You Can Teach Writing

Dump all types of essays.

In my first semester teaching, faced with 20 types of essays to teach, I grouped them by their distinctive structures.

More recently the Common Core State Standards undertook a similar process and also came up with the same three groups based on their distinctive structures:

  • argument
  • narrative
  • informative/explanatory text (abbreviated I/E)

Using that short list instead of the more traditional list of types of essays will simplify your life and your students'.

If you cut your first tooth on a book of essays, you may want to check out why essay format terms don't help students write. One of those unhelpful terms is persuasive essay.  My expository essay continuum shows where all the types of essays fit into the Common Core's three writing types.

Stick to one writing vehicle.

Imagine you are teaching students to drive. Would you give students two weeks of instruction in a Waymo self-driving car, two weeks of instruction in a Caterpillar folk lift, and two more weeks instruction in an Isuzu dump truck and then expect your students to be able to drive an 18-wheeler from New York City to San Francisco the following week?

I don't think so.

Yet we regularly put students in the driver's seat of three different types of nonfiction writing in a six-to-eight week writing unit and expect them to come out with the writing skill to handle anything — an inter-office memo, a 30-page microbiology research paper, or a proposal for marketing a new breakfast cereal — with equal facility.

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When you teach writing, you must teach one type of writing so students are at least competent at using it before you introduce a second type. That's true regardless of what types of writing you wish to teach.

If you're smart, however, you'll pick a writing vehicle that's road worthy but not flashy, a Chevy Spark of writing.

Teach required writing: expository nonfiction that's not presented as a story.

If you're going to teach writing, begin by teaching expository writing.  Everyone must be able to write expository nonfiction that's not presented as a story. In the CCSS scheme, that means informative or explanatory texts  and  arguments

The type of expository nonfiction that's presented as a story is called narrative. People rarely need to write narratives (i.e., nonfiction stories), but they often need to use narration (tell nonfiction stories) within both arguments and I/E texts.

When teaching expository writing, it's simpler and more useful to have students use narration within I/E texts than to attempt to teach students to write narratives.

Argument looks nothing like narrative.

Argument and narrative occupy opposite ends of the expository writing continuum.

Once you know their characteristics, you can identify an argument or a narrative almost at a glance.

Recognize an argument by the presence of refutation.

Triangle represents sharp points of argument.
Argument is a sharp, rigid format.

Argument is the most rigid of the types of nonfiction. An argument can always be recognized by the presence of refutation.

The construction of an argument is formulaic. "Must do" elements restrict the number of ways a writer can organize an argument.

Although arguments follow a formula, they require logic, reasoning, and the ability to anticipate opposing arguments.

Because they require higher level thinking, arguments are not suitable for students who haven't mastered I/E texts that don't require refutation.

Recognize expository narrative by chronological telling.

The changeable form of this cloud represents narrative writing.
Narrative is a fluid format.

Narrative is the least rigid of the types of nonfiction. Narratives look like fictional stories, but each supports a thesis statement with a just one piece of evidence.

Expository narratives don't have a list of "must do" items. Their chronological organization follows the flow of the story.

Just as with fictional stories, one narrative may not look much like another narrative, but they definitely don't look anything like arguments.

The idiosyncratic nature of narrative makes it difficult to teach and difficult for students to learn.

Everything that's neither argument nor narrative is an I/E text.

Other than arguments and narratives, all the rest of the long list of types of essays in traditional English textbooks can be called I/E texts.

I/E texts are the simplest of the three required types of writing to teach and to learn. That's a very good reason to start teaching nonfiction writing by teaching students to write I/E texts.

While planning their I/E texts, students often are required to use specific types of reasoning such as cause-and-effect analysis or analysis by comparison. That aspect of I/E writing makes I/E writing suitable for a host of curriculum-linked topics.

Also, aspects of arguments and narratives bleed into I/E texts, which accounts for that long list of types of essays in old English textbooks. Discussing a cause-and-effect relationship in an I/E text, for example, requires narrating a sequence of events.

Such naturally occurring infusions ease students in moving from I/E texts to more challenging arguments and narratives with no need for you to teach narrative or argument first.

By adjusting their terminology and restricting their focus to the Common Core's three types of expository writing, genuine English teachers can teach all the traditional types of essays without scaring students to death, while the rest of us can go blithely about teaching expository writing without even knowing the essays' names.

What to read next

For those of you who are thrilled to bits never to have to think again about types of essays, move on to instructional strategy 2.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies Start Here. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS 11 Assess for competence. IS12 Be patient.

Content on this page was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2008-04-16 and updated there 2011-12-13 by Linda Aragoni. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 

Curtain rising on stage 1 means page relates to planning writing.

During Stage 1, the planning stage, of the writing process, you decide what kind of writing is to be done.  When you are teaching writing, you make the decision for your students: They will do expository nonfiction writing. It's the easiest type of writing to teach to learn, and has wide applicability.

Visitor comment about Linda Aragoni's way of teaching writing.

I'm a retired high school English teacher now adjuncting at a community college. Linda's advice and teaching tips are the best help I have found for teaching the kind of writing needed to survive college.