Teaching the Universe of Discourse

By James Moffett
Curated by Jonathan M. Marine and Paul Rogers

CoverConsidered one of the landmark books in the teaching of language arts, writing, and English Education, James Moffett's (1968) Teaching the Universe of Discourse revolutionized the teaching of English by pushing back against the skill-and-drill dogma of the mid-twentieth century. In the book, Moffett advances a deeply social and student-centered view of language learning in which learners develop through dialectic interaction with one another. In his uniquely accessible and homespun style, Moffett is able to bind the universe of discourse through what he terms the “scales of abstraction,” and in doing so argue for a more authentic form of language learning which distinguishes between symbol systems (such as logic, language, etc.) and empirical subjects (like history, chemistry, etc.). Drawing both on the cutting-edge cognitive science of the era and historically important thinkers like Piaget and Vygotksy, Moffett offers a deeply needed rationale for teaching and learning which remains a source of ongoing theoretical value for teachers of the language arts everywhere. Published in tandem with the more practically focused Student-Centered Language Arts, this book provides the theoretical underpinnings of one of the only fully formed theories of first-language learning ever devised.

Below, we provide a detailed table of contents for the 1983 second edition. We also provide access to the 1968 edition.

Table of Contents

Open the complete 1983 edition | Open the complete 1968 edition

Front Matter

Foreword to 1983 Reissue



Chapter 1. A Structural Curriculum in English

Chapter 2. Kinds and Orders of Discourse

Chapter 3. Drama: What Is Happening

Chapter 4. Narrative: What Happened

Chapter 5. Grammar and the Sentence

Chapter 6. Learning to Write by Writing

Chapter 7. Conclusion

About James Moffett

James Porter Moffett (1929–1996) was a ground-breaking teacher, author, and theorist of language learning who had a profound impact on the fields of English Education, Language Arts, Composition, and Educational Psychology in the mid-to-late 20th century (Warnock). Moffett also had a lasting impact on the National Writing Project (NWP), was influential at the 1966 Dartmouth conference, and figured closely into the history of National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE); speaking at a number of NCTE conferences and events, publishing more than thirty articles across the many NCTE journals, and helping to found the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (Blau). In addition to his core pedagogical contributions, and in particular his paired 1968 publications, Teaching the Universe of Discourse and Student-Centered Language Arts, Moffett's prescience and foresight in advancing holistic assessment, progressive education, the centrality of peer-to-peer interactions, social emotional learning, and multicultural and multilingual curriculum led him to be referred to by many as “the North Star” of language arts education (Durst, 2015; Spalding et al., 2012).

Publication Information: Moffett, James (2022). Teaching the Universe of Discourse, 2nd edition. The WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/landmarks/moffett/universe/ (Originally published in 1982 by Houghton Mifflin)

Publication Date: November 11, 2022

Landmark Publications in Writing Studies

Series Editor: Mike Palmquist, Colorado State University

Acrobat Reader DownloadThis book is available in whole and in part in Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF).

Copyright © 2022 by the Estate of James Porter Moffett. Republished with permission. You may view this book. You may print personal copies of this book. You may link to this page. You may not reproduce this book on another website. For permission to use materials from this book in other publications, please contact Jonathan Marine at jmarine@gmu.edu.