How Do We Help Students Elaborate on Their Ideas in Writing?

Megan Sloan

We are all familiar with this classroom scene.  First grader Julia has drawn a picture of a black cat.  She reads to me what she has written at the bottom of the page: “This is my cat.”

I ask Julia, “Would you like to tell more?”

She answers, “No, that’s all.”

“Really?” I try again.  “What color is your cat?”

Julia answers, “White.”

“Would you like to add that detail or another one about your cat?”

Julia pauses, and I think, She’s going to add a detail.

“No,” she finally says.  “I’m done.”  No amount of pushing or prodding, no “Don’t you want to add more?” is going to help.

The same happens with our older students, who write a few sentences or even a half page and decide they are finished.  So once a child has an idea and begins to write, how do we inspire him or her to elaborate on that idea—to tell more? 

First, we need to realize that elaborating on ideas is not just “adding details.” When we use the “more details” message to nudge students, many are confused. Which details?  How do I add details?  Is there a best way? 

Show with Mentor Texts

Teachers must first look to mentor texts to see how experienced and successful authors elaborate on ideas. Do they use techniques that students could learn to use?  As we read each page, we stop to notice how the author tells more.  In her book In the Small, Small, Pond, Denise Fleming reveals her story by answering a recurring reader question: “What else?”  She tells her readers about new pond creatures, including new language to describe how each moves.

In Stellaluna, Janell Cannon tells more by telling how.  She says that Stellaluna is learning to be like the birds and then explains how Stellaluna does this: by staying awake in the daytime and sleeping at night.

And in Poppy, Avi describes the old orchard the mouse must cross, elaborating by telling what she sees all around her.  He elaborates through the eyes of one of his characters.

There are many ways to elaborate. A simple poster that includes ways mentor authors tell more can become a motivating visual for students as they write.

How Do Authors Elaborate?

  • Tell how
  • Tell why
  • Tell what you see, hear, smell
  • Tell what you feel
  • Tell where
  • Tell who
  • Tell what

Add an Anecdote

Once students begin to elaborate using the techniques and cues from mentor authors, it is important to introduce other ways writers tell more. One way students can elaborate is to include an anecdote.  I like to call this a “story within a story.”  If I say “My grandmother is funny,” one way I can elaborate is to add “One time...” and tell about a time she did or said something funny.

My grandmother is a funny woman.  One time we were at the dry cleaning counter, paying for her clean clothes.  A woman in line was very fidgety, and as my grandmother was counting out her money, she muttered, “Hurry up.”

Well, my grandmother turned around and said, “Listen, lady. Don’t get your panties tied up in a knot.” We began to giggle, and by the time we were out the door, we were laughing out loud.

This kind of elaboration makes the story come alive with details that are interesting. It brings us to a specific experience that reveals more about the topic.  Giving students some “starter” phrases is helpful. 

Cues Writers Use When Elaborating with Anecdotes

  • One time
  • Once
  • Sometimes
  • I Remember When

Looking back, we find there are lots of examples of this technique in our favorite mentor texts—many even use the same language.

Use Examples

Another technique for elaborating on ideas is including examplesExamples are often found in nonfiction texts, but they can also be found in fiction.  Examples are just that—examples.  If I want to say “My garden is full of lovely flowers,” I can elaborate by adding examples of the kinds of flowers there.

My garden is full of lovely flowers:  tulips, daffodils, roses, and gardenias.

I put a colon after my first statement and added the examples afterward.  Sometimes writers actually use the words “for example.”

Seahawk football fans are full of spirit. For example, they come to the games wearing green and blue scarves, hats, and shirts. Some also paint their faces, and they yell louder than any other fans in the NFL.

Another cue writers use to include examples is “for instance.”

Baseball is a very difficult sport. For instance, players have to be able to hit a ball that is coming toward them at 90 mph.

A poster may be used to remind students of this method as well.

Cues Writers Use When Elaborating with Examples

  • For example
  • For instance
  • Like . . .
  • Such as . . .

Elaborate with Definitions and Explanations

Authors often elaborate by including definitions or explanations about a word, topic, or concept.  When authors do this, they show they are thinking of their audience.  These definitions clarify for the reader, but they also elaborate on the idea presented. 

Lions are predators. That means they hunt other animals, eating them to survive.

Again, use mentor texts and stop when students notice the author using this technique.  Then encourage students to try this out when they write their own nonfiction pieces.

Cues Writers Use When Elaborating with Definitions

  • That means
  • This is
  • Which means
  • _____________are
  • Like

Final Thoughts

Teaching students to elaborate on ideas is more complex than we might think.  The place to begin is during the read aloud.  Stop to talk about the ways students’ favorite authors tell more.  From there, begin to model these techniques in front of students when you write.  Then challenge students to try some of these techniques in their own writing.  Posters with starter sentences and ideas are helpful resources.

Megan Sloan is currently a third grade teacher in Snohomish, WA. She is the author of four books on writing instruction and works with teachers around the country in the area of literacy.

Children's Books Cited

Avi. (1995). Poppy. New York, NY: Orchard Books.

Cannon, J. (1957).  Stellaluna.  San Diego, CA: Harcout Brace Jovanovich.

Fleming, D. (1993).  In the small small pond. New York, NY:  H. Holt.