because they are still fairly new to the program, and now I'm asking them to be mature enough to know when to deviate. I just want to make sure that I am instructing them in the right direction. Thank you so much!"

Melinda R.

Dear Melinda,

What a great question! When we first train on level and pre-ap® students in argumentation, grades 6-10, I recommend that teachers train their students to use the 2+:1 ratio for the synthesis question to make sure that my students know the difference between evidence and analysis. The chunk, remember, is a part of the body paragraph. The students have many opportunities for commentary.  Watch this:

1) When we look at the introduction, it is typically 80% commentary. Sure, the writer might have a few engaging historical facts, but the introduction "introduces" the writer's voice and opinion about the subject at hand. The debatable thesis, typically located in the introduction of this particular timed writing, is the writer's assertion; and, therefore, it is commentary, too, especially in argumentation because the thesis is the writer's claim. So, right from the gate, we have commentary.2) Then, the writer moves to the academic body paragraphs. The topic sentence equals the topic (subject) of the paragraph plus the writer's reason that supports his thesis; hence, commentary exists in the topic sentence. With a 2+:1chunking ratio, the CD is 2+, and that means that the writer might need multiple sentences (3, 4, 5) to "synthesize" evidence from the multiple sources, which support both the topic sentence and the thesis statement. By the time students are in the AP Language course, however, my hope is that they have had years of practice and feedback with the JSWP foundation and graphic organizers to the point they have internalized and moved beyond the formula. They need some freedom, and I'm hoping that they are now weaving their sentences of evidence with some commentary. Keep reading.

Also, even though the ratio stipulates one CM, the chunk's CM might certainly be a compound-complex sentence. And, if the writer needed multiple sentences of evidence, one CM sentence might not be enough. The CM must connect to the CDs, the topic sentence, and the thesis statement. All of the sentences must be designed to support the writer's thesis.

At this level (AP Language) in the student's writing, the teacher whose students have had the JSWP formative assessments and plenty of feedback along the way may be ready to relinquish control and let the writer adapt his thoughts to the task at hand. The ratio is a guideline that has proven to earn high scores. If grades 6-10 have been practicing, practicing, practicing those graphic organizers with guidance and feedback, then by the time they are in the second semester of the 10th grade, my fellow Pre-AP teachers may consider preparing these young scholars for their junior and senior years and begin to teach the students how to tap into their internalization of the process and create abbreviated versions of the graphic organizers. In fact, next month, my blog is just about that!If the student has had an aligned JSWP program, then at the 11th grade and the 11th hour, the good writer's decisions, voice, and style must override the ratio; and, if the writer understands the importance of logic, organization, evidence, and analysis, then we should not hold him to the strict structure of the JSWP fundamentals. That being said, 1) internalization takes time; so, if an eleventh grader is seeing JSWP for the first time, stick with the foundation; and 2) as a writing teacher with her first master's degree in rhetoric, I tell students that the evidence they choose is critical. CRITICAL. It's the logos of a rhetorical speech or writing, and I do not want to read a bunch of opinion without the evidence that supports it! The assessment is, in fact, a synthesis of articles -- which means evidence is, well, you know -- CRITICAL.

The final piece to an academic body paragraph is a concluding sentence; and it, too, is commentary. Its purpose is to connect the CDs and CM with the TS and with the Thesis.3) The writer completes his/her essay with a conclusion. The conclusion is all commentary; and in a forty-minute timed writing, it, like the introduction, is short, but it's still commentary.So, you see, even though the ratio is 2+:1, the opportunity for commentary abounds. Let me show you visually:A JSWP Color-Coded Recap for the two-chunk AP Paragraph (See all the green CM possibilities)

  • Thesis: Importance of the Issue, Dilemma, The Writer's Assertion (80% Commentary)
  • One of the many body paragraphs:
  • TS: The Writer's Topic and His/Her Claim about That Topic (Subject plus first reason)
  • CD: Evidence from Sources (could include some woven connotative words or phrases from the writer, but the synthesized evidence from the sources is CRITICAL)
  • CD+: Evidence from Sources (don't forget the "+") - Again, could have some connotative language included
  • CM: The Writer's Analysis/Opinion
  • CD: Evidence from Sources (could include some woven connotative words or phrases from the writer, but the evidence is CRITICAL)
  • CD+: Evidence from Sources (don't forget the "+") - Again, could have some connotative language included
  • CM: The Writer's Analysis/Opinion
  • CS: The Writer's Final Thoughts for the Body Paragraph that Connect His/Her Salient Points in the Body Paragraph with the TS and the Thesis (you can be sure there's CM because it needs to support the claim in the thesis) 
  • Conclusion: Restatement of the Claim, the Big Picture, the Importance of this Issue (All Commentary)

I like the 2+:1, because I train the students to demonstrate their discerning eye of the evidence in the four to seven sources provided, proving them to be close readers and strategists in both the argument presented and the evidence chosen to support that argument and, thus, refuting the opposing side. Their commentary exists and is peppered throughout. As long as the evidence selected is solid and well-connected, and the TS, CM, and CS connect the evidence with the thesis in a convincing, logical, ethical, and organized fashion, students will earn high scores.

In the final analysis, though, Melinda, you and the ratio are sage guides. When those students enter the testing room, we can only hope that they have had enough repetition and feedback along the way to make good decisions.

Keep reading and writing!

Dr. Louis


Dr. Deborah E. Louis
December 18, 2020

Writing in notebook

Dear Dr. Louis,

Could you remind me of that wonderful three part phrase about concrete detail?

With gratitude,

Marie S.

Dear Marie,

Of course! For student writers, knowing how to evaluate what evidence to use in an essay is a critical skill. So often, students just drop evidence -- concrete detail (CD) -- into their essays without making sure it's relevant, appropriate, and specific. They simply grab something from what they have read and drop it into their essays out of nowhere! We call that the "Kerplunk Effect." :)

To discern which concrete details are relevant, appropriate, and specific, student writers should ask themselves these three questions:

  1. Will this concrete detail help me to answer the writing prompt's task? Eliminate CDs that do not.
  2. Now that I know my CDs all help to answer my prompt, which ones am I passionate about? In other words, I know I'm going to have to write commentary; so I want to select the CDs about which I can have a good discussion. I might need to do a little research to get up to speed about this CD; but I like it, agree with it, and can use it to further my thesis.
  3. If, however, I think to myself, "I can write about all the CDs I've listed," then, in order to choose the best CDS, I will select the CDs that might just separate myself from my classmates. Classroom teachers and test scorers receive and assess hundreds of essays. Teachers know that when they assign one prompt to a class, they'll likely find the majority of writers choosing similar concrete details and examples. But if a student writer can approach the task from a different perspective by selecting a CD that others might not select, then doing so separates that student from the masses. If  I can separate myself from the masses with a credible different approach to an answer, the reader/grader, psychologically, will think, "Hmm, that's different!" And as long as I convincingly answer the prompt and prove my point, the score will show it!

Keep Reading and Writing!

Happy Holidays!

Dr. Louis

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