You have probably heard that the Common Core State Standards (hereafter CCSS) uses Three Text Types:
1. Informational/Explanatory Writing (Expository)
2. Narrative Writing
Did you know that these text types are often blended together creating original and effective writing? The CCSS’s “Definitions of the Standards’ Three Text Types” states the following: “Skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes.”
Why must students understand this? Well, there are two simple reasons why students must understand blended text: 1) Students read! 2) Students write! And since blended text is commonplace in what they read, it can’t be ignored. Clearly, what we teach students about writing should match what they see when they read. Looked at another way, real writers blend text, and our goal is to develop real writers.
Please note, the CCSS uses the term blended text, but the concept also goes by the term mixed form, and both are quite similar in theory to multi-genre or mixed-genre. I will be using the term blended text. Additionally, although I am primarily interested in blended text as relates to effective writing, the topic can only be addressed in a Reading-Writing Connection context. In fact, blended text is a key concept in understanding why the Reading-Writing Connection is such an essential aspect of writing instruction.
Blended Text vs. Overlapping Classification Systems
When the CCSS talks about blended text, they are talking about blending modes of discourse. They are not talking about how a narrative can be informational, as with a newspaper article, as opposed to how a narrative can be a fictional narrative story designed to entertain, as with a novel. That issue really has more to do with the many classification systems found in the world of writing. Confusing the matter even more is that these many classification systems overlap with other classification systems, and most classification systems are made up of other classification systems.
In writing, classification systems are near endless and quite imperfect. In fact, it’s exhausting sorting through and figuring out the multitude of writing classification systems that have been developed throughout the eons. It’s even more exhausting trying to figure out how they are all connected and what exactly is “the important truth” found within each of these classification systems. These conceptual, abstract systems are a far cry from the objective, verifiable classification systems found in science and math.
You can read more about that in the upcoming, “Understanding Classification Systems in Writing.”
Analyzing Writing and Blended Text with The Four x Four Model: The Four Modes of Discourse and The Four Levels of Discourse
In his 1866 book, English Composition and Rhetoric, Alexander Bain introduced the Four Modes of Discourse model, which has remained the foundation of writing instruction ever since. The CCSS Three Text Types are the same Four Modes of Discourse, but with descriptive writing playing a smaller role.
Understanding blended text requires an understanding of each of the Four Modes of Discourse, along with how they contribute to creating an overall whole composition. To be clear, most whole compositions (i.e., Level 1) are PRIMARYLY one mode of discourse. However, the longer the piece of writing is, the more likely other modes of discourse will clearly contribute to the whole.
Let’s now take a closer look at our two inherently interconnected models that help make blended text understandable: 1) The Four Modes of Discourse and 2) The Four Levels or Units of Discourse
The Four Modes of Discourse
1. Expository: Explain and inform in order to help others understand things in the same way you do. Teach them. (Teach)
2. Narrative: Tell what happened. (Tell)
3. Descriptive: Use words to create in the minds of readers, mental images of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and feelings. Use words to make places, things, activities, and people seem real and vivid in the reader’s mind. (Describe)
4. Argument: Provide evidence and give reasons in order to prove claims. (Prove)
In its simplest form, writing comes down to just four verbs: Teach, Tell What Happened, Describe, and Prove. Every sentence we write is designed to contribute to one of those four goals. Truthfully, many sentences will be contributing to several of those goals or possibly all of those goals. Overlap is common in writing classification systems; mutually exclusive is somewhat rare. Still, one Mode of Discourse should jump out as being the PRIMARY Mode of Discourse. And to be clear, this does not mean that an author will not have other goals or objectives. That being said, the Four Modes of Discourse is the simplest unified, comprehensive model that exists.
The Four Modes of Discourse interact on multiple levels. Levels—the term “levels” is the correct academic term to use when creating and discussing outlines. Of course, a hidden outline exists within every piece of writing, and as such, the levels exist within every piece of writing. We must not forget this fact when discussing and analyzing writing. Let’s take a look at the levels in writing.
You can read more about The CCSS Three Text Types and the Four Modes of Discourse here.
The Four Levels or Units of Discourse
Level 1: Whole Composition
Level 2: Paragraph
Level 3: Chunk
Level 4: Sentence
You can read ALL about The Four Levels of Discourse here, and I recommend that you do.
Blended Text and Being an Analytically Observant Reader and Writer
Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.
– Richard Peck – 2001 Newberry Award Winner
You can only learn to be a better writer by actually writing.
– Doris Lessing – 2007 Noble Prize in Literature Winner
We all must all read and write in order to become effective writers. This is no secret. In fact, a variety of terms have been developed over the years to help connect reading and writing: e.g., The Reading-Writing Connection, Read Like a Writer, Close Reading, and Writing from Sources. Recently a new saying has entered the reading-writing lexicon. David Coleman, president of the College Board and one of the lead architects of the CCSS has put it this way: “Read like a detective. Write like an investigative reporter.”
The 4×4 Model (Four Modes x Four Levels) provides a fantastic foundation for truly seeing what is going on in a piece of writing. The 4×4 Model is simple, universal, and comprehensive in scope. A Close Reader should consider how these four activities interact throughout a piece of writing and on what levels: Teaching, Telling What Happened, Describing, and Proving. Needless to say, this 4×4 examination should include students’ own writing.
If one is willing to Read Closely and analyze a piece of writing down at the sentence level, it becomes clear that all writing is blended text. In fact, the CCSSS only requires that students write descriptive sentences i.e., descriptive details. And clearly, we can add adjectives and adverbs to any sentence in order to add a descriptive element to it. In addition, when the CCSS uses these terms “descriptions of actions” and “narrative descriptions,” the CCSS is showing that pieces of writing can actually be a number of different modes of discourse all at the same time.
There is nothing new in the CCSS Three Text Types or what the CCSS says about blended text. The CCSS simply reflects what people have been saying for centuries:
» Brooks (1905): Such a description is in effect an enlarged definition, and is exposition…
» Brooks (1905): Such general narration is really exposition.
» Scott and Denny (1909): Both description and narrative may be used for expository purposes.
» Scott and Denny (1909): Between exposition and argument it is often hard to distinguish…
» Tanner (1917): Narration and description, frequently argument, contribute a considerable share to the essay.
Now once again, most whole compositions (i.e., Level 1) are PRIMARILY one mode of discourse. In other words, if we step back and look at a whole composition, we should be able to classify the whole thing as being PRIMARILY expository, narrative, descriptive, or argument. At that point, however, we may want to take a closer look and see what it is made up of. How does the writer make points? Explain things? Prove things? Entertain the reader? Create interest? Make confusing concepts clear?
Understanding the Four Modes of Discourse, the Four Levels of Discourse, and blended text helps readers to understand what is going on in a piece of writing. This lets readers effectively analyze exemplars and mentor texts, and in turn, learn from them. Understanding what is going on in a piece of writing is the first step in understanding how it is being done and why it is being done. If students are able to do all this, they will be achieving the goals of the CCSS in reading, in writing, and in connecting reading and writing. Hip-hip hooray!
Blended Text and Overlap is Nothing New: Years 1905 to the CCSS
I’m sure there are many who read the CCSS standards listed below and have their eyes glaze over. “What are they saying? I don’t get it. Why can’t they just say it in simple English?” Well, they are saying pretty much what has been said for the last hundred years.
Read what a variety of composition scholars have put forth since 1905, and by the time you reach 2010 and the CCSS, it will all make sense.
Keep in mind: The goal is never to blend text or to avoid blending text. The point is always to communicate effectively. In order to understand effective communication, we want to be able to answer these questions: How do writers make points? Explain things? Prove things? Entertain their readers? Make confusing concepts clear? Truthfully, most whole compositions are PRIMARILY one mode of discourse. But upon closer inspection, a new world is likely to appear.
YEAR: 1905 – Composition-Rhetoric by Stratton D. Brooks
General Description: If an object is described more for the purpose of giving a clear conception of the class of which it is a type than for the purpose of picturing the object described, we have a general description. Such a description is in effect an enlarged definition, and is exposition rather than description. It is sometimes called scientific description because it is so commonly employed by writers of scientific books.
General Narration: Explanations of a process of manufacture, methods of playing a game, and the like, often take the form of generalized narration. Just as we gain a notion of the appearance of a sod house from a general description, so may we gain a notion of a series of events from a general narration. Such a narration will not tell what someone actually did, but will relate the things that are characteristic of the process or action under discussion whenever it happens. Such general narration is really exposition.
YEAR: 1909 – Paragraph Writing: A Rhetoric for Colleges by Fred Newton Scott and Joseph Villiers Denny
The four main types occur sometimes in the pure form, sometimes commingled. A composition which as a whole is narrative, may contain, and generally does contain, especially if it is long, a great deal of description, more or less exposition, and not infrequently passages of argument. Both description and narrative may be used for expository purposes, and argument, as in a lawyer’s plea for the conviction of a criminal, may be thrown into the form of a story. Between exposition and argument it is often hard to distinguish, for we may not be able to determine until the end of the composition is reached, whether the writer’s purpose was to bring about a change of opinion or merely to expound a principle, or set of facts, the truth of which is taken for granted. It may even happen that what is exposition for one reader is argument for another; Bryce’s American Commonwealth, for example, is for Americans an exposition of self-evident truths, but for many Englishmen it is a more or less convincing argument.
YEAR: 1917 – Essays and Essay-Writing by William M. Turner, M.A.
The essay, though essentially expository in nature, is rarely pure exposition. It usually includes a combination of exposition with one or more of the other forms of discourse. In such familiar essays… the narrative element may seem to predominate; but in essays of this kind it will usually be found that narration really contributes by way of illustration to the essay that is impliedly, at least, expository. Narration and description, frequently argument, contribute a considerable share to the essay.
YEAR: 2010 – The CCSS’s “Definitions of the Standards’ Three Text Types”
Skilled writers many times use a blend of these three text types to accomplish their purposes.
YEAR: 2010 – CCSS English Language Arts Standards » Writing » Grade 9-10
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.9-10.2 : Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.
YEAR: 2010 – CCSS Grades 6-12
Students’ narrative skills continue to grow in these grades. The Standards require that students be able to incorporate narrative elements effectively into arguments and informative/explanatory texts. In history/social studies, students must be able to incorporate narrative accounts into their analyses of individuals or events of historical import. In science and technical subjects, students must be able to write precise enough descriptions of the step-by-step procedures they use in their investigations or technical work that others can replicate them and (possibly) reach the same results.
YEAR: 2012 – CCSS Revised Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3–12
Informational/Explanatory Writing, Narrative Writing, Argument: These forms of writing are not strictly independent; for example, arguments and explanations often include narrative elements, and both informing and arguing rely on using information or evidence drawn from texts.
Let’s Take a Look at a Blended Text Outline
Writing begins with having something to say. We don’t plan to blend text, but we do plan our writing. We prewrite, we plan, and we organize. We also think about what we are trying to communicate and we make choices. Writers answer this question: What is the best way to communicate my message to my audience? Here is one possible answer to that question in outline form. This is just one possible way to communicate an emotionally powerful argument. This essay would most certainly be an example of blended text!
Ten Paragraph Argument-Persuasive Essay Outline
¶ P1 – Introduction
¶ P2 – Narrate a tear jerking situation and events
¶ P3 – Inform using facts and statistics 1
¶ P4 – Inform using facts and statistics 2
¶ P5 – Narrate possible future 1 – a bad future
¶ P6 – Narrate possible future 2 – a good future if changes are made
¶ P7 – Compare and contrast the two possible futures
¶ P8 – Explain necessary steps to take 1 (How-to)
¶ P9 – Explain necessary steps to take 2 (How-to)
¶ P10 – Conclusion
Once again, such an essay can only be created when one fully understands the topic and the audience, along with truly having something to say.
You may also want to check out some blended text in action. The CCSS provide two examples of blended text. You can find them here:
- CCSS Appendix B – p. 132 – Author and Title: Dash, Joan. The Longitude Prize.
- CCSS Appendix C – p. 60 – Title: Fact vs. Fiction and All the Grey Space in Between.
But please keep in mind, if you open up a book of fiction or non-fiction literature and read closely, you will soon find your own examples of blended text. Oh, and by the way, if you teach elementary school writing or teach struggling middle school writers, be sure to check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay on the homepage!