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August 2014
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Quick Tip: Guiding Student Writing Through "Extended Definition"
by Teresa Dalle and Emily Thrush

Audience: ESL and mainstream teachers

Borrowing from technical writing, teachers can use “extended definition” to encourage and guide student writing. Particularly helpful in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes, the extended definition focuses student writing in ways that help students explain, describe, and compare. The extended definition can be used for any term or object under study. The student concentrates on responding to the definition using the questions to guide the development of the paragraph.

By writing extended definitions, students are able to accomplish several goals:

  1. They become acquainted with terms in their content areas.
  2. They practice the type of writing they may be asked to do in constructed response type questions.
  3. They develop writing skills in classes outside of language arts.
  4. They construct their own informational texts.

What Is Extended Definition?

As content-area teachers prepare students for Common Core writing standards, they seek pedagogical techniques that support their own subject areas with appropriate writing activities. One such technique is the use of extended definition, which moves beyond a simple definition of a term to include concepts related to it.

The extended definition is used in technical writing as a way of helping a reader better understand the specific item or concept under discussion. For students in STEM classes, the extended definition is a means of showing their understanding of a concept while at the same time helping them develop analytical and writing skills. The guided nature of the questions to which the writer must respond is particularly helpful for ELLs.

What Does Extended Definition Look Like?

The extended definition requires students to define or describe something by beginning with the simple sentence:

“A ___________ is a(n) ____________.”

Example: A butterfly is an insect.

First, students fill in the term (generally provided by the teacher) in the initial blank and then complete the second blank with an appropriate category. Students may work in pairs or individually on the same term, or each may each take a different term to expand.

From there, students provide specific information about the item by responding to as many of the following questions as they can.

  • How does it work? (operation)
  • What are its parts? (description)
    The life cycle has four parts: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult.
  • What does it look like? (description)
    It has two colorful wings, a thorax, and six legs, and an antenna.
  • What does it do? (process)
    It flutters from flower to flower during the day to eat nectar.
  • Can it be compared to anything familiar? (comparison)
    It is similar to a moth.
  • How is it used? (purpose)
  • What is its origin and background? (history)
  • What is it not like? (comparison)

Sample student written response:

A butterfly is an insect. It has four parts to its life cycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The larva stage is the caterpillar stage. The insect then forms a chrysalis in its pupa stage. It changes to a butterfly with colorful wings, antenna, a thorax, and six legs. The butterfly flutters from flower to flower during the day to eat nectar. It is similar to a moth.

In order to respond to the questions, the students must familiarize themselves with the item or term, discuss it, and do some research. Once they are comfortable with their knowledge, they write out the definition following the guiding questions.

Extended definitions are an excellent way for students to review content-area information by pulling the key facts from a text. The extended definition reinforces the use of academic vocabulary and can also be an effective way to give students a chance to write on topics of interest to them.


McMurry, D. (n.d.). Extended definition: How can you define it?
Retrieved from


Dr. Teresa Dalle focuses on TESL and applied linguistics at the University of Memphis. She works closely with local school systems to support mainstream teachers in adapting teaching approaches to accommodate ELLs.

Dr. Emily Thrush specializes in both technical/professional writing and TESL at the University of Memphis. She is a coauthor of Interaction Access: Speaking and Listening, published by McGraw-Hill.


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