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Across the Writing Spectrum

“The universe of discourse is broad indeed and ranges from utilitarian and scientific uses of language to the most artful and playful literature. Likewise, it extends from public communication to private self-communication. Students need to learn how to compose and comprehend the spectrum.”

—James Moffett, co-author of Student-Centered Language Arts, K-12

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed features of effective writing instruction. Three features stand out above all of the others:

  1. Students write about topics that truly interest them. (Otherwise, they won’t invest enough “quality time” in their work.)
  2. Students work together in a writers’ workshop in much the same way that artists work together in a studio setting. (Writing becomes infectious—in the good way—when the whole class is writing, researching, and responding.)
  3. Students publish most of their writing. (Writing for practice is just another form of busy work, and a big turn off, for most middle school and high school students.)

In this post, I’d like to add another feature into the mix—having students experiment with different forms of writing. I’m not talking about paragraphs, essays, reports, and stories as such. What I have in mind is much more thoughtful and wide-ranging: a sequence of forms extending from “utilitarian” to “artful” and from private to public. The brainchild of such a sequence, known as his universe of discourse, is educator James Moffett.

Moffett’s sequence covers most types of writing done in our world, and it is arranged, in very general terms, from writing that is immediate and personal to writing that becomes progressively more remote and reflective. Here is a general overview of this sequence as presented in Moffett’s book Active Voices II.

Writing Done in Our World

Taking Down

  • Journals and diaries

Looking Back (Recollection)

  • Personal narratives
  • Phase autobiographies
  • Memoir writing
  • Personal profiles

Looking Into (Investigating)

  • Reporting
  • Family anecdotes
  • Phase biographies
  • Profiles of businesses
  • Research articles

Thinking Up (Imagination)

  • Dreams
  • Jokes
  • Poems
  • Stories
  • Plays

Thinking Over (Reflection)

  • Dialogues of ideas
  • Statements through stories
  • Newspaper writing
    • Reviews
    • Editorials
    • Columns
  • Essays
    • Personal essays
    • Topic essays

Application: You may simply make copies of the sequence for students and encourage them to experiment with a number of these forms, starting with the more personal ones. Or you may specify a specific number of forms from each category that you expect students to attempt. Then again, you may decide to focus a great deal of attention on one or two of the categories. The choice is yours. Just know that the universe of discourse serves as an excellent writing framework that can be applied in many different ways, for many different purposes.

Teacher Support:

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Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.