Hardly a week goes by that I’m not asked about the differences between modes, genres, and formats. I admit, it’s pretty confusing out there when you try to sort it out on your own. Here is how I keep the terms separate in my work–I hope it helps you, too.
Modes are the purposes for writing. Narrative, expository, and persuasive are the three most commonly used terms. Narrative writing tells a story. Expository informs and explains. Persuasive constructs an argument. The purpose of the writing should be clear to the reader, but allow room in your thinking for mixing modes. You could tell a story, for instance, as part of an argument for or against something. Or explain about an idea or item as part of a story. Good writing is not a mode straightjacket–it leaves lots of room for mixing modes but never loses sight of its main purpose.
There are mini-modes, too. Descriptive, is a good example. You can write with the sole purpose of describing something: a beautiful sunset over the ocean in your journal, what the rock looks like where a house key is hidden, and so on. But we rarely do that; we more often use descriptive writing to make narrative, expository, and persuasive writing more effective.
Genres are categories of writing. In fiction: historical, realistic, mystery, humor, folk tales, science fiction, and so on. For nonfiction, visualize the Dewey Decimal System and how it is organized by category: biographies, science and nature essays, physical science, and so on. You wouldn’t go to the bookstore, for instance, and ask for an expository book to plan your next trip to Italy. You’d ask for the travel section to find the category of books and resources about traveling to Italy.
Formats are structures of writing. If you write in the narrative mode, you’d likely write chronologically. If you work in the expository mode you might organize by comparison and contrast, point-by-point analysis, cause and effect, or any number of ways we construct nonfiction writing. Structures have to be modeled and taught so students know which to use to shape the writing. We use a variety of them depending on the purpose for writing.
So far so good, right? As a general rule of thumb, the terms modes and formats live in the writer’s world. The term genre is more reading-related. That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t use genre in the writing classroom. You may want students to write a how-to because you’ve been reading in the how-to genre, for instance. But in truth, a how-to is a category of expository writing–the purpose is to inform and explain. There are many genres within each writing mode.
About the Common Core State Standards. CCSS embraced writing process, the value of short and long term assignments, the reading and writing connections–hallmarks of Traits Writing. There is alignment in concept across the board between the CCSS and the traits, although some of the language changed. When it comes to the modes, there are wording differences in persuasive writing in what they call Text Types and Purposes (I read this as: genres and modes). CCSS uses the term opinion, for the writing of younger students in this mode, and for older writers: argument. Their distinction implies the differing abilities of younger versus older writers in the persuasive mode; younger writers tend to rely on emotional pleas while older writers are capable of using detailed information to build a case. I’d argue that younger writers don’t write as well as older writers in all the modes, that the differences in skill and thinking are part of the maturing process for expository and narrative writing as well, so I’m not sure why only persuasive writing is conceived this way in the CCSS.
Regardless, CCSS uses different terminology to get at the same concept: persuasive writing’s purpose is to construct an argument whether it is based on opinion or on fact or a combination of both.
Here is the G3-5 CCSS #1, under Text Types and Purposes:
1. Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.
a. Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational
structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer’s purpose.
b. Provide logically ordered reasons that are supported by facts and details.
c. Link opinion and reasons using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., consequently, specifically).
d. Provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.
This is precisely what I do in Traits Writing and in all of my writing materials, but, indeed, I call it persuasive to be in line with NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). Here’s the NAEP language: Persuasive writing (persuading the reader)—writers seek to persuade the reader to take action or to bring about change.
It’s hard enough to teach writing without getting all tangled up in shades of meaning. I believe it’s more consistent and straightforward to keep it simple: narrative, expository, and persuasive writing modes. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That goes for the modes, but for the trait descriptions as well. But that’s me, and I’m the Traits Lady, not the Modes Lady.
Bottom line: Kids need to learn the writing skills necessary to write in all the modes. We can argue and fuss about terms, but that’s not helpful to students. Let’s get them writing, and writing well. If you want to read more about modes, genres, and formats, try the middle school Traits of Writing book. It has great scoring guides for modes, sample papers, graphic organizers and all the rest on a CD to give you a handle on how to tackle modes with your students.