I am going to start a series of blog posts on discursive writing at the secondary level, beginning with this post on the differences between discursive writing and argumentative writing.
I hope that this series of post will benefit secondary school students in Singapore who have a strong interest in penning such essays but lack the technical and/or logical reasoning skills to write a remarkable piece of writing. Please note that discursive essays are at times known as “expository essays”, although I prefer to use the term “discursive”, and will be using this term for this blog.
Discursive and argumentative essays are very different.
For starters, let’s look at the obvious differences and defining signatures of discursive and argumentative essays in typical test and exam questions (Note: please click on the image for an enlarged, clearer version):
To better illustrate the differences between discursive and argumentative essays, let’s take a look at some essay questions:
The ideal goal.
“Life is not fair.” Discuss.
“Kindness begets kindness.” What are your views?
What are your thoughts on introducing ebooks to the young?
What can we do in order to live healthy and fulfilling lives? (Note: This type of questions usually ask for the writers’ solutions and their reasons for such solutions. The other alternative voice would be to live unhealthy and/or unfulfilling lives,which is not logical or moral. Hence, this is a type of discursive question that moves in only one direction. Another example would be “What are the possible solutions to eliminate or reduce haze in Singapore?”)
“Teachers should always trust their students.” Do you agree?
“Teenagers should be closely supervised by their parents.” Do you agree?
Are children from rich families always happier than those from impoverished families?
Is technology definitely beneficial to the young?
(Note: the third and fourth questions above use “absolute terms” such as “always” and “definitely” to compel writers to write only in a specific direction reinforcing a specific stand.And because it needs to be persuasive, these are argumentative questions, and not discursive questions.)
Up till this point, one can observe that discursive and argumentative essays can easily be differentiated with markers such as “discuss”, “what are your views”, “do you agree” etc.
However, sometimes, the questions cannot be differentiated into discursive and argumentative writing that easily.
For example, consider the following questions:
1. Are leaders born or nurtured?
2. Is it necessary to control the media?
3, Are experiences on a job more important than paper qualifications?
4. Is youth an advantage or disadvantage?
5. Is it better to have one long school vacation than to have a few short ones?
For the five questions above, students have the flexibility to write a discursive essay stating both sides of the arguments, or an argumentative essay with strong emphasise on the students’ stand.
As to which is a better choice, it is actually a personal choice of students, assuming that they have the ability to write both types of writing well.
In my next blog post, I will be focusing on the rationale of writing discursive essays.
Author’s background:Patrick Tay is an English Writing Specialist who lectures in various polytechnics in Singapore, and coaches students in English as a private tutor. His professional services can be found here.
Discursive essay example
In this page, you will concentrate on one discursive essay structure.
Below you will find an example discursive essay. Read the essay over carefully. Study it and work out how it has been written.
Reading the essay
Whilst reading the essay, consider the following questions, writing down your ideas -
- what is the main idea the writer is arguing about?
- each paragraph has a sub-topic which contributes to the essay's main topic - what does each paragraph contribute to the argument?
- what evidence does the writer offer to support the arguments?
- which of the three suggested structures identified earlier does the writer adopt in this essay?
- does the writer link ideas clearly in the essay?
- You will probably want to read the essay over twice to help you answer these questions.
1 A subject which always arouses strong feelings on both sides of the argument is the use of animals in medical research. I believe that, though this may have been necessary in the past, other ways can be developed to test drugs and, in the future, animals should not be used.
2 One of my main reasons for saying this is that living tissues can be grown in test tubes and new drugs can be tested on these. Computers can also be programmed to show how medicines will react in the human body.
3 Moreover, animals are not always like humans. They do not suffer from all human diseases, so scientists have to give them the illnesses artificially. The joints in rabbit legs are inflamed with chemicals to help research in rheumatism. These tests do not always work because animals do not react to drugs in the same way as humans. Aspirin, for example, damages pregnant mice and dogs, but not pregnant women. Arsenic, which is a deadly poison for humans, has no effect on sheep, while penicillin, which is so valuable to humans, kills guinea pigs.
4 In addition, I believe that animal experiments should not be used because of the unnecessary pain that they cause to animals. The government introduced new rules about the use of animals in experiments in 1986. Scientists claim that these rules safeguard animals because they state that discomfort must be kept to a minimum and that painkillers must be used where necessary and appropriate. Surely this means, however, that scientists can still decide not to use painkillers in the animal experiments because they do not consider them appropriate. The British Union against Vivisection claims that 75% of animals experimented on are given no anaesthetic.
5 In spite of the claims of some scientists about the effectiveness of animal research, the death rate in this country has stayed the same over the last thirty years. There is also more long-term sickness, even though greater numbers of animals are being used in research.
6 On the other hand, scientists claim that some experiments are so small, for example giving an injection, that painkillers are not needed. They also argue that experiments on animals have been very useful in the past. For instance, the lives of ten million human diabetics have been saved because of experiments with insulin on dogs. Dogs also benefited, as the same drug can be used on them. In fact, a third of medicines used by vets are the same as those used by doctors.
7 It is argued by researchers that the use of animals in experiments cannot be replaced by methods using living tissue which has been grown in test tubes. These tests do not show how the drugs work on whole animals and so they only have limited effectiveness.
8 Although I accept that some drugs can be used on animals and humans, this does not mean that they have to be tested on animals in the first place when alternative methods are available. Alternative methods do work. Various groups have been set up to put money into other ways of researching. For example the Dr. Hadwen Trust has shown how human cartilage can be grown in test tubes to study rheumatism. Similar research is being done into cancer and multiple sclerosis. Tests can be done on bacteria to see whether a chemical will cause cancer. There is even a programme of volunteer human researchers, where people suffering from illnesses offer to help in research.
9 In conclusion, I accept that animal experiments have brought great benefits in the past, but now money needs to be spent on developing other methods of testing drugs and medical procedures, so that the use of animals can be phased out altogether.
After reading the essay
Now that you have read the essay and, hopefully, written down some ideas in response to the questions, look over the following commentson the essay.
The comments are presented as answers to the questions provided. This way you can check your own ideas against them.
What is the main idea the writer is arguing about ?
The writer is trying to argue that it is time to stop us animals for scientific experimentation.
Each paragraph has a sub-topic which contributes to the essay's main topic: what does each paragraph contribute to the argument?
- Paragraph 1 - the writer introduces the argument: experiments on animals should cease.
- Paragraph 2 - tests can now be done using modern technology.
- Paragraph 3 - animals are different: they do not respond to tests as humans do.
- Paragraph 4 - they cause animals too much pain.
- Paragraph 5 - death-rate in UK has remained constant: experiments have not improved things.
- Paragraph 6 - the other side of the argument: animal experiments have been useful.
- Paragraph 7 - secondary argument justifies experiments: test tube tissue research is limited; whole animal testing is still needed.
- Paragraph 8 - author re-states conviction that experiments are not necessary.
- Paragraph 9 - conclusion: new methods needed to replace current animal testing methods.
What evidence does the writer offer to suport the arguments?
- Paragraph 1 - not relevant: introduction.
- Paragraph 2 - use of test tube technology; computers.
- Paragraph 3 - aspirins affect animals badly, but not humans.
- Paragraph 4 - animals given no anaesthetic.
- Paragraph 5 - more long-term sickness, despite greater number of animal experiments.
- Paragraph 6 - alternative arguments: benefits to diabetics, even animals.
- Paragraph 7 - living tissue not as satisfactory as whole animal testing.
- Paragraph 8 - Dr. Hadwen Trust re. human cartilage; research into cancer and multiple sclerosis.
- Paragraph 9 - not relevant: conclusion.
Which of the three suggested structures identified earlier does the writer adopt in this essay?
The writer is trying to argue strongly Against a given idea (i.e. that animal experiments are acceptable).
Does the writer link ideas clearly in the essay?
There is clear evidence of good linkage in the essay:
- 'One of my main reasons...' (para 2)
- 'Moreover...' (para 3) clearly continues argument
- 'In addition...' (para 4) clearly moves argument on
- 'On the other hand...' (para 6) signals clearly that the writer is moving on to arguments the opposing side would offer in support of experiments
- 'In conclusion...' (para 9) clearly indicates argument drawing to a close