Distinguishing Exposition and Argument in Children's Writing

  • 16 August, 2014
Teacher question:
I am a literacy coordinator. I was wondering how you would respond to a question I was asked recently by a second grade teacher.  "If an opinion is stated in a research [informative/explanatory] paper, does it change the purpose of the paper?" Thanks in advance for your time and your thoughts.
Shanahan response:
Thanks (a lot). That’s the kind of question that they teach you about in speaker’s school. You are to describe it as an “interesting question”—while you stall hoping that a snappy answer will come to you. 
I must admit I was tempted to duck this one. Not because it isn’t a good question, but it reveals the complexity of genre and text organization—and the inadequacy of the clear boundaries we educators tend to claim for them.
Traditionally, we have spoken of narrative, expository/explanatory, and argumentative writing as being distinct. And sometimes they are.
But as this teacher points out, kids (or other writers) don’t always color within the lines. There are definitely hybrids.
For example, Aristotle’s rhetorical distinctions aside, The Illiad is one of the oldest narratives in the history of human culture. It tells a riveting story with plenty of juicy sex, violence, and betrayal (but no car chases). It also has a whole section (the “parade of ships”) that is defiantly expository, rather than narrative. It is a long list, somewhat categorized—elaborating on no plot, whatsoever. 
Does the inclusion of this list shift Homer’s epic from the story drawer to that of exposition? I don’t think so, but it would be unproductive not to notice that it doesn’t exactly match well with our story maps.
Similarly, I sometimes read books like Turing’s Cathedral or The Idea Factory. The first tells the “story” about the invention of the computer and the latter of Bell Labs and its inventions. These works are narrative in the main, but both contain long sections describing how transistors work or how electrons behave. There is so much of that kind of science embedded in the stories that I think it’s a closer call. I could almost flip a coin as to which category those books belong to--though I have no problem telling whether a particular paragraph falls on one side of the fence or the other.
Abraham Lincoln often embedded humorous narratives within his legal and political arguments. He was arguing and the judges and opposing counsels understood that he was--but he definitely rooted stories within his arguments and they illustrated his points and drove his arguments home.
What I’m saying is that a text may be a mix of fish and fowl, but its purpose still must be clear. And if it isn’t, that’s a problem. It is fine to combine forms, but good writing must have a discernible point and the seemingly out of place content ought to amplify the point rather than muffling it.  
Is it okay to insert an opinion or position into an expository piece? Yes, if the opinion doesn’t keep it from being an effective expository piece. 
For example, let’s say I’m writing a scientific essay aimed at explaining the genetic differences between female chimpanzees and female homo sapiens. There would be nothing wrong with me including an aside stating that despite the seemingly trivial genetic differences I still find Marilyn Monroe much more attractive than Koko the Chimp (a la Lewis Thomas, and other great essayists). 
That kind of aside might serve to soften the presentation by relieving the tedium of the technical comparisons, while helping readers to better grasp the idea that even tiny genetic differences can matter. It would still be an expository piece—since it was that in the main, since it had an explanatory purpose, and since my aside didn’t distract from its aim. 
But what if I, as a writer and a sexist pig, allowed my opinion to run wild. What if I wrote about Marilyn’s beautiful eyes and skin and hair and shape… uh hum, well, you get the idea. Then, it might read more like my opinion of MM rather than an explanation of the genetic distinctions among species. If so, it just became an opinion piece.
The real question to ask isn’t whether the aberrant information fits the category, but whether it help the writing to accomplish its purpose? If the opinion made the explanation less clear, then it is a problem (not because it crossed the border, but because it did so ineffectively).


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Distinguishing Exposition and Argument in Children's Writing