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While teaching the five-paragraph essay might be necessary in high school English courses that seem to (unfortunately) run on standardized testing, college writing instructors could use a more realistic approach when teaching writing. Once outside the school setting, five paragraph essays aren’t exactly in high demand. At ISU, our (award-winning) writing program takes a rhetorical genre studies approach to teaching writing in order to better help prepare our students for their future writing responsibilities and interests.

Rather than focus our courses on writing essays and going through grammar drills, our students practice researching various rhetorical genres. While completing writing projects, they also work to articulate what they’ve learned about these genres, how they’ve learned this information, and how they can use these new skills and knowledge in situations outside the classroom. In today’s post, I describe how I teach writing using a theoretical framework that helps my students analyze the texts around them and their own writing experiences. 

Basically, rather than just having students write papers about topics that interest them, we have them research different genres and practice composing them. #ELA Click To Tweet

Teach Writing with “CHAT”

Rather than using traditional rhetorical models when teaching writing in our program, we’ve used the work of Paul Prior as inspiration of what we recently started calling P-CHAT, or pedagogical CHAT. CHAT stands for Cultural Historical Activity Theory. As our program director, Dr. Joyce Walker, states in the first issue of ISU’s Grassroots Writing Research Journal, CHAT “refers to a set of theories about rhetorical activity (how people act and communicate in the world—specifically through the production of all kinds of texts), that help us look at the how/why/what of writing practices” (71). Basically, rather than just having students write papers about topics that interest them, we have them research different genres and practice composing them. Furthermore, they analyze these genres using the seven elements of CHAT: production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization, ecology, and activity. 

Below, I cite a description of each term using ISU’s writing program website. Then, I’ll provide some examples of how these terms can be applied when you teach writing and be used by your students when they analyze writing.

If you’re interested in downloading the two worksheets I’ve made for my students, they are in my resource library.


Production deals with the means through which a text is produced. This includes both tools…and practices.


I’ve had the opportunity to teach writing for four semesters of my PhD experience. At ISU, our writing courses are taught in computer labs rather than in traditional classrooms. Each student has a laptop to work with while in class. As such, I rarely require students to turn in paper copies of anything they write or create. Since my ENG 101 students mostly use digital tools for the projects in my class, this element of CHAT is most often discussed in terms of how laptops vs tablets vs smartphones influence the writing experience. As my students are each creating and writing a blog this semester, we’ve also analyzed the complex tool of WordPress. Currently, they are researching the genre of the infographic, which has helped create a nuanced discussion of writing tools due to it being a multimodal genre.

For this term, have students consider what tools could be used to create the genre they are working on. How can different tools create different results? Why can certain tools be used (or not used) in different writing situations?


Representation highlights issues related to the way that the people who produce a text conceptualize and plan it (how they think about it, how they talk about it), as well as all the activities and materials that help to shape how people do this.


This term can be hard for students to understand, because it is closely tied to a writer’s identity, rhetorical purpose, and writing style. Basically, this term asks students to consider how the writing situation influences how a writer approaches creating a text and how the writer’s personal writing style influences the aesthetic and content of a text. For example, let’s say a student has been assigned the genre of a magazine advertisement. When creating their ad, how well does their personal writing and aesthetic style match the purpose of the ad and its target audience? They might prefer using humor in their writing. Their favorite colors might be pink and orange. But, if they are creating an ad about the dangers of smoking that will be included in an issue of GQ, then using humorous language and pink/orange accent colors likely won’t work for that rhetorical situation.

By having students think about how they want or need to represent themselves and their content via the writing and design choices they make, they can better grasp just how rhetorically-situated writing is and therefore how carefully they should be when making their decisions.

For this term, have students consider how they want their audience to perceive them. Then, have them brainstorm what aesthetic and content choices they need to make in order to leave that impression on their readers.

Having students consider their audience allows students to contextualize their writing in ways they might overlook when just submitting their work to their instructor. #edutwitter Click To Tweet


Distribution involves the consideration of where texts go and who might take them up. It also considers the tools and methods that can be used to distribute text, and how distribution can sometimes move beyond the original purposes intended by the author(s).


When we teach writing, it’s pretty common for the instructor to be the only person who reads a student’s final writing product. Perhaps a peer or two will read their work as part of a peer review activity. But, your students might not care much about what their peers think. If you have students research and write different genres that exist in the world outside the classroom, though, then you can have students consider how their work would or could be distributed if created for a purpose outside of just being assessed and graded. What’s the best way to distribute a certain genre? What’s the best way to distribute their text to a certain audience? Once it’s out in the world, how can it be distributed in unexpected ways? Basically, this term helps students see just how texts can move around and what tools are used to accomplish this distribution. 

For this term, have students consider how the distribution path of their work influences what/how they write. If they are writing something that has a hypothetical target audience outside the classroom, have them consider how they would approach distributing their work to this audience. Or, have them actually distribute the text outside the classroom setting and take notes on the paths this text takes. 


Reception deals with how a text is taken up and used by others. It is not just who will read a text, but takes into account the ways people might use or re-purpose a text (sometimes in ways the author may not have anticipated or intended).


The basic idea behind this term is pretty commonly used in writing courses already. Having students consider their audience allows students to contextualize their writing in ways they might overlook when just submitting their work to their instructor. How readers might respond to your writing and what they might do with your writing are two concepts that should definitely be given attention to in the classroom. In today’s age of constantly posting on the internet, representation and reception are two CHAT terms that can really make apparent to students the potential repercussions of their writing.

For this term, have students consider what type(s) of response they want their audience to have when reading their writing. They can then spend time reviewing and revising their writing to better insure that their reader(s) has/have this response. If they are writing a genre that is often used outside the classroom, have them consider how different types of audience members might respond to the same text differently (and why these diverse responses occur).


Socialization describes the interactions of people and institutions as they produce, distribute and use texts.


I consider this term to be the hardest to explain to students and to get students to discuss in depth in their CHAT analyses. As socialization includes the concept of “institutions” in its description, I make sure to first explain this term. I tend to use the education system, the government, and religions as my go-to examples of this concept. I then provide examples of how genres can be influenced when created or used for different institutional purposes.

Usually, I find the easiest way to explain this concept is by using social media or emails as examples. An art teacher, state senator, and Catholic priest “represent” themselves on social media differently because of their institutional roles. If a student is sending the same basic message to each of these types of people, their writing style or content will change because of their target audience. If they were writing this email to their friend instead, it would look very different from the three other variations.

For this term, have students consider the rhetorical situation of what they are writing. What institutions will they interact with when writing and discussing this text? How does that knowledge affect how they write and what they use to write? How might their writing create change in an institution?

I think this term can be very empowering for students. But, they first need to understand just how powerful institutions are and how they can influence and be influenced by rhetorical genres. “Institutions influence genres and genres influence institutions.” Just this one line takes a while to explain to my students.


Ecology points to what we usually think of as a mere backdrop for our purposeful activities in creating texts: the physical, biological forces that exist beyond the boundaries of any text we are producing.


My students often have trouble seeing the relevance of this term. If they are writing a digital genre, then “physical location doesn’t matter because they can work on it wherever they have a digital device and people can see it wherever they have access to a digital device.” When I get this response, I just point out that there are plenty of places where digital devices aren’t allowed or just aren’t readily available. If they are using the internet to access this genre, I remind them that there are plenty of places that don’t have access to the internet regularly or at all. Or, that weather can affect whether or not the internet is working at certain times.

But, these examples are just a basic aspect of this term. Physical location and environment can influence how people write and read and what genres they can interact with in certain situations. I particularly like to ask my students to consider if they have a favorite place to work on their homework or a specific time of day when they get their best writing done. That, too, is an element of ecology’s influence on writing.

For this term, have students consider what physical locations they write in and how those locations influence their writing experiences. You can also have them research how physical location and environmental factors influence a person’s ability to write or read different genres.


Activity is a term that encompasses the actual practices that people engage in as they create text .


Basically, this term asks students to think through the step-by-step process of creating and responding to a text. What steps do they need to take before they write something? Research, reading, brainstorming, outlining? What steps do they take when writing the text? Drafting, revising, editing, proofreading? What actions occur after a text is created and out in the world? Grading, commenting, sharing, remediating? Furthermore, what actions do students take when writing that they aren’t even consciously aware of as being part of their process?

When I read my students’ descriptions of this element of their writing process, I often ask them a few follow-up questions. Did they ask a friend for advice on what to write about? Describe their project to their mom and ask for her thoughts? Have a roommate proofread their writing before submitting it? Were they inspired to write a piece of content because of something they saw on social media? These actions are often overlooked by my students, but they are a great way to show students how collaborative writing tends to be.

For this term, have students list out their step-by-step writing process. Then, ask them a few leading questions to get them digging deeper into their practices. Finally, discuss how everyone’s processes have similarities and differences and how their writing involves other people at different stages of the process.


Walker, Joyce. “Just CHATting.” Grassroots Writing Research Journal, vol. 1, 2010, 71-80.

Final Thoughts

So, those are the seven elements of CHAT that my writing students and I constantly use when analyzing genres and working on their own writing. Admittedly, many students find this approach either too complex to want to apply once the course ends or just “common sense” and not worth learning or purposely applying when working on writing projects. These two very divergent perspectives speak to just how diversely students respond to writing in general and a required writing course more specifically. I really feel this theory can help students understand how complex writing practices are.

While introducing another theory into a literature course might be a struggle, using it to teach writing can help strengthen student awareness of writing practices and the repercussions of these practices for themselves and their audience. If you were hoping this post would cover writing literary analysis, though, I have another post all about that topic. And if you’d like to know how I approach grading all my assignments, here’s a post about my use of holistic grading.

Comment Below: How do you help your students perceive the complex nature of writing? I’d love to learn about your own approaches!

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Do you teach writing, but hate the 5 paragraph essay? Here's the teaching tool I use when teaching college writing in my first year composition course. #teachwriting #teachcollege #teacher #collegewriting #writingresource #teachingresource #ELA