Tip 27: How to teach a definition/illustration paper

This is my favorite paper to teach because my students enjoy it (as much as they enjoy any paper) and overall they do a very good job with it.

To Begin
Talk about why people need to define the words they use.

I recently taught this lesson again, adding a definition/illustration example from music. I figured there had to be a song somewhere on this topic. And, sure enough, I turned on the radio and there was Tracy Lawrence singing, “Find Out Who Your Friends Are.”

An example I give here is two people dating. One says, “I love you.” The other says, “I love you, too.” Both think the other person understood what they said and agrees with it. But, in this case, the first person means, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” and the second person means, “I like being with you till somebody better comes along.”

Another strong example is the issue of the Challenger explosion. The engineers working on the Challenger wrote the administration and said “the secondary O-rings” have problems. Administration wrote back and asked if the primary O-rings were good. Yes, they were, but the secondary O-rings were problematic. Administration decided that as long as the primary O-rings were okay, there was no reason to worry about the secondary O-rings.

The issue here was that administration heard “secondary” and thought “back-up.” The engineers were saying “secondary,” which was the official name, meaning “second kind of.”

Because the two groups did not understand each other, the Challenger launched and blew up in sight of everyone standing there and an entire school whose teacher was on the ship.

Sometimes the difference in definitions can make a life and death difference.

This illustrates to the students why they might need to define words, even words they use all the time.

Real life examples of definition paragraphs
I also give examples of definition paragraphs from real life. This is growing over time and you could probably come up with your own set of real life definition paragraphs.

Abstract Nouns

Then I give definitions of and examples of concrete and abstract nouns.

It is important that students know the difference between abstract and concrete nouns because they need to know what they are going to be defining.

Students Begin

Then I have the students choose an abstract noun to write on.

To help the students think of the abstract term in a visual way, using the handmade approach that Dr. Musgrove presented at 2010 CCTE, give them a few minutes and ask them to illustrate the concept they think they want to write on. This allows those who are not verbal to approach the problem and this also helps students to “think outside the box.”

To help them think through, as a kinesthetic prewriting activity, I have them look up definitions for their word online. I usually have them look up multiple definitions for the word. An easy way to do this is put “define x” into Google. Then the first one is web definitions for the word, if such exist. Here they are looking for any quote on the topic.

Then, still as part of their prewriting, I have them look up quotes on the word. Here they are looking for a quote they agree with.

This is a good time to go through MLA internal citations and Works Cited for electronic sources. Only these two sources are used in the paper and most of the students do a good job with this. It’s much easier for them to say something like: “Princeton’s definition of honor is…” Or Benjamin Franklin said, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” (“Health”).

Definition Paragraph

I discuss with the students types of definitions. I have the students use the definition they found and add to it or define it more precisely.

I also have them use the quotation they found, if they wish.

I suggest they start off with questions or a personal anecdote which tell why they are interested in this word.

A student example of beauty.

A student example about love.

Three Examples

The next three paragraphs are, I tell them, examples of this word that match their definition of the word. And, since I told them to pick a word that means something to them, most of them have examples from their lives or the lives of those they know.

This is where their imagination and creativity can run riot, giving many details. I often get long papers because I allow them to choose their topic and their examples.


Obviously there ought to be a concluding paragraph to tie it all together. What should go in it? They can remind the reader of the definition. They can say what the word does not mean. They can recap the illustrations. They can add an example that was too short to give in the illustration paragraphs. They can give an example that is NOT their definition and say why it is not, ending with their definition again.

Online examples

This is one I wrote in class with the students watching, to show them the thought process I went through.

This is a student definition/illustration paper written in class.

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