Have you ever noticed all the different sizes and colors of headings in a textbook? Have you noticed that many textbooks use different sizes and colors of text in the table of contents? Have you noticed that the table of contents usually looks like an outline? Writing is a hierarchy—and all the different colors and sizes of text tell the reader and remind the reader what LEVEL of the hierarchy the reader is on.

Levels are a key concept in creating, understanding, and analyzing outlines. In fact, formal academic outlines formally use the term levels: e.g., a one-level outline, two-level outline, three-level outline etc. Put simply, an outline is a visual representation of the levels that exist in an organized topic or piece of writing. And as such, a hidden outline exists within every piece of writing, and therefore, the levels also exist within every piece of writing. That being said, the levels in outlines do differ from the levels in writing in a few ways.

What follows deals primarily with levels in writing—or discourse. However, understanding the levels in writing opens the door for understanding the levels in outlines. Also, towards the end I do discuss how the levels in writing differ from and connect to the levels in outlining.

The Four Levels or Units of Discourse

The Four Levels of Discourse model is also The Four Units of Discourse model. Both terms are important to understand and both deal with the same exact material. Just as light can be viewed as both a particle and as a wave (wave–particle duality), we can also view units of discourse as levels of discourse, and vice-versa. Both terms and both viewpoints help to make things clear.

As a rule, when teaching writing and when analyzing literature, viewing pieces of writing as a hierarchy of ideas is more helpful. In fact, it is the main reason why outlines are such an important writing tool. However, students also need to understand that when we construct a piece of writing, we take a collection of lower level parts (units) and put them together creating a whole. Each sentence is a building block for a paragraph, and it is each paragraph’s mission to fit together with other paragraphs in order to form a whole composition. Once again, both terms are important and useful.

In order to gain a better understanding of these levels of discourse, or units of discourse, let’s take a look at two rather old quotes about units of discourse:

The division of discourse next higher than the sentence is the Paragraph: which is a collection of sentences with unity of purpose. Like every division of discourse, a paragraph handles and exhausts a distinct topic.

— English Composition and Rhetoric (1866) by Alexander Bain —

Work of this kind… presupposes a unit of discourse. Of these units there are three, the sentence, the paragraph, and the essay or whole composition.

— Paragraph Writing: A Rhetoric for Colleges (1909) by Fred Newton Scott and Joseph Villiers Denny —

When Bain says, “next higher than the sentence,” he indicates that these units of discourse are a hierarchy. And a hierarchy by definition has levels. Every level in a piece of writing contains all of the building blocks for the level above it. Such is the nature of writing.

The Four Levels of Discourse

Level 1: Whole Composition
Level 2: Paragraph
Level 3: Chunk*
Level 4: Sentence

As you can see, I use four levels, not three. This model builds on what came before (three units of discourse), but adapts it in order to make it more useful, and also to reveal more that is true about written communication. This model better reflects what students see both in outlines and in paragraphs.

If one looks closely at a long paragraph (8-12 sentences), one will surely see that the paragraph is made up of two or more groups of connected sentences. If a person is to outline one of those long paragraphs, chunks of connected sentences will emerge. Would you agree that students need to be able to see how ideas connect together within a paragraph? I hope so! The concept of Chunks opens the door for that conversation.

Now, let’s take a look at the Four Levels of Discourse.

Level 1: Whole Composition

Students are required to become proficient in Six Main Types of Whole Compositions: 1) essays 2) reports 3) research papers 4) stories 5) letters, and 6) articles. And each whole composition will be PRIMARILY one of these Four Modes of Discourse: 1) expository 2) narrative 3) descriptive, or 4) argument.

One composition theorist (I forget who) argued that there is no larger unit of discourse than the whole composition. He argued that books are a connected series of whole compositions. I agree completely. Common advice and common sense both tell writers that the first step in writing a book is to create a basic list of necessary chapters—i.e., a list of necessary whole compositions.

I used to tell students that if you can write a paragraph you can write a book. I don’t tell them that any more. A paragraph has only one level of beginning, middle, and ending. One level of beginning, middle, and ending has little use in the real world. Being able to write excellent isolated paragraphs in no way ensures that students will be able to write effective whole compositions, which have two or more levels of beginning, middle, and ending.  Put simply, a series of whole compositions can be arranged into an acceptable book, while a series of paragraphs cannot. Be sure to check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay on the homepage! Students often don’t understand paragraphs because they don’t understand that paragraphs in the real world are really just one part of a whole. Once students can write a whole composition quickly and easily, they understand paragraphs in the proper context! They say, “Ohh, I get it!”

Level 2: Paragraph

In 1918 William Strunk wrote this in The Elements of Style: “Make the paragraph the unit of composition.” He wasn’t the first to say it, but it does clearly and concisely express the thinking that has existed for well over a hundred years. Basically, we plan out our whole compositions on the paragraph level. Then we plan out the paragraphs the best we can, and then we write our whole composition paragraph-by-paragraph, not sentence-by-sentence. I think that’s what Strunk meant by “Make the paragraph the unit of composition.”

This concept of “Make the paragraph the unit of composition,” is most applicable to academic writing and beginning writing. Truthfully, what students usually learn about paragraphs is only partially true, or should we say, part of the truth. Paragraphing in the real world is part art and part style, and definitely genre and audience dependent. Even for expository academic paragraph writing, there is still a great debate over what is true, what is taught, and what professional writers actually do. The first step in understanding the paragraph debate is to read Richard Braddock’s 1974 journal article “The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose.” That being said, students should be able to write well-structured paragraphs within well-structured whole compositions before teachers should complicate the issue too much.

Level 3: Chunk*

Why do some pieces of writing have paragraphs that average 2.5 sentences per paragraph and others average 8-12 sentences per paragraph? Well, if a reader-analyst wants to understand why and understand what is going on inside a paragraph, the reader-analyst must examine and analyze the Chunks of connected sentences found within the paragraph. How does the writer make points? Explain things? Prove things? Make confusing concepts clear? These goals are often achieved though small groups, or chunks, of connected sentences.

As you may have noticed, I’ve marked the term Chunk with an asterisk. That’s just to let students know that although it is common term and a very useful term, it is not a formal academic writing term. That being said, the word Chunk has become a formal academic term, as reflected in this quote from Van Genuchten and Cheng found in “Temporal Chunk Signal Reflecting Five Hierarchical Levels in Writing Sentences (2010)”:

Chunks have a fundamental role in information processing in the human cognitive architecture. Chunks are individual pieces of information grouped into larger units that increase our information retention (Caroll, 2004).

Traditionally (or correctly) there are only three levels (or units) of discourse: whole composition, paragraph, and sentence. However, the term “chunk of text” has become commonplace, and in my opinion, there is no other better term for what it represents. Without a doubt, the terms chunk and chunk of text are quite useful when teaching writing. Furthermore, they are clearly visible on outlines. Let’s look at a paragraph outline and see the chunks for ourselves:

Writing Outline with Chunks
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Outlines clearly illustrate that something that exists between a paragraph and a sentence, and as such, the term chunk is a helpful, dare I say a necessary, element of writing instruction.

Transitions show movement of thought. As such, transitions are likely to identify the beginning, middle, or end of a chunk within a paragraph. Transitions show how a chunk of sentences is connected and also where the divisions exist between the chunks.  You are likely to find these and other similar transitions in the beginning or middle of a chunk: for example, illustrating this point, reason being, first (and other enumeration terms), proving this point, likewise, similarly, in contrast etc. Additionally, chunks often end with these types of transitions: consequently, therefore, as such, point being, put simply, in short etc. Please keep in mind that all of these transitions can also be used to begin and end paragraphs. Still, when these transitions are found in the middle of a paragraph, they likely have something to do with a chunk of connected sentences.

As illustrated, chunks are clearly visible on outlines. However, one must read closely and analytically in order to see the hidden chunks concealed within paragraphs. One must examine how the ideas expressed within sentences are connected. Here are a few (of many) ways in which sentences in a chunk may be connected: statement and support; statement and explanation; point and proof; point, proof, and commentary, statement and clarification; statement and description; question and answer etc.

A chunk is simply a small connected group of sentences. Take a look at this simple example:

Chunk: I bought a car. It’s red. It’s fast.          Vs.

Sentence: I bought a fast red car.

As you can see, when it comes to the ideas presented, there may be very little difference between a chunk of sentences and a single sentence. In other words, when we combine sentences, we are likely combining chunks of connected sentences. When we uncombine sentences, we are likely creating chunks of sentences.

Please note, I don’t overuse the word chunk. It’s a bit informal, but there is nothing that works better. I use the word chunk alongside a variety of other terms that represent a similar meaning: passage, group of sentences, line of thought (LOT), logical line of thought (LLOT) etc.

Level 4: Sentence

In The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing (2000), Thomas S. Kane says, “…it’s probably impossible to define a sentence to everyone’s satisfaction.” Jean Sherwood Rankin couldn’t agree more. She wrote the following over 100 years ago:

Far too many of the modern grammar texts are at fault in their definitions of the sentence… I quote almost at random from a few of the recent publications:


 »  A group of words expressing a complete thought is a sentence.
 »  A sentence is the expression of a complete thought in words.


But grammar takes no heed as to whether the thought expressed in any sentence be complete or not. Grammar merely demands that the expression of the thought be complete, if the result shall be called a sentence. That is to say, every sentence must be a grammatical whole, having at least one subject with its predicate verb.

Jean Sherwood Rankin – “The Sentence and the Verb” – The Elementary School Teacher (1909)

Basically, she says that a sentence is not “a complete thought,” but instead must have “completeness of thought.” She is absolutely correct. Actually, Ms. Rankin may have a problem with the expression “completeness of thought,” but I assure you, a sentence must have completeness of thought. As such, here is my definition of a sentence.


1.  A sentence must be a grammatical whole.

2.  A sentence must have a subject and a predicate, although the subject is usually implied in a command.

3.  A sentence must begins with a capital letter and end with a period, question mark, or exclamation mark.

4.  A sentence must have completeness of thought.

Of course, this is just the beginning of sentence study. The sentence is in fact a complete world—the world of grammar. And how many people claim to fully understand grammar? I’m not sure, but William Blake may have been referring to the world of the sentence when he wrote this:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
— William Blake (1757-1827) – English poet —

The Four Levels of Discourse vs. Levels in Outlines: Is there a One-to-One Connection?

Addressing all the issues involved with outlines and outlining would fill at least a full chapter of a book. We use outlining to help improve and check for reading comprehension; we use outlining to help students organize their own writing; and we use outlining to help create a reading-writing connection. In order to achieve all this, outlines travel in two directions:

1. Outline Form  ⇒  to  ⇒  Written Form

2. Written Form  ⇒  to  ⇒  Outline Form

For now, I will only address the connection (or lack of connection) between the Levels of Discourse and the Levels in Outlines.

There is usually not a 1-to-1 connection, correspondence, or correlation between the Four Levels of Discourse and the Levels in Outlines. However, in most student writing, there is a 1-to-1 correlation at the first two levels: whole composition and paragraphs. And for beginning writers, it is often wise to keep the 1-to-1 connection at all levels. That being said, the effect of maintaining this 1-to-1 correspondence is confusion over what happens with long, complex, combined sentences. How do students treat these types of sentences written by others? And are students supposed to write short, formulaic, simple sentences in their whole compositions so that their sentences match the levels in their outlines? The answer is this: after the paragraph level, outlines are supposed to focus only on ideas, and in particular, the most important elements of the ideas being presented.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Traditionally, formal academic outlines don’t count the thesis or controlling idea of the whole composition as a level. However, with my students, the main point of the whole composition is always level one, even on an outline. Paragraphs are Level 2. If you wish students to understand that a whole composition, just like individual paragraphs, must always have unity in the form of a single controlling idea, then use the whole composition as Level 1. All that being said, if students are only outlining a single paragraph, then the main idea of that paragraph is Level 1. In short, levels are not static; they are dynamic.

Let’s take a closer look at the two levels where the correlation is most common: the whole composition and the paragraph. Once again, formal academic outlines do formally use the term levels: e.g., a one-level outline, two-level outline, three-level outline etc. (Levels is not a colloquial term.) Using my method, a two-level outlines contains the main idea for the whole composition and for each paragraph in the whole composition. The question “What is the main idea of a paragraph?” is really asking a person to fill in Level 2 on an outline. As such, using my method, the levels in a two-level outline are these:

Level 1: Whole Composition – thesis, premise, focus statement, controlling idea etc.

Level 2: Paragraph – main idea, main point, claim, controlling idea etc.

Important to note, as the levels above indicate, outlines deal with ideas, not units of discourse. And as a rule, the 1-to-1 connection only exists on the first two levels. After that, it depends on the writing/outlining situation.

In English Composition (1891), Barrett Wendell had this to say:

…we do not deliberately plan our sentences; we write them, and then revise them.


…we do deliberately plan our paragraphs, our chapters, our books; and if we plan them properly, we do not need to revise them much, if at all.

Wendell essentially makes the point that while we can plan out our ideas and how we wish to order our ideas, we cannot plan out each and every sentence, at least on a regular basis. It’s just not practical. As such, we plan out the ideas, but not the sentences. Writing sentences that have style, variety, and fluency occurs in the moment and then through revision. The art of sentence styling, sentence combining, sentence uncombining, and wordsmithing cannot, in a practical way, be planned out in advance—only created in the moment, and then fixed after the fact.

More Levels

The numbering in levels should always be considered somewhat fluid. One can always argue for a level existing above, below, or in-between. Levels in writing are supposed to help build students’ understanding of the hierarchal nature of writing. Levels in writing cannot conform to a rigid dogma. Take a look at the following. Is it complete? Is it correctly ordered? Would you do it differently? Would you add levels or remove levels?

 Level 1: Series of Books
 Level 2: Book
 Level 3: Unit
 Level 4: Whole Composition/Chapter
 Level 5: Section
 Level 6: Paragraph
 Level 7: Chunk
 Level 8: Sentence
 Level 9: Clause
 Level 10: Phrase
 Level 11: Idea
 Level 12: Word

Once again, be sure to check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay on the homepage! Once elementary school students and struggling middle school writers can write whole compositions quickly and easily, they understand paragraphs in the proper context! Students say, “Ohh, I get it!”

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