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Effectively Teaching the Four Genres of Writing to Students

Effectively Teaching the Four Genres of Writing to Students

The content of this post has been lightly adapted from A Guide to the Writing Workshop, 3–5, a component of the Units of Study in Writing, 3–5 sets.

To teach writing well, it is important to know about qualities of different genres of writing. In this post, I’ll describe what I consider to be the most important things to know about each of the four major kinds of writing your students will be called to write, knowing that within each of these kinds of writing, there are many different forms or versions. To support students in the kinds of writing that are expected by standards and high-stakes assessments, let me overview the four genres of narrative, information, argument, and literary essay writing.

1) Narrative Writing

It is important for young people—actually, for all of us—to be able to return to moments of our lives to understand those moments and ourselves better. And it is important to be able to share the stories of our lives. 

Across the Units of Study in Writing, teachers and students are often channeled to begin the year working on narrative writing. And although the category of narrative writing is a broad one that includes realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and mystery, as well as some poetry and biographies, most of the time you begin by inviting students to craft true stories from their lives. 

During a narrative unit, students may write about the discovery of yet one more dead goldfish, the decision to stand up for a friend who was being bullied, the last goodbye to a childhood home. It is important for us, as their teachers, to remember that if a person chooses to tell any one of those vignettes, there is magic there, and meaning. Flushing that fish down the toilet may be important because the writer still feels as if there should have been a funeral, and wonders what will happen when Grandma dies. Young writers will not always bring out the themes that underlie their stories, but those bigger meanings are in those stories, as are the people and the places and the dramas of that student’s life. 

It’s critically important that you celebrate all the stories that your students tell and share with one another. The stories they tell represent who they are. I hope you see it as a gift when your students share themselves and their lives with you and each other. As you celebrate students’ voices and their unique stories, find ways to especially affirm each and every one of them.

2) Information Writing

Before you can teach students about a kind of writing, you need to clarify for yourself what, exactly, you are hoping they’ll produce. Hattie’s (2023) research has shown us that learners make more rapid progress when they have clear success criteria in mind. Whereas the term “narrative writing” is an established, widely used term, the term “information writing” is more open to discussion. Sometimes educators refer to this kind of writing as explanatory, sometimes as nonfiction, sometimes, expository. Of course, each of those terms means something a little different, so the important thing is that students learn the general characteristics of this broad category, and they learn that it matters who their readers will be, what their purpose is, and what specific expectations need to guide them. In the Units of Study curriculum, we invite students to study published examples of information writing and then go on to write their own nonfiction books, feature articles, research reports, and websites.

Information writing is especially important to me for several reasons. First, it is the kind of writing I engage in all the time. Also, the author of information texts is writing to-teach. All the qualities of good teaching are also qualities of good information writing. Then, too, I think it is really important for people to know they have expertise worth sharing. Just as I want kids to grow up knowing they have stories to tell that the world wants to hear, I want them to grow up knowing that they have expertise to share.

“We are the teaching species,” Erik Erikson (1964) writes. “Human beings need to teach not only for the sake of those who need to be taught but for the fulfillment of our identities and because ideas are kept alive by being shared, truths by being professed.”

In the Units of Study curriculum, third-graders are taught to write about topics they know a lot about. Fifth-graders develop their abilities to write this genre through a unit on journalism. The reason we suggest third-graders write on topics they already know a lot about is that we want their focus to be on the qualities of effective information writing. It is important for students to learn to write texts that have a clear structure, with transitional phrases that guide readers through the text. It is also important that their writing brims with concrete, specific information. None of this is easy, so allowing third-graders to draw from areas in which they have expertise makes it more likely that they can have success with these considerable challenges.

Once students have had experience writing on topics of personal expertise, the Units of Study curriculum builds on that foundation by supporting fourth- and fifth-graders as they produce information writing on research-based topics. At times, these are topics that the whole class is studying. At other points, you’ll invite students to select science and social studies topics, or topics from contemporary events, that they particularly want to research and write about.

3) Argument Writing

Argument writing has become increasingly important over the past decade. It’s critically important to teach students to be responsible voices, engaging in evidence-based and civil arguments. It is also important for students to learn to read and listen to arguments with the sort of knowledge that comes from understanding the genre. People hearing and reading the arguments of others should expect and look for whether the argument takes into account multiple perspectives, and they should expect to weigh the validity of an argument so as to come to a measured judgment. The world needs people who can truly listen to the perspectives of others, who expect credible evidence when claims are made, and who can offer their own well-argued claims.

Instruction in argument writing is very much a part of the standards that guide curriculum development in most states and that guide, also, high-stakes tests. Many states have embraced argument writing in earlier grades, where third-graders are now often called to write arguments with clear reasons and relevant evidence. This is a departure from previous standards where third-graders were asked to write opinion pieces. Then again, according to standards in almost every state, by fifth-grade, students are expected to write argument pieces in which they introduce a topic and state a claim clearly, create an organizational structure to list reasons, connect their claim to those reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section. Those are high expectations, and in many states, high-stakes assessments are based upon them.

Writing arguments can be challenging, and it helps for you to provide a curriculum that allows young people to progress from writing simpler to more complex arguments. There are several ways to make the genre more accessible, including inviting students to write on familiar topics they know well, to write for audiences they know well, and to write a simplified form of the genre. Prior to third grade, students will have written argument books, writing a claim on page one and providing reasons to support that claim, each written on a different page. In grade 3, your students will make big leaps forward, and that progress will continue over the ensuing years.

Third-graders learn to ask, “What problems do I see that need fixing? How can I use writing to make things better?” They write a claim about a way to make their school and eventually the world a better place and then back up that claim with reasons and evidence that will be convincing. In grade 3, students will cycle through this process repeatedly, generating ideas quickly, and then drafting brief speeches across the pages of a booklet before beginning the process again. In grades 4 and 5, you’ll slow down the process, encouraging students to linger in rehearsal for longer before they draft their essays, fast and furiously.

By fifth grade, students’ argument writing begins with research. They mine their own lives for information, and then interview people with firsthand information about their topic. They also read articles and videos. You’ll teach them that as they do this, it is important to learn from people with different perspectives on the topic.

Whereas in third grade, students are apt to begin with a claim and then to gather evidence that supports that claim, by fourth and fifth grade, you’ll have taught writers to collect and study evidence so as to determine what they want to argue, and to think about the reasons or supports that back up their claim.

4) Literary Essay Writing

I recall writing literary essays when I was in high school and college. My teachers assigned all of us to read texts such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and a Shakespearean play, and then we were expected to write literary essays that showed off our command of these texts and of the genre. The trouble was—I didn’t have command of either. The texts were imponderable for me. I could barely make it through them, let alone develop insightful ideas worth sharing. And the genre of literary essays was equally mystifying to me. I kept asking, “What does my teacher want?” and trying to figure out how to please.

My colleagues and I decided that in the Units of Study in Writing, 3–5, we’d provide a coherent cross-grade curriculum in writing literary essays. Our hope is that we can help you to bring students along on a journey toward increasing confidence and proficiency in this genre. So, although in past iterations of Writing Pathways we grouped literary essay writing under the broader umbrella of argument writing, and suggested that you and your students use the Argument Checklist, rubric, and progression to study on-demand writing, set goals, and make revisions, in this new edition of the Units of Study we’ve developed not only a sequence of units but also new literary essay checklists, progressions, rubrics, and accompanying exemplar writing pieces. You’ll find all these in Part II of Writing Pathways as well as in the units themselves.

At every grade level, your students’ work with literary essays will follow their work with argument writing, and the two units build on each other. There are important differences as well as major similarities. For example, in an argument piece, a third-grader is apt to give a few reasons to support the claim. If the student is writing about how people should clean up their trash at the playground, she might include reasons like “Cleaning up your trash helps keep the playground free of pests,” or “When you clean up after yourself, it makes less work for the maintenance workers.” In a literary essay, however, that same third-grader is more likely to support a claim with three instances in the text in which the idea is evident. Therefore, a third-grader’s writing about a character’s trait is apt to point to three times across the story when that trait is evident. Then, too, while the argument writer is apt to draw on different kinds of evidence, including an anecdote and a quote to support the claim, the literary essay writer will probably retell key scenes, adding in descriptive details from the illustrations or direct quotes from the story.

For every kind of writing, it is important that you communicate what successful work in the genre entails. Literary essay writing is probably less familiar to your students than other genres. Just think for a moment about the last time your students probably read some literary essay writing. It was probably in last year’s literary essay unit! And, if you’re working with third-graders, the answer may be that your students have never read literary essays. There are very, very few published collections of literary essays for kids, and literary essays don’t exist as self-contained trade books. Therefore, exemplar texts will be really important in this unit.

Explore the Units of Study in Writing,  Grades K-5

The completely updated Units of Study in Writing for Grades 3–5 provide an even more powerful curriculum for growing confident writers. With a classroom-tested and research-based trajectory to support skill development, discovery, and practice in the craft of writing, teachers and their students are both set up for success. 

Comprehensive units provide clear structure, routines, goals, assessment, professional development, and grab-and-go resources. Diverse mentor texts and newly streamlined print and digital tools aligned to science of reading and writing principles enable educators to provide responsive teaching and support for all students' skill development as they grow their writing craft.

The Reading & Writing Project at Mossflower was created out of the pioneering work that Dr. Lucy Calkins began over forty years ago. Inspired by her research, she developed innovative curricula and methods that transformed the way children learned to write, adapting the collegiate and professional-level “writing workshop” model for elementary-age students. Today, RWP-M remains deeply rooted in this experience, where Dr. Calkins and her team of experienced educators author the Units of Study in Reading, Writing, and Phonics for grades K through 8, and several series of engaging decodable texts. More than authors of curriculum, at its core, the Project is a community of practice, a think tank, and a professional development organization dedicated to working with schools and educators to empower students to become what we have always known them to be: proficient and enthusiastic writers, readers, and thinkers. 

Topics: Units of Study, Engagement, Essay, Literacy Instruction, Skills, Teaching Argument Writing, Writing, Writing Instruction, Writing Workshop, Foundations, Growth, Identity, Literacy, Primary Grades, Student Engagement, Student Support, Support Growth, Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Teaching Writing, Mossflower, Genre

Date Published: 04/02/24

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