For years, English teachers have struggled with essay terminology. Fittingly, the word essay derives from the French verb essayer which roughly means “to try” or “to attempt.” Some teachers have attempted rather precise definitions and limitations of the genre. More recently, state exams have become the tails that wag the dogs in terms of essay classification. In California, for example, the California Standards Test even refers to a multi-paragraph summary as an essay.
Now, we have a different approach to defining the essay. The Common Core State Writing Standards have used a rather utilitarian approach to categorize essays into two classifications: argument and informational/explanatory writing. (The third writing classification, narrative, is acknowledged and brief mention is made of poetry and “other forms.”) The approach used by the English-language Arts committee was to examine the writing assignments of freshman English college professors then define the essay accordingly for the purposes of the Common Core State Writing Standards. The committee used the 2009 ACT national curriculum survey of postsecondary instructors of composition, freshman English, and survey of American literature courses (ACT, Inc., 2009) as reference and found that “write to argue or persuade readers” was virtually tied with “write to convey information” as the most important type of writing needed by incoming college students. Hence the two essay classifications.
Following is an executive summary of the two essay classifications, using the language of the document within my own organizational structure. The full document (Appendix A) is found here.
Arguments are used for many purposes—to change the reader’s point of view, to bring about some action on the reader’s part, or to ask the reader to accept the writer’s explanation or evaluation of a concept, issue, or problem. An argument is a reasoned, logical way of demonstrating that the writer’s position, belief, or conclusion is valid.
Application within Subject Disciplines Grades 6-12
- In English language arts, students make claims about the worth or meaning of a literary work or works. They defend their interpretations or judgments with evidence from the text(s) they are writing about.
- In history/social studies, students analyze evidence from multiple primary and secondary sources to advance a claim that is best supported by the evidence, and they argue for a historically or empirically situated interpretation.
- In science, students make claims in the form of statements or conclusions that answer questions or address problems. Using data in a scientifically acceptable form, students marshal evidence and draw on their understanding of scientific concepts to argue in support of their claims.
Although young children are not able to produce fully developed logical arguments, they develop a variety of methods to extend and elaborate their work by providing examples, offering reasons for their assertions, and explaining cause and effect. These kinds of expository structures are steps on the road to argument. In grades K–5, the term opinion is used to refer to this developing form of argument.
Informational/explanatory writing conveys information accurately. This kind of writing serves one or more closely related purposes: to increase readers’ knowledge of a subject, to help readers better understand a procedure or process, or to provide readers with an enhanced comprehension of a concept. To produce this kind of writing, students draw from what they already know and from primary and secondary sources. With practice, students become better able to develop a controlling idea and a coherent focus on a topic and more skilled at selecting and incorporating relevant examples, facts, and details into their writing. They are also able to use a variety of techniques to convey information, such as naming, defining, describing, or differentiating different types or parts; comparing or contrasting ideas or concepts; and citing an anecdote or a scenario to illustrate a point.
Application within Subject Disciplines Grades K-12
Informational/explanatory writing addresses matters such as the following:
- Types (What are the different types of poetry?)
- Components (What are the parts of a motor?)
- Size, function, or behavior (How big is the United States? What is an X-ray used for? How do penguins find food?)
- How things work (How does the legislative branch of government function?)
- Why things happen (Why do some authors blend genres?).
Informational/explanatory writing includes a wide array of genres, including academic genres such as literary analyses, scientific and historical reports, summaries, and precis writing as well as forms of workplace and functional writing such as instructions, manuals, memos, reports, applications, and resumes. As students advance through the grades, they expand their repertoire of informational/explanatory genres and use them effectively in a variety of disciplines and domains.
Comparing and Contrasting the Essay Classifications
Although information is provided in both arguments and explanations, the two types of writing have different aims.
- Arguments seek to make people believe that something is true or to persuade people to change their beliefs or behavior. Explanations, on the other hand, start with the assumption of truthfulness and answer questions about why or how. Their aim is to make the reader understand rather than to persuade him or her to accept a certain point of view. In short, arguments are used for persuasion and explanations for clarification.
- Like arguments, explanations provide information about causes, contexts, and consequences of processes, phenomena, states of affairs, objects, terminology, and so on. However, in an argument, the writer not only gives information but also presents a case with the “pros” (supporting ideas) and “cons” (opposing ideas) on a debatable issue. Because an argument deals with whether the main claim is true, it demands empirical descriptive evidence, statistics, or definitions for support. When writing an argument, the writer supports his or her claim(s) with sound reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Narrative writing conveys experience, either real or imaginary, and uses time as its deep structure. It can be used for many purposes, such as to inform, instruct, persuade, or entertain. In English language arts, students produce narratives that take the form of creative fictional stories, memoirs, anecdotes, and autobiographies. Over time, they learn to provide visual details of scenes, objects, or people; to depict specific actions for example, movements and gestures).
Creative Writing beyond Narrative
The narrative category does not include all of the possible forms of creative writing, such as many types of poetry. The Standards leave the inclusion and evaluation of other such forms to teacher discretion.
Although much makes sense in the Common Core State Writing Standards in terms of essay classification (I happen to use the same classifications in my Teaching Essay Strategies writing curriculum, teaching four argumentative and four informational/explanatory essays), much of the document assumes things not yet proven. A few examples should suffice.
- Who is to say that college English professors are the experts in defining the essay? The experiences of my three sons at U.C. Berkeley, U.C. San Diego, and San Diego State would prove otherwise. With few exceptions, the writing topics and prompts assigned as papers and exams were uniformly contrived, artificial, and downright incoherent for both assignments and exams, leaving my sons, me, and my English high school and middle school colleagues shaking our collective heads. Basing the K-12 writing standards on how and what college professors teach may be a shaky foundation.
- Who is to say whether the personal essay, narratives, and poetry are less important than argument and informational/explanatory writing?
- Other forms of writing may be more developmentally appropriate at different grade levels and may actually serve as effective scaffolds to the two essay classifications.
- Application of the these essay classifications may work fine within the social sciences; however, our science colleagues may find these forms constraining, and perhaps out of sync with their rigid scientific methodologies.
Find essay strategy worksheets, on-demand writing fluencies, sentence revision and rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in the comprehensive writing curriculum, Teaching Essay Strategies, at www.penningtonpublishing.com.