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Writing a la mode

Pen drawing scribblesThere’s been an interesting discussion amongst NCTE members in the Teaching and Learning Forum this week. It began with an inquiry about how to approach the teaching of compare/contrast, division/classification, definition, and cause/effect essays in College English Comp, but it quickly became a lively back and forth about the benefits and drawbacks of “modes as a reason for writing.”

Discussion participants highlighted both the artificial nature of writing for a mode and the value of learning the modes as a way of understanding how written ideas are constructed. One commenter said,   “I agree that we don’t teach students to write for ‘that’ reason (mode), however, we must teach them to write for a reason—in other words, writing always has a purpose, a focus, and they need to learn the purposes that writing accomplishes.” Another added, “The purpose of the essay needs to grow out of the occasion and audience for the piece, not be the starting point.”

I found this discussion fascinating because for the past several years, I worked with teachers to develop middle-school curriculum in a school system that focused entirely on the modes when looking at the writing standards of the Common Core. We never had a deep discussion questioning that approach, but I think it would have been so valuable if we had. I wish we’d built that discussion around a document like the NCTE Beliefs about Students’ Right to Write.

I don’t know that we did harm with the curriculum we developed, but I hope as more teachers adapt it they see it just as a starting place and not an end. As another commentator in the discussion wrote, “Regarding modes, it’s probably a mistake to think our students are beyond the need for such old-fashioned pedagogy. Because we’re in a sudden New Age of information overload, modes have new usefulness in providing curation and clarity.  And, like algebra, modes are not “real life”—but can be good training for it.”


There are great discussions like the one described here happening on the NCTE members-only Teaching and Learning Forum every day. If you want to get in on the conversation become a member today!