Strategies for Understanding Various Forms of Writing

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Reading effectively means knowing the genre of literature and using strategies for that writing. Different types of writing such as narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive have specific objectives and require varied reading strategies.

Not All Reading is the Same

You come home from school and look over your homework assignments. For English class, you are supposed to read the first three chapters of a A Tale of Two Cities. For science, you are supposed to read a chapter from your textbook on the parts of a cell. And for history, you are supposed to read a chapter describing the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr's 'I Have a Dream' speech.

You dive into it, reading every word in each assignment but, by the time you get to school the next day, it is all a jumble and you don't remember any of it. What happened? You did the reading!

Well, you may have moved your eyes across all of the words in your assignment, but that doesn't mean you 'read' them successfully. To read effectively, you need to identify the type of writing you are reading and employ specific strategies for each one. In our example, we have four of the most common types of writing: narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive.


Let's start with A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens' novel is a classi that tells a story of fictional characters dealing with the French Revolution. Any form of writing that tells a story is called a narrative.

When reading a narrative, there are specific questions you should be asking yourself:

1) What is the narrative's structure? Simply put, how is the story organized and in what order is told? Does it build toward a climax, like most narratives, or use some other form of story structure? Does it use flashbacks, or otherwise present the information out of order? Who is telling the story?

2) What are the themes? The themes of a narrative are the major ideas within the story presents. For example, in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens deals with themes of sacrifice and redemption.

3) What effect does it create in me? Narratives are often told in order to manufacture some emotional response from the reader. Does the story make you laugh, make you cry, make you excited?


Now let's turn to science. Your science textbook is probably going to be a little more monotonous than A Tale of Two Cities. But, that's okay! It is not trying to tell a good story or make you laugh or cry, instead its purpose is to convey information and explain a topic. This is called expository writing.

Expository writing requires a very different set of questions, though you will notice a few similarities:

1) How is the information organized? Just like with narrative, we are starting with organization and structure. In a chapter on the parts of a cell, how is the information laid out? Is there an introduction with a general overview and then more detailed explanations? Are there subheadings? Are there words in bold? Are there diagrams and pictures? It is good to skim the whole chapter and these organizational devices before diving in.

2) What are the key terms? Because expository writing is introducing you to a topic you might not know a lot about, it will probably use terms that you are not familiar with. This is why science textbooks often put key vocabulary words in bold. Definitely pay attention to them, but don't stop there. If you encounter a non-bolded word you don't know, crack open that dictionary!

3) What are the major and minor details? Unless you are blessed with a photographic memory, you are not going to remember every word in the chapter, so you need to prioritize. What are the most important concepts you need to understand, and which are less important. For example, do you need to know what DNA stands for, or is just knowing what it is sufficient?

Descriptive Writing

Now, it is time for history: you read a chapter in your history text about the 1963 March on Washington. It uses a lot of vivid language to describe the huge crowd, the stifling heat, and the emotion of the speakers and audience. It is like you're there!

Writing that uses detail like this to describe a specific person, place, object, or event is called descriptive writing. It is similar in many ways to expository writing, and you should ask the same questions for expository writing when reading descriptive writing. But here are a few more that are specific to descriptive writing:

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