High School English I: Composition Study Guide for the STAAR test

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When you have completed the planning step, most of your time will be spent drafting. Drafting just means writing your essay. Once you’ve completed a draft, you’ll revise and then edit it before submitting the “final” version.


Your writing must be organized so that the reader can follow your line of reasoning and understand your message. If you have spent time planning what you are going to write and organizing those thoughts in some way (e.g., an outline, a graphic organizer, a list, or notes), the organization of your draft should come pretty easily. As you prepare to write, consider your purpose (remember, this is an expository essay), audience (educated, teacher-type people), and context (explaining your position on a given topic to show that you have strong writing skills).

Develop Your Thesis

After planning what you will write, based on your thoughts about the statement or question provided in the prompt, the most important thing to do is to develop your thesis statement, or the controlling ideas of your essay. Everything in your essay should come back to this sentence about the topic and your position or thoughts about the topic. When you develop your thesis, make sure that all subsequent paragraphs work to support or explain it. If not, something needs to change: either your paragraphs or your thesis statement. Some people think that when they’ve written their thesis, it’s set in stone, but that’s not true, and as you write, you may find that something about it needs to be tweaked in some way to make it even better. You can change it. It’s okay. Just read through anything you may already have written and make sure that it relates back to your new and improved thesis statement.

Introductory Paragraph

The introductory paragraph is used for that exact purpose: to introduce the reader to the topic, provide any necessary background information, and serve as a home for your thesis statement. You may want to include some of the wording or ideas from the information box or the prompt in your introduction. Do not use the phrase “In this essay, I will…”. This type of intro has no place in your writing. Don’t announce what you are going to do—just do it! The introductory paragraph should start with an attention-getting statement about the topic or a short anecdote to set the tone, then provide necessary background information or context for the reader and your thesis statement.

Concluding Paragraph

The concluding paragraph wraps up your essay and gives the reader a sense of closure. The reader should never wonder if he or she has reached the end of your essay; it should be clear that things are over, and the reader should walk away considering some of the points or ideas you made in your text. The concluding paragraph of an expository essay reviews the main ideas that were developed in the body paragraphs and shows the reader why this topic is significant or deserves consideration.

Writer’s Tools

Writers tackle writing tasks with a whole “toolkit” at their disposal. Using these tools with purpose helps to create strong writing. Here are some of the writing tools to be sure to use in this expository essay.

Sentence Variety

If every sentence in your essay is a simple sentence, it will not be engaging for the reader. If there’s no variety in word choice, your reader will become bored. So be sure that you include sentence variety in your essay response. This means varying the length of your sentences and mixing them up. Too many long or complex sentences in a row can make reading and following your ideas a challenge. Too many short sentences in a row can make it sound “simple” and basic. So mix up your sentence types and sentence length. Also include a variety of vocabulary. Especially in the editing phase later, look for opportunities to replace redundant or overused words with other words that convey the same meaning and fit the context and tone of your writing.

Paragraph Transitions

Effective transitions are important to help your reader follow your train of thought. Transitions from one paragraph to the next suggest to the reader that one idea or point is concluding and that another is on its way. The type of transition word you use helps the readers understand the connection you want them to make. For example, “In addition” lets the readers know this example or idea builds on the previous one they just read; “On the other hand” tells the readers you’re switching gears so they can, too.

Rhetorical Devices

You can (and should) use several rhetorical devices in your expository essay. Rhetorical devices help the writer influence or persuade the readers by making the writing more powerful and engaging. Using a variety of rhetorical devices can help the readers understand your perspective as the writer and the points you are trying to make. Rhetorical devices include things like analogies, hyperbole, oxymorons, and understatement. The three most effective rhetorical devices in expository writing are imagery, analogies, and anecdotes, so we’ll discuss them below. Consider incorporating them when possible, but don’t force them into your writing.

  • Imagery—Imagery is descriptive language appealing to any of the five senses to help the readers create a mental picture or image of what is being described or discussed. Though it’s often used in fiction writing, it can be used in an expository essay to help the readers imagine a scenario.

  • AnalogyComparisons made between knowns and unknowns help the readers make connections to ideas or concepts with which they may not be familiar. Analogies help to explain the similarities between things and are helpful in expository writing.

  • Anecdote—Anecdotes are mini-stories used by a writer to help make a larger point about a topic. Anecdotes can help give the writer credibility by showing the experience he or she has with a particular topic.

Main Points

Determining the main points you want to cover in your essay is important in the planning phase. When you have determined the main points, your next step is to prove or explain them and their significance to the topic (this is done through supporting ideas, which we’ll get to in just a minute).

When you complete your brainstorming and have a solid list of main points that relate to the topic, determine which are the strongest and which you can most successfully explain or convey to a reader. If they make sense to you, but would be complicated to explain to someone outside your own head, see if you have others you can select that are easier for you to articulate.

The general rule of writing is three main points, which creates a five-paragraph essay. There is no rule, however, that essays must be five paragraphs. There are perfectly good essays that are four paragraphs long, or six. The point is to choose main points that are strong and will be good examples of what you are talking about. Fewer than two examples may not be enough to convince the readers or thoroughly explain the idea. More than four examples, and it starts to get a little long. So aim to select your best three main points to focus on in your response.

Supporting Ideas

When you have determined the main points you want to use to explain your thoughts on a topic, those points have to be explained or supported somehow. That’s where supporting ideas come in. Supporting ideas give your writing life and help the readers connect with what you are trying to say. Supporting ideas, sometimes called supporting details or supporting evidence, help describe, explain, expand, or illustrate the main point.

The more support you have for the main point, the more convincing your writing will be. But make sure that support is provided equally among all paragraphs. In other words, you don’t want to have seven examples or pieces of evidence for one idea and only one piece of evidence for another main point. Work to make your paragraphs balanced in terms of using supporting ideas. Some may have one or two more supporting ideas than others, but the number should be about the same.

Using Inference

To infer something means to combine what you already know, based on past experience or knowledge, with what a writer is telling you to draw a conclusion or form an understanding. If you want your reader to infer a particular idea, you must present valid evidence that will lead them to the desired conclusion. When evidence is vague or faulty in some way, false inferences may be made, affecting how your readers interpret your writing. When determining what evidence or supporting ideas to include in your writing, consider the inferences the readers might make as a result.

Staying on Topic

It’s easy to drift off-topic when you’re writing, especially in a testing environment with a time limit. This is why making and following a plan before and during writing the actual essay is so important. As you are writing, check back to the plan you made and make sure that you stay focused on your main points. Use your outline, list, or graphic organizer to keep you on point. With each paragraph you write, refer to your planning materials to be sure you didn’t miss anything you meant to include. Sometimes the plan changes as you write and you think of better examples or support to use while you are writing. This is fine, provided they serve the same purpose and are related to your topic. Make sure to also refer to the guideline portion of the prompt: it serves as a built-in checklist of things to ensure have been done.


Revising is reviewing. In rereading your response, does it make sense? Does it address the prompt? Does it stay on topic? Are the examples and supporting ideas you included relevant? Do the paragraphs flow easily? Are effective transitions used to help guide the reader from one idea to the next or from one paragraph to the next? If the answer to any of these questions is no, changes are needed to address these issues.

Now is the time to change your work, stick in some transitions, delete unnecessary or irrelevant content, etc. Remember, this is not the same as editing, which is much “pickier” and concerned with small details instead of big ideas. This is straightening out the big picture. Here are some revision-based questions to ask yourself in this phase of writing:

Purpose, Audience, and Genre

Have I written an expository essay that clearly explains my position or ideas? Have I targeted an appropriate audience and used examples and vocabulary appropriate to this genre and my audience? If the answer to any of these questions is no, now is the time to fix it.

Review places where your expository voice might be turning into a persuasive voice, and see if you can bring it back to laying out the facts and just the facts. If you’ve included slang or inappropriate vocabulary for adult, teacher-type people, what can you take out or change so that it is appropriate for your audience?


Is it clear what the topic of this essay is and what I think about that topic? If not, it’s because your thesis is unclear or missing. Remember, this should be a one-sentence statement of what you’re writing about and what you think about that topic. If the thesis statement isn’t clear, the rest of the essay will be muddled and confusing for the reader.

Introductory and Concluding Paragraphs

Do I have an introductory and concluding paragraph? Make sure the intro catches your readers’ attention, provides necessary background information, and has a clear thesis statement.

The concluding paragraph should bring a sense of closure to your writing and leave the readers something to think about or consider as they finish reading. Don’t end too abruptly or without wrapping up any loose ends. Readers should feel satisfied as they finish reading your essay, not like they’ve been left with a cliffhanger ending.


Is my support valid and relevant to the topic? Sometimes we include irrelevant information as we are writing because we get side-tracked or start to drift off-topic. As you revise your writing, look for anything that is not really supportive of your position. Any sentence that does not advance the purpose of your essay should be deleted. On the other hand, if you find that there are areas in your essay that don’t have enough support, now is the time to enhance that support and include some more examples.


Is my style appropriate to my audience and appropriate for my purpose? Remember that style comes from your word choice, sentence structure, and tone. Are there any places in your essay where your word choice doesn’t fit your intended audience? Do you slip into an informal tone at any point? Check to make sure that your style fits and is appropriate to the purpose of this writing task.

Word Choice

Is my word choice appropriate for my purpose? Does it set the right tone? Are there better words I could use to replace some of the ones I use most often? If there is an opportunity to substitute a better word for one you’ve selected, or if you can add some variety to your language by using different synonyms instead of repeating the same word repeatedly, do it!

Word choice not only sets your style and tone but also gives assessors an idea of your vocabulary level. Make sure that the words you choose are appropriate for the context and tone, though. Not every synonym will work contextually within a given sentence. If you are unsure of a word’s meaning or aren’t certain it will make sense in a particular sentence, don’t use it—go with what you know so that you don’t risk the readers misunderstanding your message because you’ve used the wrong word.

Figurative Language

Do I use figurative language effectively? Figurative language helps bring feeling and excitement to your writing, but too much can be, well, too much! Use figurative language purposefully where it will make the greatest impact. If you feel you’ve gone overboard with the figurative language and it’s too flowery, cut back on some of it and figure out how to reword those ideas. At the same time, if there’s no figurative language anywhere in your writing, can you add some to engage the readers?

Sentence Variety

Are my sentences varied and really sentences? Make sure that you have a variety of sentence styles, but also that all of your sentences are complete, not run-ons or fragments. This kind of sentence-by-sentence review may also take place during the editing phase, but it can’t be done too many times to ensure clear sentences for the reader. It’s easy to make errors, especially when you are writing in a hurry to get your ideas down. Your brain will always work faster than your hands can keep up with, so be sure to double-check your sentences for clarity and completeness.

Paragraph Transitions

Do I have effective transitions between my ideas? If the reader can clearly follow your train of thought, your transitions are effective. If you are asking them to make a leap in their logic and reasoning, consider including a transition in there to help guide them along. Effective transitions between paragraphs help the reader understand your message, so check to make sure no one will get lost between ideas or paragraphs.


Now that the revision step is done and the overall content is nice and strong, it’s time to look at the fine print, so to speak. The editing phase requires close and careful reading of your text. Because you are so invested in it, your brain may have a hard time identifying mistakes because it sees on the paper what it envisions in your head.

One tip for editing is to read your essay backward, starting with the concluding paragraph, so that it’s “different” for your brain to analyze than what you’ve just spent the past hour staring at and working through. If you need more information about editing, its purpose, or what to look for, check out our English I Writing Study Guide.


In the editing phase, you must review your writing for all grammatical elements, including the ones listed below. Because grammar refers to the universally accepted rules for language, it is important that your writing follow standard language conventions of grammar so that your message is clearly delivered to your reader. If you need a quick grammar review, consider visiting our English Basics page and be sure to check our study guides there.

Verb Agreement and Tense

Subject-verb agreement and tense agreement are important because, without them, your writing can be confusing for the reader. Single subjects require singular verbs, plural subjects require plural verbs, and they should all be conjugated to the same tense (don’t switch between present and past or present and future unless it is done purposefully to make a particular point).


These expository essays do ask for your thoughts or feelings about a particular topic, but use of first-person pronoun (“I”) should be kept to a minimum. Make your statements and your point without inserting yourself in there too much. For example, instead of “I think basic human rights should apply to all people, regardless of their background or social status,” try leaving out the “I think” and just making the statement “Basic human rights should apply to all people, regardless of their background or social status.” The reader will know it’s your view because your name is attached to this essay.

Also, avoid talking directly to the reader with “you” references, such as, “You may not agree with me, but…”. You don’t know what your reader is thinking or feeling, so don’t make assumptions and include him or her. Instead, try to stick with neutral third-person pronouns (he, she, it, they, them, etc.), but make sure they agree with your subject. Substituting for the previous phrase, you might write, “The average person might not agree with this position, but…”.

Sentence Structure

It cannot be stressed enough—be sure to proofread for sentence structure. Incomplete or run-on sentences stand out to test scorers who will immediately dock your score for such things, no matter how good your content is. So, edit carefully, sentence by sentence, to make sure they are all complete.


Read carefully and look for issues with capitalization. Beginnings of sentences, proper nouns, the pronoun “I”, all get capitalized, but sometimes we get lazy and the capitals are overlooked. Be on the lookout for words that need to be capitalized but aren’t and for capital letters that don’t belong. If you need a review of capitalization rules, check out our English Basics Capitalization Rules for Writing page.


This one is important because punctuation affects how the reader reads and processes the words on the page. A misplaced or missing punctuation mark can totally change the meaning of a sentence. Look carefully to ensure that all periods are in their proper places and that commas are used where appropriate without being overused, which is a common problem. For a quick review of punctuation types and their purposes, visit our English Basics: Punctuation Rules for Writing page.

A Word about Handwriting

It’s tempting to rush through and write as quickly as possible so you don’t lose any of your great ideas. That’s why you do the planning step. In the drafting step, make sure that you are taking your time enough so that your handwriting is legible for the readers/scorers. If they can’t read it, they can’t score it. Remember, these people are reading hundreds of essay responses—don’t make them groan when they get to yours because you have written illegibly. Put them in a good mood to score your exceptional writing by making your handwriting as neat as possible, considering the testing restraints.

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