5 Steps to a 5: Writing the AP English Essay (2016)

Step 2. Determine Your Readiness

Chapter 3. Review the Basics of Discourse


Summary: Distinguish among the four modes of discourse


Key Ideas

image Understand the term “mode”

image Practice with the individual modes


The Four Modes of Discourse

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

As your writing trainers, we recommend that you begin with the basics. In any physical training program, if your personal trainer told you to do five sets of crunches, and you didn’t have the foggiest idea what a crunch was, you would certainly ask, “What are you talking about?” Your trainer would not only explain what it is, but he or she would also demonstrate this exercise for you to practice. Then, you’d give it a try. Slowly at first, doing only a very few. Once comfortable, you would move on to the next step. This process also holds true with our writing training program.


The first set of basics is for you to become familiar with the four modes of discourse. Think of these activities as “breathing exercises” for AP English writers. Don’t let the professional language throw you. Remember that a mode refers to a method or form used, and discourse is the technical term for conversation. Therefore, a mode of discourse is simply a method a writer uses to have a conversation with a particular reader/audience.

You are already acquainted with the four modes of discourse. They are:

• Exposition—writing that explains or informs

• Narration—writing that tells a story

• Description—writing that appeals to the five senses

• Argument/persuasion—writing that presents a position in hopes that the reader will accept an assertion

So, there you have it, the four modes of discourse: exposition, narration, description, and argument.

As a warm-up exercise, let’s look at four sentences that revolve around the same event. We’re betting you can easily identify the mode of discourse of each statement.

Warm-Up Exercises

Warm-Up 1



That was easy enough, wasn’t it? But, wait a second. Let’s take a closer look at these rather simple sentences. Didn’t each of them contain information, and didn’t each assume that the reader would accept what was stated? Yes, to both questions. If that’s the case, how can you correctly identify each of the sentences as being a specific mode of discourse?

Be aware that most writing experts agree that a writer rarely uses only a single mode of discourse. However, even though more than one mode may be employed, there is a dominant mode that fits the author’s specific purpose. The key word here is purpose—why the author composed each of these sentences. With this in mind, take another look at these four sentences. The primary purpose is what determines the primary mode of discourse. [Want to check your answers? (1) narration, (2) argument, (3) exposition, (4) description.]

Now, using this basic information, complete the following set: identify the dominant mode of discourse of each of the following excerpts. Read each carefully, keeping in mind that every author writes with a purpose. Whether you’re dealing with an entire book or with a single sentence, once you determine what the author’s purpose is in a given context, you know what the dominant mode of discourse is. Remember to ask yourself: What is the author’s purpose?

Warm-Up 2


__________ Gertrude Stein liked to say that America entered the twentieth century ahead of the rest of the world. In 1933, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she put it more strongly—that America actually created the new century.

—R. W. B. Lewis, “Writers at the Century’s Turn,” appearing in The Writing Life

R. W. B. Lewis tells his readers about the thoughts of Gertrude Stein. Therefore, the dominant mode of discourse is exposition (although you might like to argue about what Ms. Stein had to say about America).

__________ My other hangout, strategically located near the front door, was under the porch, behind the blue hydrangeas. I could see the postman’s hairy legs and black socks, the skirts of my mother’s bridge friends, and sometimes hear bits of forbidden conversation. . . .

—Frances Mayes, Bella Tuscany

In this short excerpt, Ms. Mayes attempts to have her readers sense her immediate surroundings and begin to feel her life as a child. This is an example of description.

__________. . . we should not be surprised to find that [certain contemporary historians] have overlooked a tremendous contribution in the distant past that was both Celtic and Catholic, a contribution without which European civilization would have been impossible.

—Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization

Here Thomas Cahill presents a very arguable assertion. You can be sure that there are people who will want to agree, disagree, or qualify his thesis.

__________ I, myself, was having a terrible time reading the paper, so yesterday morning, I went to Birmingham to get my eyes checked, and lo and behold, I had on Wilbur’s glasses and he had on mine. We are getting different colored ones next time.

—Fanny Flagg, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Fanny Flagg relates a brief episode that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Although quite short; that’s narration.

__________ So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled “file and forget,” and I can neither file nor forget.

—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Writing in the first person, Mr. Ellison is telling his reader about why he has to write. Although this excerpt appears in a full-length narrative, the dominant purpose of this selection is exposition.

• As your next warm-up exercise, identify the mode of discourse of each of the following.

Warm-Up 3


__________The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street.

—James Joyce, “Araby”

__________A buoy is nothing but a board four or five feet long, with one end turned up; it is a reversed school-house bench, with one of the supports left and the other removed.

—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

__________It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

—Abraham Lincoln, “Address at the Dedication of Gettysburg Cemetery as a War Memorial”

__________The journey took about a week each way, and each day had my parents both in its grip. Riding behind my father I could see that the road had him by the shoulders, by the hair under his driving cap. It took my mother to make him stop. I inherited this nervous energy in the way I can’t stop writing on a story.

—Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings

__________The law can only do so much in removing the burden of living vigilantly and responsibly, for our own sake and for our children’s. So click off the Internet and go for a brisk walk. You look as though you could use some exercise.

—George F. Will, “Sex, Fat and Responsibility,” Newsweek, July 7, 1997

__________Beside us, on an overstuffed chair, absolutely motionless, was a platinum-blond woman in her forties, wearing a black silk dress and a strand of pearls. Her long legs were crossed; she supported her head on her fist.

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

__________So I was a lucky child too. I played with a set of paper dolls called “The Family of Dolls,” four in number, who came with the factory-assigned names of Dad, Mom, Sis, and Junior. . . . Now I’ve replaced the dolls with a life.

—Barbara Kingsolver, “Stone Soup,” High Tide in Tucson

__________I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

__________Antigua used to have a splendid library, but in The Earthquake (everyone talks about it that way—The Earthquake; we Antiguans, for I am one, have a great sense of things, and the more meaningful the thing, the more meaningless we make it) the library building was damaged.

—Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

__________Partially covering his shaggy blond hair was one of those blue baseball caps with gold braid on the bill and a sailfish patch sewn onto the peak. Covering his eyes and part of his face was a pair of those stupid-looking ’50s-style wrap-around sunglasses.

—Cherokee Paul McDonald, “A View from the Bridge,” Sunshine Magazine

(You can find the answers in Appendix IV.)


You should give yourself time to practice this recognition skill as you read your academic assignments, as you peruse periodicals, and as you read for pure enjoyment. Stop every so often to ask yourself what the author’s purpose is for the entire selection or for a specific portion of it. Then categorize it as exposition, narration, description, or argument. Why not invite a group of your peers to practice with you? As with any skill, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.

If you can recognize the modes of discourse, you should be able to identify them in your own writing. Because we’re only doing basic exercises at this point, try your hand at composing a set of sentences, each of which revolves around the same subject but with a different purpose.

Warm-Up 4: Follow Our Lead


For example: Subject: my love of shoes


• Now, it’s your turn.

My subject is ________________________________________________________________________

Exposition: ________________________________________________________________________




Narration: ________________________________________________________________________





Description: ________________________________________________________________________





Argument: ________________________________________________________________________





If you have any doubt, or if you would like to check your “take” on your samples with the ideas of others, why not invite your peer group to complete this exercise and cross check and discuss them with each other? If you would like to post these samples, you can go to our Web site <www.clearestideas.com> and log them on for comments and identification from other students across the nation.