Unit One: The Process Essay

About the Process Essay:

Process analysis, which in general presents the steps or sequence of events of a procedure or activity, can be divided into two types.   One type of process analysis results in a directional or “how-to” process essay which instructs readers how they can do the process, such as “How to Change Your Oil.”  The other type of process analysis leads to an informational process essay which explains a process which readers will not do, such as “How a Hurricane is Formed.”

Pat Lively and I thought that the process essay, specifically the directional process essay, was a good choice for her class’s DESK writing projects since by definition the pattern of development of this type of essay dictated a sequential structure which would be relatively easy for the students to understand, generate and maintain.  Thus, after students established the steps of their processes, they could concentrate on the development of vivid and detailed ideas within the established structure of their essays, a skill necessary to all types of writing situations.  Also, we planned to guide students in the selection of essay topics that they were very familiar with so that they would feel confident of the content of their essays. 

We also wanted to have each student write to a very specific audience, so that the students would come to see writing as a form of communication not unlike forms they may feel more comfortable with, such as talking, signing, e-mailing, writing letters, etc. 

Introducing Giving Clear Instructions:

  • In the first meeting with the class, if necessary briefly introduce yourself and explain the program for the benefit of new students. 
  • Ask the students how many of them have ever told someone how to do something. 
    • Volunteered examples ranged from, “I once told my brother how to mow the lawn” to “I told my girlfriend how to make her boyfriend jealous.”  When asked, a few students said they had written “how-to” essays before. 

  • Tell the students that they will be working for several weeks on writing process or “how-to” essays.  Explain that each student’s goal is to explain very clearly a process he or she is an “expert” in to a specific person who isn’t.  Emphasize that they will be choosing their own topics and the people to whom they will be writing. 
  • Without discussing the essay assignment any further at this point, tell the students that you will show them in a “non-writing way” what they will be doing in this project.
    • I wanted to do this exercise to introduce the concept of clearly communicating a process to an audience in a way that did not involve writing to make a connection between “everyday” instructions and the essays they would be writing.  Also, I have found that demonstrations that do not rely exclusively on language, especially written language, are effective with deaf and hard of hearing students.   Additionally, I hoped this would be a fun ice-breaker so that I could establish both a rapport with the students and a tone for our work in the DESK Program.

  • Put a clean write-on transparency on the overhead projector and ask the classroom teacher or another teacher to help with the demonstration. 
  • Positioning yourself facing the students but with your back to the volunteer, hold up a very simple drawing so that the students can see it but the volunteer can not.  Tell the students  they are going to see how well the volunteer teacher can follow directions.  Explain that you will be telling the volunteer teacher how to draw the picture without telling her what the picture is. 4
  • Instruct the volunteer teacher how to draw the picture with instructions such as: “Draw a medium-sized circle in the center of the page.  Now draw a small triangle at the top of the circle a little left of the center.”
    • Of course, the results were not only amusing, but this exercise let the students vividly see how difficult it is to give clear and precise instructions that someone else can follow.  Mrs. Lively, who is hearing, and I switched places for an equally effective, if not embarrassing, demonstration.5   However, when we attempted to let students volunteer to draw and instruct, we discovered that this works best with hearing people for the simple fact that signed instructions, either from the interpreter to a deaf student or from a deaf and signing student to another student, are often the shapes drawn “in the air.”  Thus, the pictures actually became a little more accurate and the intended lesson was not as effective.
Introducing Subject:
  • In beginning the discussion of choosing a subject for the process essay,  tell the students that it is essential that they choose not only subjects that they know about but also subjects they like.  Explain that each student must know his or her subject well so that the instructions will be clear and accurate, and each student must like or be interested in his or her subject so that the instructions will be vivid, enthusiastic, and make the readers want to try the process.
  • Using the “About My Subject” checklist on an overhead projector (see example), read and explain each criterion.6
Introducing Audience:
  • Discuss the concept of audience, of being conscious of writing to actual readers, even one specific reader.  Ideally the above discussion of subject and the discussion of audience should occur during the same class period so that students see how important it is to consider the audience or readers when choosing a subject.
  • Using the “About My Audience” checklist on an overhead projector (see example), read and explain each criterion. 7
    • Since high school students are often somewhat unused to writing to specific readers, other than their teachers, I spent more time explaining and discussing these criteria.  I found it helpful to offer several “what if” examples.  For example, when considering “Who are my readers?” I asked my students how explaining the Viet Nam war to a younger sibling would be different from than explaining it to a history teacher in a class discussion.  When considering “What do my readers know about my subject?”, I asked the students if it would be easier to explain how to send e-mail to a fellow high school student or to their parents.  When considering “How can I help my readers read my writing?” I asked the students to consider what would happen if they were explaining how to bake cookies and just said, “Add some sugar” or if they didn’t present the steps in order.
Considering Subject and Audience Together:
  • To conclude the discussion of subject and audience choices, use the following brief exercise to emphasize how interconnected these considerations are and how they must both be contemplated before the students decided what their process essays will be about. 
  • Present a list of possible “how-to” topics on the left side of the chalk board and then a choice of a “good” and “bad” audience choice.   Reading each topic, ask students to choose the more appropriate audience or reader. 
  • After students have chosen, ask why their choices are appropriate.  Answers such as “She’s too old” or “He already knows that” will reinforce the criteria discussed with the “About My Audience” checklist.
  • The “Choosing a Good Audience” chart (See Example) can be reproduced and handed out as a quiz, used as an overhead transparency or transferred to the chalkboard. 
    • If time allows I found that students enjoyed generating their own “good” and “bad” audience choices for additional topics I provided.
Beginning to Choose Process Essay Topics:
  • Referring to the list of hypothetical “how-to” subjects, such as the one in “Choosing a Good Audience” chart,  explain to the students that they will soon be selecting their own topics which might be similar to the ones listed.8   Since by now the students should have a working knowledge of process essays, briefly remind them that they will each be giving instructions to a specific reader in a series of clear, well-explained steps. 
  • At this point, and frequently throughout the topic selection process, stress that to be a process topic the instructions must occur in a sequence. 
    • I explained that a topic such as “How to Choose a Friend” might actually present several things to consider or do in choosing a friend, but that those considerations or actions did not necessarily go in a step-by-step process.  For example, “look for someone who has similar interests” and “look for someone who is honest” don’t necessarily follow any required order.

  • After reminding students that they must choose topics that they know about and like,  ask them each to take out a sheet of paper and a pen and as quickly as possible list five possible essay topics.  Explain that this form of brainstorming is best done without a lot of thought, but is just meant to get the “juices flowing.” 
  • After giving the students about five minutes or less to list five topics, ask them to each  quickly circle the topic they liked the best.   Then list each student’s choice on the board (or overhead projector) in a “How to . . .” format under the heading of  “Subject.”   If time allows, ask each student questions about how they chose that topic or when they learned how to do this process as it gives them the opportunity to reveal areas of interest and expertise to their classmates.
  • To the right of the heading “Subject,” write the heading “Audience” and tell the students that it is important for each of them to decide who will be an appropriate audience or readers for their topics.   Brainstorming audience possibilities for the list of topics can be done in several ways.  The following list is presented in order of least time-consuming to most:
    1. In a discussion format led by the teacher, students can offer audience suggestions for the topics on the board, not necessarily for just their own.
    2. Students can spend a few minutes considering an appropriate audience for their own topics and then present them to the class as the teacher lists them across from the matching topics.
    3. Students can spend several minutes and generate a possible audience for each of the topics on the board and several audience choices can be put on the board for each topic.


    How to make breakfast
    How to fish
    How to use the Internet


    my brother
    someone who doesn't know how
    someone with friends but little money

  • The students’ audience choices at this point may be rather general, such as “a person who doesn’t know how to fish.”  Therefore, explain to the students that while it is certainly possible for them to write to more than one person or a certain type of person, for this assignment they must choose one specific person whom they know, so that they see this process essay as “real” communication.
  • At the end of this activity, tell the students that the final selection of their subject and audience will be done on their own and due for the next DESK Program session. 9  Remind them to consider the criteria for subject and audience selection.  In closing, stress that, above all, they must each choose a subject that they know about and like and a reader or audience member that they know personally.
  • When the students have chosen their subjects and audiences,10   list them on the board to acquaint the entire class with their fellow students’ topics.  This is important so that students will be somewhat familiar with the other students’ topics in advance of any group revision.
Determining the Steps in the Process:

The students are now ready to begin determining the steps in their selected processes.  Again, this can be done during a DESK Program session or as homework.

  • An effective method is to have one student tell another student the steps in the process and have the other student copy down the steps either on paper, on an overhead transparency or on to a computer disk.  This reinforces the idea that writing is a form of direct communication, not too unlike signed/spoken communication.
  • At this point, students and teachers should not be concerned with ordering, grouping or subordinating steps.  Simply encourage the students to list everything they need to tell their readers so that the readers can do the process.
    • Part of a list generated by a student writing an essay on how to fish looked like this:

      check the gas
      get the fishing poles
      check the plug
      put equipment in the boat
      hook up trailer and boat to truck
      take license
      launch boat
      put your hook on the line

Ordering and Completing the Lists:
  • Prior to this activity, copy each of the students’ lists on separate overhead transparencies.11  Allow space between the listed items so that additions can be made.
  • After placing one of the students’ transparencies on the projector, first read the complete list of steps to the entire class. 
  • Remind the students that this listing process was done quickly and probably needs to be revised.  Ask the student who wrote the list whether the steps were in the right order or if anything had been omitted. 
  • After giving the writer an opportunity to revise the list, open the discussion up to the entire class, asking the other students if they have any suggestions for improving the list.   Make additional suggestions only after allowing ample time for student input.
  • Revisions to the list can be done on the overhead by numbering the items and inserting additions between items.
    • Here is the revised “How to Fish” list of steps.  Boldfaced steps were added in the revision process.

      1. check the gas
      2. get the fishing poles
      3. check the plug
      4. get the paddle
      5. put equipment in the boat
      6. hook up trailer and boat to truck
      7. take license
      8. go to Bonaventure’s on False River
      9. launch boat
      10. drive your boat to an area with dead trees
      11. get your fishing gear ready
      12. put your hook on the line 

While this group revision process does take a significant amount of time, it makes clear to each student that his or her list must “make sense” to other readers.  If time constraints and/or class size make it impossible to discuss and revise each student’s list, one or two can be used as models and students can do the revision process during regular class time or as homework. 

Grouping the Items and Labeling the Groups:

Once the lists are ordered and complete, turn the class’s attention to logical grouping of the listed items. 

  • Explain to the students that since the goal for each of them is to write a process essay, not merely a list of steps, that it is now time to start thinking about how a process can be communicated in several paragraphs. 
  • Explain that they will be grouping several of their previously listed “little” steps into “big” steps and that for most of them, a “big” step will probably become a paragraph. 12
  • Because the concepts of classification and subordination are somewhat abstract, demonstrate with a simple example, such as below.  Put the following list of “little” steps on the board and ask the students where they feel lines should be drawn to separate these steps.
  • Then ask them if they can “label” the groups they had formed. 
 Results should be similar to the following: 

Making a Cake
  “Little” Steps   
“Big” Steps 
get out the bowl
get out the beaters
get out measuring cups and spoons 
get out the pan

Get out the Equipment
get out and measure the flour
get out and measure the sugar 
get out and measure the oil
get out and measure the flavorings
Get the Ingredients Ready
put the ingredients in the bowl 
mix the ingredients with the beater
Mix the Cake Batter

Since this grouping and labeling requires substantial consideration, it is best for the students to work on their lists on their own.  If time allows during a DESK Program session, it is helpful for the director and classroom teacher to walk around the room, monitoring the students’ work and offering suggestions from time to time.  Alternatively, this grouping and labeling can be done in regular class time or as homework. 

Turning “Big” Step Labels into Topic Sentences:

The sample above can also be used to demonstrate that the labels they had provided for the “big” steps could be very easily “turned into” the opening, or topic, sentences of the essay’s paragraphs. 

  • Quickly, and not too carefully, write sentences similar to the following.  Intentional mistakes help students realizing drafts are not final products.
  • When you are as done, read through the sentences, underlining the first words in each sentences.  Ask the students why the underlined  words would be helpful to a reader. 
Get out the EquipmentFirst, you should get together the utensils and equipment you will use.

Get the Ingredients ReadySecond, you will need to get out and measure the ingredients listed in the recipe.

Mix the Cake BatterNext, it is time to mix the cake batter.
  • End this demonstration by explaining how their lists of “big” step sentences will serve as  excellent outlines or guides as they begin drafting their essays and that their original lists of “little” steps would help them describe the “big” step and develop their paragraphs.  Caution the students, however, that they will probably have to add to these paragraphs to make them very clear and detailed.
  • After the students have completed their own grouping and labeling as described above, they can convert their own labels into topic sentences during the DESK Program session, regular class time or as homework.
Assigning the First Draft:
  • Explain to the students that they will now be using their lists to draft the bodies of their process essays but that at this point they should not write introductions or conclusions.
  • Ask them to keep in mind that they are each writing to a specific audience, and  encourage each student to write that person’s name on the top of each piece of paper used in drafting.
    • Since I find that high school students are sometimes hesitant to use first-person and second-person pronouns in their writing, I assured the students that since this was not an extremely formal or academic assignment, they could write “I” and “you” and call the person by name.  I told them that they could even think of this assignment as a process letter if that helped them write to their readers.  As a relevant example,  I explained that writing situations can call for different ways of writing.  In a brief example, I asked to them consider how writing to a bank loan officer asking for money would be different from writing to a parent asking for money.

  • If possible, distribute a sample process essay to the students to be used in a later discussion led by the classroom teacher.
    • I used one written by a college freshman in one of my composition classes.  However, care must be taken that such a model is not so polished and the process so complicated as to intimidate the high school students. 

  • The first draft of the process essay is best done for most students out of class as homework, although an in-class writing session during regular class time is also effective.
  • Ask students to bring the complete body of their essays to the next DESK Program session.  Have each student bring a typed draft printed out on paper and reproduced on an overhead transparency. 

Revising the Body of the Process Essays:

    • Since most of these students had participated in the DESK Program the previous year, it was not necessary to do a complete presentation of the characteristics of a good body paragraph.  I did show and briefly review the criteria on the “Body Paragraph Checklist”. 13

  • Since the students’ paragraph beginnings, or topic sentences, have been drafted and discussed earlier, spend most of the session discussing how to make the content of individual paragraphs more clear, detailed, and interesting. 
  • Place one student’s transparency on the projector and ask that student to remind the class of the process topic and the reader. 
  • Discussing a paragraph at a time, analyze one or two body paragraphs from each student’s essay.  Elicit suggestions, first from the writer and then the rest of the class, as to how the writer could develop a paragraph more fully and in doing so make the step described both clear and interesting. 
  • Using an overhead transparency marker, make brief comments in the margin as suggestions were made.  Encourage each student to also make notes on the typed copy of the essay as his or her essay is discussed.
  • At the end of the session, return the transparencies to the students and ask them to revise their essays before the next session. 
Find the Purpose--the Thesis Statement:
  • Begin by telling the students that with the bodies of their essays drafted, they are now ready to “invite” their readers into their essays with introductions.
  • As a way to (re)introduce the concept of thesis statements, write the following chart on the chalkboard and ask the students to reproduce it on paper and to write their essay topics and readers on the appropriate blank lines, leaving the “Why” blank incomplete:
  • WHAT? (Your topic)right arrowTO WHOM (Your reader)right arrowWHY? (Your purpose)

  • Ask the class to consider the following questions: 
  • Why should your reader read your essay?
    Why do you want your reader to read your essay?
    How will reading your essay affect your reader?

  • Then ask each student to complete the following sentence: 
  • I want (reader’s name) to read my essay about how to (topic) because . . . . . 

  • When they are done, put their responses on the board.
  • Explain that when they have completed these sentence, they have answered the question “Why” and have thus stated their purposes in writing the essay.  Ask them to each write their purpose on the “What right arrow To Whom right arrow Why” chart.
  • Further explain that communicating that purpose in the essay will give each of their essays a point, or a reason, an argument, an angle--what we call a thesis statement.
Considering the Introduction: 14
    • Since most of these students had participated in the DESK Program the previous year, it was not necessary to do a complete presentation of the characteristics of a good introductory paragraph.  I did show and briefly review the criteria on the “Introduction Checklist”.

  • Tell the students that since they now have a sense of their essays’ purposes, they now have to make sure that they grab their readers’ attention in their opening statements and lead them to their purposes which were stated in their thesis statements.  Stress that it is especially important that each writer “talk” to his or her audience in the introduction. 
  • Ask the students to each bring an introductory paragraph which includes a purpose or thesis statement for the next session.  Have each student bring a typed draft printed out on paper and reproduced on an overhead transparency. 
Revising the Introduction to the Process Essay:
  • In doing group revision of the introductions, follow much the same procedure as in working on the revision of  the body of the essays.  However, with only one paragraph per student, more time can be spent on this step with references to the introduction criteria.
    • Following are the examples of the students’ introductory paragraphs: 

      Hey, wake up sleepy head! It’s time to go fishing.  If you want to eat a delicious fish dinner, then let’s go.  The fish are probably jumping in the boat at False River now.  If you follow my instructions, you will catch fish easily and quickly. 

      Diamond, do you want me to fall in love with you?  I will show you how to write a poem.  You can learn poetry because it’s easy to write and it’s a good way to express your feelings.  What if you try telling me about your feelings?  It’s important to let me know what you’re feeling inside.  I hope you will be please to learn how to write a poem.

      Hey, do know how to shock your friends?  Then you have to listen to what I will teach you about a fantastic card trick.  Are you ready? Then get where you feel comfortable, girl.

      Are you tired of having to pay for long conversations on the TTY?  I know that some deaf people have to pay dreadful bills for the TTY, but you can learn how to use AOL.  People who have AOL don’t have to pay high bills every month!  I’m enthusiastic about AOL because it’s an easy and cheap way to communicate with friends. 

      Troy, do you want to impress your date?  Then you have to learn how to make breakfast for your girlfriend.  Don’t worry; cooking is easy!  I will teach you how to make an egg sandwich for your girlfriend’s breakfast.

Completing the Process Essay:

  • Several subsequent class periods can be spent putting the pieces of the essay together, adding brief conclusions, revising and editing.
    • During these sessions, Mrs. Lively and I frequently worked one-on-one with students as they worked at their desks or at computer terminals.15   Occasionally, we put students in pairs to work on revision and editing. 

  • When the essays are complete, give each student a final copy of every other student’s essay. 
The original cat drawingThe volunteer artist's version
Sample drawing (of a sailboat)

About My Subject

Is my subject interesting to me?

What do I know about my subject?  Is it enough?

What is important about my subject?

What is interesting about my subject?

Is my subject the right “size” for the assignment?

About My Audience 

Who are my readers?  Age, sex, education?

What do my readers know about my subject?

Are my readers interested in my subject?

How can I interest my readers in my subject?

What will my readers expect when they read my writing?

How can help my readers read my writing?

Choosing a Good Audience

"A" OR "B"
How to get a date for the Prom a high school girl your grandma
How to bake a cake a chef a newly wed
How to choose a skateboard your father your best friend
How to change a tire a new driver a mechanic
How to divide fractions your math teacher a student failing math

Body Paragraph Checklist 


Is the main point of the  stated clearly in the topic sentence?

Does all of the  relate to the topic sentence?


Is the paragraph developed with enough specific evidence or detail to be convincing?

Is the paragraph developed with the right kind of specific evidence or detail to be convincing? 

Introduction Checklist 

Does the intro paragraph grab our attention?

Does the intro paragraph move from general to specific?

Does the intro paragraph flow smoothly?

Does the intro paragraph provide necessary background info?

Does the intro paragraph address the audience?

2 Examples of these types of non-writing demonstrations are discussed in The DESK Program Handbook (1999-2000) in "Workshop Two" where I had students evaluate miniature chocolate bars as a way of introducing the evaluation essay and in "Workshop Six" where I had students compare or contrast name-brand and store-brand sandwich cookies.
3 It goes without saying that when a teacher using an interpreter is working with deaf and hard of hearing sutdents, care must be taken that all students can easily see the teacher and the interpreter.  When visual aids or other people must also be seen, it often takes some adjustments in the front of hte classroom.  I routinely and frequently ask the students, "Can everybody see?"
4 See the original cat and boat drawing for examples. Drawings using simple geometric shapes work best. Coloring books for very young children are a good source of inspiration.
5 See this one example of the results of this demonstration.
6 This sheet might also be reproduced and given to the students to use as they consider their subjects later.
7 This sheet might also be reproduced and given to the sutdents to use as they consider their readers later.
8 Depending on the amount of time available and the skill and interest level of the students, you may or may not wish to make a distinction between directional and informational process essays. I did not explain informational essays but instead Mrs. Lively and I tried to guide the students into choosing directional topics and frequently used the term "how-to" essay.
9 The program director and classroom teacher should decide together whether work done outside of DESK Program sessions will be done during English class time with the classroom teacher or as homework due for the next DESK Program session.
10 If the students make thier topic selections during a DESK Program session, do this at the end of that session when the selections are finalized. If the sutdents select their topics as homework before the next session, do this at hte beginning of the next session before moving on to "Determining the Steps of the Process."
11 Students can do this as homework by hand or their lists can be printed out on the computer and xeroxed onto tranparencies, but these transparanencies cannot be reused, of course. Lists can be written on the chalkboard.
12 It might be necessary to briefly remind students of the purpose and characteristics of the well written body paragraph.
13 See "Workshop Four: Revising the Evaluation Essay," The DESK Program Handbook (1999-2000), 14-17.
14 For a more complete discussion of essay introductions, see "Workshop Five: Essay Introductions," The DESK Program Handbook (1999-2000), 18-25.
15 For a complete discussion of using computers in one-on-one conferencing, see "Workshop Nine: Working One-on-One with Students," The DESK Program Handbook (1999-2000), 42-45.

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