Illustration Essays: Definitions, Templates and Examples

I’m a university professor, and in this article, I’m going to show you exactly how to write an illustration essay.

ultimate guide to illustration essays (template and full sample essay)

1. What is an Illustration Essay?

An Illustration Essay is an essay designed to describe and explain with examples. You will be required to use examples to reveal details about the subject you are discussing.

In many ways, it is the easiest form of essay because you don’t have to come up with a thesis or argue a point. All you need to do is explain with descriptions and examples (or ‘illustrate’) a subject or phenomenon.

Much like when someone draws a picture to show you what something looks like, an illustrative essay uses words to show what something is.

2. Difference between Illustrative and Argumentative Essays

Illustrative EssayArgumentative Essay
Aims to show the reader the details about something.Aims to make a point and convince the reader about your chosen perspective.
Descriptive with many examples.Persuasive with a clear line of argument.
Usually doesn’t require a unique thesis statement. It is usually presumed that something is true, and you’re simply explaining it in detail. Requires a unique thesis statement that will be prosecuted throughout.
Provides examples and explanations.Provides examples and explanations.
Aims to objectively present information.Aims to present information that defends a certain viewpoint.
You’re marked on your ability to explain and describe in detail.You’re marked on your ability to present a coherent position on a topic.

You can see that in many ways, an illustrative essay should be easier than an argumentative essay. You can put all your efforts into your explanations and examples.

Aim to create a coherent picture in the reader’s mind about the topic you’re discussing.

3. Definition of ‘Illustrate’

Here are a few definitions of ‘illustrate’:

  • Oxford Dictionary says that to Illustrate is to “Explain or make (something) clear by using examples, charts, pictures, etc.”
  • MacMillan Dictionary provides this nice, simple explanation: “to show what something is like.”

Let’s now put the term into a few sentences to help clarify it for you just a little more:

  • The newspaper article illustrates how the dinosaurs became extinct.
  • The story of Abraham Lincoln provides a clear illustration of his life achievements.
  • My father’s explanation of how to change oil in a car illustrated the process sufficiently.

Synonyms for ‘Illustrate’

Illustrate may also be interchangeably used with words like:

  • Show
  • Give Detail
  • Explain
  • Describe
  • Present
  • Outline

4. How to write an Illustration Essay

Here’s how to write an illustration essay:

2.1 How to write your Introduction

The introduction is much like any other in an essay, and therefore I suggest you use the usual I.N.T.R.O formula.

This formula is a way of writing a 5-sentence introduction that orients the reader to the topic. Here’s how it works. Each of the following points forms one sentence of your introduction:

  • Inform: Inform the reader of the topic.
  • Notify: Notify the reader of one piece of interesting background information about the topic.
  • Translate: Translate or paraphrase the essay question.
  • Report: Report on your position or argument (This step can be skipped as you will often not need to make an argument)
  • Outline: Outline the essay structure. You can use ‘Firstly, secondly, thirdly’ here.

2.2 An example introduction for an illustration essay

This example is for an illustration essay on the topic: Illustrate the various ways young people use social media in their everyday lives.

“Social media has many impacts on young people. Social media is quite new, with the most famous social media site Facebook only being introduced to the world in 2004. This illustrative essay will explain and provide examples of the many ways young people engage with social media every day. The essay will begin with an explanation of what social media is, followed by several illustrative points with examples to give details about what new media is and how it has changed young people’s lives.”

2.3 How to write an illustration paragraph (body paragraph)

Paragraphs in the body of an illustration essay have two purposes:

  • Describe and Define: You need to clearly describe and define your subject to the reader. The reader should be left with the impression that you have a deep knowledge of the topic.
  • Explain and Exemplify: You need to provide many examples to illustrate your points.

I recommend that you do this in order. Your first few paragraphs should describe and define the subject. Your following paragraphs should give a lot of quality examples.

2.4 Examples of illustrative paragraphs

I’ll keep using the example topic: Illustrate the various ways young people use social media in their everyday lives.

Example of a Describe and Define Paragraph:

“Social media is a form of media that emerged during the Web 2.0 era of the internet. It is unique because it gives people the ability of people to create personal profiles and communicate back-and-forth with one another. It is generally known to have emerged in the early 2000s with websites like MySpace and Facebook, and has changed recently to be heavily mobile responsive with the emergence of smartphones in the 2010s.”

Example of an Explain and Exemplify Paragraph:

“One unique consequence of social media is that it has meant young people are in constant contact with their friends. Whereas in the past young people would have to hang out in person to be in contact, now they can message each other from their homes. For example, young people get home from school and can log into their web forums like Facebook messenger. From here, they can stay in touch and chat about issues that happened at school. While this may be enjoyable, some people also believe that it means young people can continue to be bullied even from within their own bedrooms.”

2.5 How to write a Conclusion for an Illustration Essay

To conclude your illustrative essay, feel free to use the normal conclusion paragraph style. My preferred template for a conclusion is the 5 Cs Conclusion method.

Here’s a brief summary of the 5 Cs Conclusion method. Like the INTRO method, you can write one sentence per point for a 5 sentence conclusion paragraph:

  1. Close the loop: Refer to a statement you made in your introduction to tie the beginning and end together.
  2. Conclude: Show your final conclusion on the issue. As this is an illustrative essay that generally does not require a unique thesis statement, this step can be blended with ‘Clarify’.
  3. Clarify: Show how you have answered the essay question
  4. Concern: Show who would be concerned about the issue.
  5. Consequences: Show what the consequences of the issue are for real life.

Read Also: 39 Better Ways to Write ‘In Conclusion’ in an Essay

2.6 Example Conclusion for an Illustrative Essay

Here’s an example conclusion for an illustrative essay on the topic: Illustrate the various ways young people use social media in their everyday lives.

“The beginning of this essay pointed out that social media is quite a new phenomenon. Nonetheless, it appears to have had a significant impact on young people’s everyday lives. This essay has illustrated this fact with examples including points on how many young people use social media at home every night, how it has impact how bullying occurs, and helped them to stay in touch with friends who live long ways away. Parents and teachers should be concerned with this issue in order to help children know when to switch off social media or use it responsibly. Social media is not going anywhere and will continue to impact the ways young people interact with one another on a daily basis.”

5. A Template Just for You

Essay SectionInstructions
IntroductionUse the INTRO formula to write a 5-sentence introduction that identifies the issue, gives some background information, shows how you will answer the essay prompt, and outlines what will be said in the piece.
First Body Paragraphs: Describe and DefineYour first one or two body paragraphs should clearly orient the reader to your topic.
Define: In your own words, explain exactly what your subject is as if the reader would have no idea. Use academic references whenever possible.
Describe: In your own words, provide a detailed description of your subject. What are its unique characteristics?
Don’t forget to include referencing in each paragraph.
Next Body Paragraphs: Examples and ExplanationsThe rest of the ‘body’ of your essay should be dedicated to providing explanations and examples.
Explanations: Use a few paragraphs to explain what your topic or subject is. You can explain why it is the way it is, when it became like that, how it became like that, where it is, and any more distinguishing features of it.
Examples: This is very important for an illustrative essay. Your examples can show the impacts of your topic on people’s real lives. Or, it could be practical examples of how real people have interacted with your subject. Feel free to check out some news articles on your topic for some clear real-life examples.
ConclusionUse the 5 C’s conclusion method to write your conclusion. I recommend you refer back to something you mentioned in the introduction, state how you answered the essay question, explain who should be concerned with this issue, and provide commentary on the consequences of the topic.

6. Illustration Essay Topic Ideas

I’ve provided a full list of over 120 illustration essay topics you can choose form on this post here.

For a summary of 5 of my favorites, see below:

  • Provide an illustration of the lifestyle of American Pilgrims in the first few years of settlement. You can dig deep in this example by giving explanations of the farming practices, initial struggles faced, and the complex relationships between colonizers and Indigenous peoples.
  • Provide an illustration of the factory line production model and how it changed the world. Here, you can dig deep with examples of how the production line model was different to anything that came before it. You can also explain it using an example of a product going through a factory, such as a Model T Ford.
  • Provide an illustration of the ways the court system seeks to ensure justice is served. Courts are complex places, so you can dig deep here to explain why we have them and how they help keep all of us safe.
  • Provide an illustration of human development from birth to 18 years of age. You can dig deep in your explanation of how children move through stages of development before becoming what we consider to be fully grown adults. I selected this example for the illustration essay above.
  • Provide an illustration of how and why the Pyramids were built. An illustration of these remarkable structures can help you delve deep into the ways ancient Egypt operated. Discuss the ways pharaohs saw pyramids as spiritual buildings, how they used slaves to build them, and the remarkable engineering coordination required to build enormous structures back before we had machinery to help out!

7. Illustration Essay Example

Topic: “Provide an illustration of human development from birth to 18 years of age. (1000 words)”

Introduction of the Illustration Essay:

Children are born with complete dependence on their parents for their own survival. Over the next 18 years they go through several stages of biological and cognitive development before reaching full maturation. This illustrative essay explores several key ideas about how humans develop in their first 18 years. There are multiple different understandings of how humans develop, and several of the major ones will be illustrated in this essay. First, the key ideas behind human development are defined and described. Then, several examples of key parts of human development in childhood are presented with a focus on Piaget’s approach to human development.

Body Paragraphs of the Illustration Essay – Definition and Description:

Human development is the process of human growth from birth through to adulthood. It is a process that takes somewhere between 16 and 25 years, although most western societies believe a child has reached adulthood on their 18th birthday (Charlesworth, 2016). The process behind child development has been defined and described in multiple different ways throughout history. Two of the key theorists who describe child development are Piaget and Freud. Both believe all children develop in clear maturational stages, although their ideas about what happens in each stage differ significantly (Davies, 2010).

Freud believes that all children develop through a series of psychological stages. At each stage of development, children face a challenge which they must overcome or risk experiencing psychological fixations in adulthood. Freud outlined five stages of child development: the oral (0 – 1 years of age), anal (1 – 3 years of age), phallic (3 – 6 years of age), latency (6 – 12 years of age) and genital (12+ years of age). For each stage, there is a challenge (Fleer, 2018; Devine & Munsch, 2018). These are: weaning off the breast (oral), toilet training (anal), identifying gender roles (phallic), social interaction (latency) and development of intimate relationships (genital). If the child successfully navigates each stage, they will become a well developed adult.

By contrast, Piaget was focused less on psychological development and more on cognitive maturation. Piaget also believes that all children develop in roughly equal stages (Devine & Munsch, 2014). Piaget outlined five stages of development: the sensorimotor (0 – 2 years of age), preoperational (2 – 7 years of age), concrete operational (7 – 11 years of age) and formal operational (11+ years). In each stage, the child is capable of certain tasks, and should be encouraged to master those tasks to develop successfully to the next stage. These tasks include: mastery of the sense and motor skills to navigate the world (sensorimotor), capacity to use language and think using symbols (preoperational), ability to use logic and understand time, space and quantities (concrete operational), and ability to use abstract and hypothetical thinking (formal operational) (Charlesworth, 2016).

Body Paragraphs of the Illustration Essay – Explanations and Examples:

For the remainder of this essay, Piaget’s stages will be used to illustrate how children are perceived to develop. Piaget’s stages are still widely acknowledged as useful for teaching and guiding children through cognitive development, and are generally more well received in contemporary society than Freud’s. Their value in education make them an important set of stages to understand for teacher educators. Furthermore, many educational curricula around the world continue to roughly teach in stages commensurate with Piaget’s stages (Kohler, 2014). They are therefore important stages of child development to understand.

The first stage is the sensorimotor stage (0 – 2). Children in the sensorimotor stage need support to develop skills in navigating their immediate environments. At this stage, children are given objects with various textures, shapes and compositions to allow children to touch and learn about their world (Kohler, 2014). Children in this stage also learn to develop the understanding that when things are out of their sight, they still exist! Piaget called this skill ‘object permanence’. For example, the game ‘peek-a-boo’ is often very entertaining to young children because their parents’ faces appear to disappear from the world, then reappear randomly (Isaacs, 2015; Devine & Munsch, 2018).

The next stage is the preoperational stage (2 – 7). In the preoperational stage, children learn to develop more complex communicative capacities. Children develop linguistic capacities and begin to express themselves confidently to their parents and strangers. Children also develop imaginative skills, and you often see children engaging in imaginative play where they dress up and pretend to be princesses, firefighters and heroes in their stories (Isaacs, 2015). At this young age, children are very egotistical and continue to see themselves as the centre of the world. To help children develop through this stage, parents and teachers should encourage creative writing and praise children whenever they may see things from other people’s perspectives (MacBlain, 2018).

The third stage is the concrete operational stage (7 – 11). At this stage, children learn to think logically about things in their everyday environments. They therefore develop more complex capacities to reason and do mathematical tasks. At this stage teachers tend to encourage children to learn to come to conclusions using reason and scientific observations (MacBlain, 2018). At this level many children are able to see things from others’ perspectives, but remain focused on their own lives and things in their immediate environments (Kohler, 2014).

Lastly, from ages 11 and up, children develop into the formal operations stage where they can think abstractly. In this stage, ethical and critical thinking emerges. These young people are now starting to think about issues like social justice and politics (Kohler, 2014). They also develop the capacity to do more complex mathematical tasks in the realm of abstract rather than concrete maths. A real life example may include the capacity to complete algebraic tasks. This is why algebra tends to become a part of mathematics curricula in middle and high school years (Charlesworth, 2016; MacBlain, 2018).

While Piaget’s stages are widely acknowledge to be accurate for ‘normal’ development, there is criticism that these stages do not reflect the development of children across all cultures and abilities. For example, children with autism may develop at faster or slower rates (Isaacs, 2015). Similarly, it appears children in some non-Western cultures develop concrete operations at a much younger age than children in Western societies. Thus, other theorists like Vygotsky have demonstrated that we should not see child development in set rigid stages, but instead think of development as being heavily influenced by social and cultural circumstances in which children develop (MacBlain, 2018).

Conclusion of the Illustrative Essay:

At the beginning of this illustrative essay, it was stated that children use the first 18 years of their life to develop biologically, psychologically and cognitively. Zooming in on cognitive development, this essay has illustrated child development through Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development. Through these stages, it is possible to see how children develop from very dependent and unknowledgeable states to full independence from their parents. Teachers should know about these stages of development to properly understand what level children should be at in their learning and to target lessons appropriately.


Charlesworth, R. (2016). Understanding child development. Los Angeles: Cengage Learning.

Davies, D. (2010). Child development: A practitioner’s guide. New York: Guilford Press.

Fleer, M. (2018). Child Development in Educational Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Isaacs, N. (2015). A Brief Introduction to Piaget. New York: Agathon Press.

Kohler, R. (2014). Jean Piaget. London: Bloomsbury.

Levine, L. E., & Munsch, J. (2018). Child Development from Infancy to Adolescence: An Active Learning Approach. London: Sage Publications.

MacBlain, S. (2018). Learning theories for early years practice. London: SAGE.

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