Concise and Precise: Important Tips for STAAR Writing


What do Maurice Sendak, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner have in common? None of them made their point in 26 lines. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And that’s what Texas students will be expected to do on STAAR.  We can, as Sendak said in Where the Wild Things Are, “Let the wild rumpus start!”  Or we can create purposeful, thoughtful assignments that allow our students to showcase their writing talents.

Before we start talking about instruction, let’s begin with the end in mind.  We know that students will be required to write within specific genres for each grade level. We know rubrics are available to us at

Genres for STAAR Writing

Grade 4 Personal Narrative Expository
Grade 7 Personal Narrative with extension Expository
English I Expository Literary
English II Expository Persuasive
English III Persuasive Analytical

Thanks to Victoria Young, Director of Reading, Writing, and Social Studies Assessments at the Texas Education Agency, we know about what characterizes the field test papers.

Characteristics of Score Point 3 or  4 Papers Characteristics of Score Point 1 or 2 Papers
  • Good form/purpose match
  • Introduction and conclusion short but effective
  • Explicit thesis
  • Sustained focus
  • Economical use of space – tight, specific, logical development; no wasted words
  • Specific use of language and appropriate tone for purpose
  • Well crafted
  • Narrow and deep focus
  • Clear beginning, middle and end
  • Strong conventions



  • Wrong form for purpose (e.g., writing a story in response to expository prompt)
  • Weak, evolving, or non-existent thesis
  • BIGGEST PROBLEM: Wasted space
    • Repetition
    • Wordiness
    • Extraneous details of examples
    • Looping/meandering
    • Meaningless introductions and/or conclusion
  • General/vague use of language or inappropriate  tone for purpose
  • Poorly crafted
  • Weak conventions



(Presented at the Texas Assessment Conference, December, 2011)

So what does this mean for classroom instruction? We must teach our students to write concisely and precisely, including nothing superfluous and stating things clearly. This is what the TEKS require. We can teach much through comparison and contrast.  Consider the following.

Moving  from Exploding the Moment to Concise and Precise

Blah sentence

Explode the Moment

Precise but concise

He walked through the door. He grasped the cold doorknob and turned it slowly to the right.  He pushed the door inward.  The hinges squeaked and cold air rushed past the opening door.  The room was dark.  His eyes darted to the right.  Nothing.  He pushed the door open a little farther, and slowly moved his right foot into the room.  His shoe creaked a bit as it hit the polished hardwood floor. He crept through the door, hoping to be as quiet as a mouse.
I walked into the kitchen and saw my mother holding a skateboard. Upon opening the gate to our backyard I wondered if there was a surprise in store for me.  My hands began to sweat with anticipation as crossed the yard to the enclosed patio.  I had to remind myself that it wasn’t the gift, but the thought that counted as I ran into the kitchen.  The door slammed behind me as I was greeted by the sweet smell of chocolate cake and my mother.  She was beaming as she held out my gift: the red skateboard – the red skateboard I had pointed out to my mother in the toy store window! As I darted into the kitchen to grab a snack, I was amazed when my mother handed me the skateboard of my dreams.
We have more homework in middle school than we did in elementary school. In middle school we have way more homework!  I do more homework now than I ever have.  I have at least two hours every night.  In elementary school, there was no homework.  What a change!  Running around the sunny playground during recess with my blond best friend worked just fine for me. Now I slave away on homework like a dog.  Who ever invented it is someone who I’d like to have a word with. I recall elementary school as an idyllic time where my biggest worry was who I was going to play with at recess.  Now that I am in middle school, I worry about getting all my homework done.

(Definitions and antonyms from

Students who are able to contrast Explode the Moment with precise and concise writing and who are able to identify from their own reading examples and non-examples of concise and precise writing are better to able to write their own effective pieces.

Have you ever considered using Twitter to help students narrow down their writing? The 140 character limit per tweet is made for concise and precise writing! Many “performance artists” emulate different writers’ styles – a good step toward readiness for writing an analytical essay.

@InTheGreenLight: “Fatigue was a drug as well as a poison.”  (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

@bcollinspoetry:  “I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat, and my life is the breeze that blows through the whole scene.”

For more on this phenomenon go to

If you like the idea of using Twitter, but want a more closed environment, consider using TodaysMeet ( Like Twitter, there is a 140 character limit per post; unlike Twitter it’s a controlled room. You set up the room and send the link to those you want to include. You can also set how long you want the room to be available (as short as 2 hours or as long as one year). Try it now by accessing

There are many other tools and approaches for teaching students to write concisely and precisely. Careful planning and revision have always been critical to any piece of good writing.  It’s something that we’re teaching already, as required by our standards. Being able to write concisely and precisely within the space of 26 lines makes these skills even more critical. When we ensure that our students master the standards, we ensure that they are world ready and STAAR ready.


Additional Resources Writing concise sentences: examples of wordy sentences. You can enter your more concise  revision and then you also see a suggested concise version of each sentence. Eliminating wordiness: examples of wordy sentences, and one way each might be fixed.  Writing concisely. Getting rid of the dead wood. More on using social media. Texas Assessment Conference presentations are posted here.


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