Monday, April 4, 2016

Explaining Unfamiliar Words, Concepts, and Facts

Guest Post by Laurie Wallmark

Whether your students are writing fiction or nonfiction, there might be an unfamiliar word, concept, or fact that needs additional explanation. This might be anything from a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fact to a sports move, a fantasy world setting to an alien language. Here’s a writing exercise to help your students think about the many techniques available in their writer’s toolbox that will help.

First, as a group exercise, have your students imagine they’re writing a story about a little boy with asthma. Explain that not everyone knows about this disease. Ask for suggestions of how this could be explained in the story.

Here are some possible techniques:
·       Simplify the definition – it’s a disease where you have trouble breathing
·       Give an analogy – it’s like trying to breath through a straw
·       Show an action – describe a character having an asthma attack
·       Offer an example – character can mention famous people who have asthma
·       Show in the narrative – the text explains what asthma is
·       Use a question & answer – have another character asks about the disease

As an example, you can read my book Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine and point out how even difficult concepts can be explained using appropriate text techniques. Ada Byron Lovelace was the world’s first computer programmer. In order to appreciate her groundbreaking achievement, the reader needs to understand the concept of an algorithm. Some of the techniques I used to explain this were:
·       Give a definition – “A set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process.”
·       Simplify the definition – “Ada decided to create an algorithm, a set of mathematical instructions.”
·       Show an action – “Ada broke the problem into a series of simple steps.”
·       Use an example – “The machine could follow these instructions and solve a complex math problem, one difficult to figure out by hand.”

Now it’s time for the students to do a writing exercise on their own. Have them think of an unfamiliar word, concept, or fact they might need to explain in a story. If they’re having trouble coming up with anything, you can give suggestions such as: cultural or religious traditions, sports terms, or hobby activities. Challenge them to write five or more ways to give an explanation to their reader. At the end of the exercise, have them share their techniques with the class. Have the students discuss which techniques they think work better.

BIO: Laurie Wallmark writes picture books and middle-grades, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. When not writing, Laurie teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College, both to students on campus and in prison. Her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal) and several national awards, including Outstanding Science Trade Book. Visit

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