Are you confused about the many different types, kinds, and forms of writing? The best way to become unconfused is to first understand the Four Modes of Discourse. In his 1866 book, English Composition and Rhetoric, Alexander Bain introduced two models that have remained the foundation of writing instruction for the last 148 years:
1. Paragraph Rules
2. The Four Modes of Discourse: Expository, Narrative, Descriptive, and Argument
These two models weren’t just homeruns. They were out-of-the-ballpark homeruns—with bases loaded! His models were built upon what came before, but they were the difference between pretty good and near perfect.
Here are the Four Modes of Discourse explained in a very simple format:
1. Expository Writing: By explaining and informing, you help your reader to understand something in the same way that you understand it. Teach them.
2. Narrative Writing: Tell what happened.
3. Descriptive Writing: Create a mental picture or image in your reader’s mind.
4. Argument Writing: Provide evidence and give reasons in order to prove something.
Shockingly, most every sentence we speak and write is designed to achieve one of these four goals found in the Four Modes of Discourse. Truth be told, the Four Modes of Discourse is not a perfect model, but it is the best we have. Critics of the Four Modes of Discourse would say that we should focus on the rhetorical purpose of the communication. Here is an analogy that helps illustrate what they are getting at.
Four Modes of Discourse Analogy
If you are driving to the store because you need groceries, the Four Modes of Discourse is the driving in the car. It is what you are doing at the moment, but it is not your purpose. Your purpose is not to drive a car. Your purpose is to buy groceries. However, driving your car effectively will guarantee that you are able to achieve your purpose of buying groceries.
The purpose of all writing is communication. If the purpose is not to communicate, then why write? Truthfully, the Four Modes of Discourse puts each mode in the position of being a purpose or end goal, which it is not. But even with this minor flaw, I still believe that the Four Modes of Discourse is the most effective model for making sense of all the other models of writing. Put simply, the Four Modes of Discourse are the Four Main Genres of Writing.
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The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Three Text Types
The Common Core State Standards (hereafter CCSS) writing standards are formed around “Three Text Types.” Basically, the CCSS Three Text Types are the Four Modes of Discourse, but with descriptive writing playing a smaller role.
In my opinion, the CCSS got the writing standards absolutely right! Nice job! They demoted descriptive writing to the status of being an important and valuable tool, and they chose to use the word argument over the word persuasive. Additionally, in grades K-5 they chose to use the term opinion writing instead of argument. After all, we wouldn’t say that a person is performing surgery when they are really just removing a splinter.
One last interesting change is that the CCSS have chosen to call expository writing Informational/Explanatory Writing. I’ve personally always used the following equation to explain what expository writing is: Expository = Explain + Inform. Apparently, the CCSS agree.
Once again, the CCSS have not abandoned descriptive writing, just demoted it. It’s mentioned throughout the standards using these terms: description, descriptive details, descriptions of actions, and narrative descriptions. Although I agree with the CCSS’s position on descriptive writing, I do believe that understanding descriptive writing helps students better understand the other Three Text Types. That being said, it’s not a great use of time to require students to write numerous descriptive paragraphs and descriptive essays. In short, occasional practice in descriptive writing is still valuable, but treating it as an equal mode of discourse is poor time management.
All in all, the CCSS have taken the Four Modes of Discourse and guided it in an optimal direction.
Let’s Take a Quick Look at the CCSS Three Text Types
It may surprise some teachers, but in all grades K-12, there are only three types of writing addressed in the CCSS writing standards. In short, the standards use the same Three Text Types in all grades, and progress incrementally year-by-year moving from simple to complex.
The CCSS writing standards are only 9 pages total for all of K-12. The CCSS also have a 3-page Definitions of the Standards’ Three Text Types. I recommend you download both from the CCSS website. But before you do, let’s take a quick look at what you will find there, and see how the standards relate to the Four Modes of Discourse.
Here are the Grade 5 CCSS writing standards as relates to text types. I’ve also included the Grade 6 Argument Standard to highlight the Opinion-to-Argument transition from Grade 5 to Grade 6:
Argument: CCSS Text Type 1
- Opinion Grade 5: Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.
- Argument Grade 6: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
Informative/ Explanatory: CCSS Text Type 2
- Informative/Explanatory Grade 5: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.
Narrative: CCSS Text Type 3
- Narrative Grade 5: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
As you can see, the CCSS are basically still the Four Modes of Discourse.
Mixed Form or Blended Form
In 1909 Fred Newton Scott wrote this: “The four main types of composition occur sometimes in the pure form, and sometimes in mixed form.”One hundred years later the CCSS wrote this: “Skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes.”
Put simply, writers use many strategies to make points and communicate information. We don’t want to limit what is possible to the point that we are simply teaching a formula. That being said, most pieces of writing are PRIMARELY one type of writing or another.
You can read all about the CCSS Blended Forms of Writing here.
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Developing a Better Understanding of the Four Modes of Discourse and the CCSS Three Text Types
Understanding the Four Modes of Discourse provides a great foundation for understanding all communication. Unfortunately, the Four Modes of Discourse is a bit more complicated than it appears to be on the surface. Furthermore, we want to understand the Four Modes in the context of the CCSS Three Text Types.
In order to fully grasp the Four Modes and the Three Text Types, let’s examine the following seven categories:
1. Expository: Help your reader to understand something in the same way that you understand it. Expository writing is teaching. (Expository = Explain + Inform = Teach)
2. Narrative – Story: Tell your reader what happened over a certain period of time, while also using a variety of story elements, along with story structure and sequencing.
- Basic Story Elements: character, setting, problem, and solution.
- Advanced Story Elements: characters, setting, plot, problem, conflict, point of view, change over time, theme, literary techniques, and resolution.
3. Narrative – Informational: Tell your reader what happened over a certain period of time, while also making sure that your reader gets the most important information, and the information that he or she is looking for.
4. Descriptive: Create a mental picture or image in your reader’s mind. Help your reader visualize, experience, and feel by making events, things, and people seem real. Description often uses sensory details. Webster’s Definition: A sketch or account of anything in words; a picture or representation in language; a listing or numbering (enumeration) of the essential qualities of a thing or species.
5. Argument: Provide evidence and give reasons in order to prove claims. Prove to your reader that things are as you say they are.
6. Opinion: CCSS uses the term “opinion” in the place of argument for grades K-5. Being able to support an opinion is a nice stepping stone to more advanced argument writing. Truth be told, when students write a nice opinion piece with support, it’s quite likely that they have also written a rather nice argument.
7. Persuasive: The CCSS made the correct choice by using the term argument over persuasive writing. A narrative story with a point, offering money, having authority, and many psychological techniques are all very persuasive. In fact, few things are more persuasive. However, in school we should be teaching students to persuade through logical argument and through force of writing style. The CCSS decision will hopefully put the issue to rest, and will help steer student learners in a more appropriate academic direction. Put simply, over the last 100 years, we have learned so much about how to really persuade people, that to continue to use the word persuade as a formal academic term is confusing to students. Google search “persuasive techniques” or “how to persuade.” What you will find is extremely fascinating, but it is not what K-12 students need to learn. However, persuade and persuasive are still useful words, and I do still use them because they help students understand how to argue well.
Examining Other Models Based on Modes of Discourse
It’s important to note that the Four Modes of Discourse is just a model. Of course, it is the model that the CCSS Three Text Types is based upon. Now, I mention this because people often believe that models contain an absolute and complete truth. Such is rarely the case. Good models contain truth, but not absolute truth. Teachers and learners must use models as tools for developing understanding.
To put this in perspective, Aristotle’s Rhetoric contained three types of discourse: deliberative discourse, judicial discourse, and ceremonial discourse. Clearly, many of history’s great speeches and documents are ceremonial discourse. Point being, Aristotle’s model sheds a certain kind of light on communication that the Four Modes of Discourse doesn’t.
And here are three more modern modes of discourse models that you can research:
• James Moffett – Recording, Reporting, Generalizing, and Theorizing
• James Kinneavy – Reference, Scientific, Persuasive, Literary, and Expressive
• James Britton – Expressive, Transactive, and Poetic
There is a never ending list of models to study. However, mastering the Four Modes of Discourse is a fantastic foundation! And if you teach elementary school writing or have struggling middle school writers, be sure to check out the homepage!