If there was ever a word that forced you to demonstrate your understanding, it’s the question “Why?” That is why providing explanations is such an important skill for pupils.
However, there is typically much more to providing a written explanation than a verbal one. There are conventions to follow and features to include. If you want to teach your class how to write an explanation text confidently, let us enlighten you.
What is explanation writing?
First, we need to clearly establish just what is an explanation text. In a way, it is rather like any other information text except that it goes beyond saying “what” to saying “why” – a distinction that younger pupils can find difficult to grasp so it is worth emphasising that point.
You could argue that an instructional text is a form of explanation. However, instructions tend to have their own conventions, not least the use of imperative verbs, so it is probably best to consider them to be a separate genre.
Explanation texts – structure activity resources
It’s always a good idea to provide pupils with high-quality examples of whichever text type you are teaching. Hopefully, you should be able to find explanations in decent non-fiction books but, if you’re struggling, it might be worth getting hold of a model text written specifically for teaching purposes.
We offer this great resource pack that provides explanation text examples and specially designed planning sheets to help give KS2 students the best possible foundations for getting to grips with this genre.
The first thing you’d want from your example is a full range of structural features you would expect your pupils to incorporate into their own efforts. At the bare minimum, these ought to include a general introductory statement and information arranged in a logical order.
Language features – tense
This is a good text for ticking those ‘uses tenses consistently’ boxes on your assessment sheets. Because they often, by definition, show what happens as a general rule, explanations provide an excellent vehicle for practising the use of the present tense.
Of course, you would have to explain that ‘consistently’ does not mean ‘exclusively’, especially when dealing with historical information. Nevertheless, the present tense should dominate, assuming you have chosen your subject matter wisely.
Explanation writing checklist – logic
An explanation will typically give a step-by-step account of the stages or phases in a particular process. That means pupils need to be fully aware of the sequence in which things happen so that they can explain them in a logical order.
As you can imagine, detailed planning is particularly important here. But a good plan will probably not be enough on its own…
Order and technical vocabulary of explanation texts
To convey the logic and order effectively, pupils will need to include a good selection of conjunctions, adverbials (including fronted adverbials) and prepositions. For younger writers, this is a great opportunity for using words like if, when and, of course, because.
Higher up the school, they could introduce shades of possibility by using modal verbs and find advanced ways of weaving-in extra information, which are often a sign of a writer’s maturity, by including features such as relative clauses.
Punctuation in an explanatory text
Another bonus for the teacher is the range of punctuation that can be legitimately included in an explanation text. In KS1, this could well involve commas for lists and question marks, especially when using question sentences as subheadings.
As they get older, they can practise using dashes, brackets and commas to insert extra information in parenthesis. They could even try including those bad boys of punctuation that even most adults struggle with: colons and semicolons.
If you think it would be wise for them to practise first, try our SPaG challenge mat resource which helps pupils to gain a better understanding of them before challenging, testing, applying and, yes, explaining that knowledge.
Which layout devices should be used?
Another of the key features of an explanation text is the use of layout devices. As was mentioned earlier, one of the crucial elements of an explanation is the logical presentation of the material.
This is often enhanced by the inclusion of ‘signposts’ to the reader such as headings and subheadings, including those which are worded as questions. There might also be scope for including bullet points as a way of marshalling key facts efficiently and presenting them in an eye-catching way for the reader.
Depending on the subject matter, you could even invite pupils to include diagrams, tables and charts, although you might want to avoid the emphasis of the lesson switching from writing to art.
If you want to help your class practise using these features beforehand, why not use our Year 6 ‘Tricky grammar story starters’ resource worksheet for layout devices? This uses an arresting image to stimulate discussion before tasking pupils with including these features in a piece of writing on a topic familiar to them.
Main purpose of an explanation text – explain
Above all, however, you need to urge your pupils to check that their work has achieved what it set out to do: explain. Therefore, this might be the perfect genre for peer marking, not just for identifying all the many features outlined above, but also for getting another perspective.
After all, if your explanation does not make sense to your peers, it probably won’t make sense to anybody else!
We trust that’s all crystal clear.