It’s social studies report time again. You’ve taken pains to make sure your students are prepared. They have their report topics. You’ve taught them a method for note-taking and outlining. They’ve got a scheme for organizing their notes.

You’ve consulted your school librarian and made sure reference materials and books are available.

Your students have practiced skimming for information. They know how to sum up main ideas and write them down in their own words. And you’ve stressed the importance of reading a draft of the report out loud or to a friend so that unclear sentences and ideas can be revised before the neatly written final draft is turned in.

So now your students are ready to WRITE! Right?

Well, sort of.

If your aim is for students to produce reports that contain lots of facts, have some organization and are neatly written – however boring to read – you have succeeded. Your students will be able to write in a style that closely resembles a lot of the textbooks we use to teach social studies – textbooks that students would not choose to read on their own, if given a choice.

If, however, your aim is for students to produce reports that are informative, organized, neatly written, and also creative and interesting to read, you still have some work to do.


A report is a piece of nonfiction. Social studies textbooks are nonfiction, too. Ditto for encyclopedias. But the type of nonfiction students eagerly devour is found in trade books and magazine articles.

What makes the difference between interesting nonfiction and dull? The writing.

Professional writers of nonfiction articles and books use specific, learnable techniques to make their writing lively and entertaining. Students can use these same techniques to improve their own writing.


If you try to do too much, you’ll end up doing nothing well. It’s true. The nonfiction article writer knows this better than anyone, since he has to work with short lengths. Most student reports are not book length, either, so a sharply focused topic is important.

For example, a student who is assigned the general topic of Mexico could choose to focus on children in Mexico: what they do in school, games they play, what their home life is like. Or, he might write about some historical aspect of Mexico: a past Indian civilization or a famous leader perhaps. If he likes to eat Mexican food and cook, he might research the role of corn in Mexico’s history and cooking. Another student might like to focus on current problems in Mexico. Why do some Mexicans flee across the border to the U.S.? What happens if they get caught trying to cross? What is Mexico trying to do about the problem?

A narrow focus not only provides for more depth of writing, it allows students a degree of freedom in choosing an “angle” that reflects their own interests. (It’s difficult to write in a lively and entertaining fashion if the topic holds no interest for you.)

Professional nonfiction writers perform the tasks of outlining, researching and taking notes in much the same ways we teach our students. But when they are ready to write they put a tremendous amount of energy and thought into that first paragraph:


A professional writer knows that if he doesn’t hook your interest in the first paragraph you won’t continue to read. In just the same way, a good student report hook should capture your interest, give some idea of what the report will be about, and lead smoothly into the body of the report.What makes a good hook? Here are five types commonly used by nonfiction writers:


An Indian bent over a tiny, thin plant and plucked it from the ground. He held it up to his face and looked at it curiously, sniffing it. He bit into the kernels in the center. They were mealy, and tasted sweet. He grabbed handfuls of the tiny plants and took them to the shelter of his cave.

Seven thousand years later, in Mexico, scientists would find the fossilized remains of this first ancient corn…


You slather butter over the steaming hot cob and sprinkle it with salt. Your teeth sink in and the juice spurts out. It dribbles down your chin. How good that first bite of corn tastes, fresh off the cob. But did you know you are eating a food that was eaten by people some seven thousand years ago?


“Man is meant to live on corn.” So says an ancient Mexican legend. And so it has been for centuries. But times are changing.


Though corn is grown on half of all the farming land in Mexico, it’s not enough to feed the people.


Do you know the name of a thin pancake that can be folded, rolled, fried, and stuffed to make over a dozen main dishes? It’s the tortilla.

Students can practice creating opening paragraphs using these techniques. Divide them into groups and assign one technique to each group, i.e. “You are there”.

Using the same set of notes about a topic (or a page out of an encyclopedia), the class groups could practice writing hooks. Share the hooks out loud. Students will discover how many different ways there are to write a catchy opening paragraph.

The longest part of any piece of writing is the middle or the body. This is where all the facts and details go. To prepare, students need to order their notes in a way that seems logical to them. It might help to ask students to think of what someone would need to know first to understand their topic.

Students should write as if they were explaining their topic to a friend. Stress the need to vary sentence structure. Some short sentences. Some long. Not all sentences should start the same way. It’s okay to throw in a question from time to time, or a bit of dialogue. (There’s nothing wrong with invented characters and dialogue if they accurately reflect the facts.)

Caution students against feeling that they need to cover everything in their notes. It’s okay to be selective. Unlike textbook writing, good nonfiction writing does not overwhelm the reader with a mass of information.

Fewer facts coupled with more evidence of the student’s own thinking about what he has read will make for a better report. Students should be active readers, notetakers, and writers, constantly asking themselves: How did the author reach her conclusions? What is her evidence? Do I have doubts about the author’s assertions? What are my own ideas? When information between sources conflicts they should try to discover why. Is one source more up-to-date? Perhaps both sources are partly right.

Facts and thinking need to be integrated in the body of the report. And one fact should lead to another. To carry readers smoothly over gaps between facts, professional writers use another technique:

TECHNIQUE #3: THE TRANSITION Here are three useful types:


We use this one in conversation all the time. A friend is talking about buying a new house. The word “house” rings a bell. “Speaking of new houses,” we say, and we ease the conversation onto a different, but related topic.

Here’s an example in writing: The first paragraph gives facts about corn grown in Mexico; the second, government aid for exports. “Feed its own people” appears at the end of the first paragraph and is echoed in the second as “feed people.”

Corn is grown on half of all the cultivated land in Mexico. Yet, by the 1970’s Mexico no longer produced enough corn to feed its own people.

Some Mexican farmers have discovered it’s more profitable to feed people outside of Mexico. Seventy percent of government agricultural aid monies goes to growers who export fruits and vegetables…


The trick here is to ask a question and then give the answer immediately:

Many Mexican farmers don’t have modern equipment and irrigation systems. How does this affect corn production? Yields are lower than in countries like the United States. In the United States mechanical corn planters, corn pickers and harvesters have led to increased yields. In addition, scientists have developed corn seeds …


Quotations warn readers that you are changing gears:

A quotation I used earlier, as an opening paragraph, could just as easily be used as a transition:

Billboards in Mexico sport ads for white bread – it’s a campaign to make sure children get the nourishment they need. “Man is meant to live on corn,” says an ancient Mexican legend. And so it has been for centuries. Corn will grow almost anywhere in Mexico. It has been the most important food for thousands of years. Indians, the first corn farmers…

Have students look for examples of transitions in their own reading. Effective use of transitions will make the body of a student’s report flow smoothly from one fact to another.

The body of the report is finished when the student has reached the end of his notes or outline. Professional writers create an ending paragraph to make sure their readers aren’t left with any loose ends.


The most common type of ending is the summary paragraph (or paragraphs). In it you summarize, or briefly repeat, the most important ideas in your report:

Though the growing and eating of corn in Mexico has a long history, Mexicans are discovering that change is inevitable. Other foods are necessary for adequate nutrition, and Mexico can no longer afford to import……

Ending with a quotation or an anecdote are two more options. I have given examples of these as openings and transitions. Encourage students to watch for suitable quotations as they do their research. They should also jot down possible anecdotes that would make good endings.

A fourth type of ending is the title ending. To use it, you repeat the title exactly, or with a slight difference, as the last line of your report. The repetition gives your writing a nice feeling of completion. I titled this article REPORTS WORTH READING: TEACHING YOUR STUDENTS TO WRITE THEM. Now for the title ending:

As with everything in life, practice makes perfect. The more report writing practice your students get, the better their reports will be. Teach students to write creative and interesting reports and your reward will be reports worth reading!


From the Writing Curriculum Files of Children’s Author, Suzanne Williams