"The Language of Coats" by Nancy Sommers

“The Language of Coats” by Nancy Sommers is the essay about teaching writing process. The author begins her essay with the story of her childhood. She starts by telling about her father and his colorful coats that he sold. Sommers’ favorite pastime was “the nighty ritual of the ticket game”. She liked to sort tickets of the sold coats by their size and color. The author was fond of knowing the vocabulary of coats and the language of the store. Every ticket had its soul, its personal meaning and sense. While reading Sommers’ story, one can feel her tremendous excitement when remembering those moments of her childhood. Now, when Sommers is a writing teacher, she narrates about the language of coats, identifying it with the language of writing. She affirms that both her father’s work as a coat’s seller and her work as a writing teacher have their personal languages. The coats had different colors, prices, sizes, and were made of different fabrics, and the writing styles of every person differ in tone, voice, shape, and image. However, the writers are not just the sellers of their writings, they are the designers who create their works and value them for their unique language.

Sommers claims that teaching writing is not easy. She contrasts it with the language of coats, telling that the vocabulary of coats is obvious and reading and writing are complicated processes. However, the author also compares the essay with a coat, telling that it can be “useful, beautiful, made to last”. Sommer’s claim is the following:

That’s a legitimate and necessary question to ask. But reading and critiquing a student essay is not like the vocabulary of coats - although the tickets, those numerical scores, do speak to others. Teaching writing is such all-consuming, challenging, and intimate work because in order to show students how to revise, to reimagine, to do something completely different in the next draft or in the next essay, as opposed to “giving the teacher what she wants,” we need to climb into their heads and they into ours. Teaching writing is entering into the actual space of the work, and into the yardage itself - the basic fabric of the student’s ideas and capacities - and then assisting in the very design and cutting and stitching of that work. It’s learning the language in full, so that communication between teacher and student grows and evolves and is finally made present in the essay itself, so clearly that someone from outside, someone who does not work in the classroom, can see and feel it, and the essay can go out into the world like a new coat, something useful, beautiful, made to last.

The author compares essays with coats; she identifies the profession of a teacher with that of a seller. While a salesperson has to sell his/her products, a teacher has to excite the students’ curiosity in the subject they study. Sommers tries to explain that a teacher has to penetrate into students’ souls and minds to understand their hidden emotions and intentions: “We need to climb into their heads and they into ours”. Thus, she means that it is important to cooperate with each other, not just giving the tasks but inculating in them a taste for writing.

Sommers uses casual diction, which helps to create a readable effect. The connection between diction and issues raised in the essay is symbolic. The author uses some phrases with dual connotation, such as “climb into their heads,” “the essay can go out into the world,” etc.. The meaning of these phrases is metaphorical; however, it is appropriate for this type of essay since using metaphors makes the work more bright and impressive and draws the readers’ attention. Sommers uses emphasizing vocabulary to attract the readers and make them feel inspiration and desire to write something fascinating and impressive. The lexical words “all-consuming,” “challenging,” “intimate,” “beautiful,” and “useful” draw the readers’ attention and strengthen the author’s voice. The passage is connected to the rest of the essay, since it reveals the meaning of the whole essay. It seems to be a major part of it, and it cannot be separated from the essay.

Sommers’ intended audience is her college students, since her major aim is to educate them, to teach them to write, and help them feel and see the world of language inside. However, she appeals to the teachers as well in order to teach them to treat their students properly. It is obvious that Sommers’ approach to a teaching process is different from that of other teachers. It is more fresh and creative, as well as more efficient. Thus, the author’s intention is to persuade her audience that even the essay has its soul, and it is important to notice this soul and show the writer the right way to a successful writing.

The essay is organized in a chronological form. Sommers does not begin the essay with her claim; on the contrary, the beginning is quite intriguing. The readers cannot even imagine that the essay is about writing, since it begins with a story from the author’s life. First, Sommers tells about her childhood and her family. Then, she narrates about her teacher’s career today. However, the order of the essay is not simple but rather with blurring of the traditional boundaries since the author uses flashbacks. When writing about her students and her teaching job, she returns to her past to remind the readers of the language of coats. For example, after providing her claim about a writing process, she goes back to her father and tells the readers that he is retired and their family store is sold. Another instance is that the author is writing about herself and her teacher’s day; she then returns to her father, comparing her experience with his. For example, she writes that her father “sold around 350,000 coats during his forty years at the store,” while she has read “about 3500 student’s drafts, a similarly mind-boggling number”. It seems like the father is an example for imitation for Sommers, and she tries to convey her tender feelings to her father in the essay. Such flashbacks are significant and effective for the article, since they create an effect of persuasiveness without being boring. 

Sommers’ voice and tone are appropriate and effective for the essay of such type. For the persuasive essay, a conversational voice is the best method to convince the readers in something. However, she does not appeal to the readers directly but states her personal thoughts. Her tone is emotional and intimate, persuasive and excited. The essay more closely resembles a personal diary, written with an intention to show it to others. Such essay organization is very efficient, since it inspires with confidence. The sentences are long and intricate. When the author writes about her father, her tone becomes agitated and enthusiastic. For instance, when Sommers remembers her experience of working in her father’s store, she tells that she learned “the ways in which work can feed a family and color a life”. She is not angry that she had to work in her childhood; on the contrary, she is thankful to her father for teaching her the language of coats.

After analyzing the above-mentioned paragraph of Sommers’ essay, the following conclusions about the elements of style can be made. Lexical density of the paragraph is about 40%, which means that it does not contain too much new information. The density of the whole essay is almost the same. This amount of lexical words makes the text readable and understandable. The style is conversational, since the author uses personal pronouns and shortenings and does not use any complicated words. Syntax of the essay is appropriate for the conversational style. The author uses past and present tense, which harmonically fits in the essay. The sentences are balanced, since they are similar in form; they are descriptive: “Teaching writing is […], “reading and critiquing […] is,” “it’s learning”. A balanced structure makes the essay more readable and easy to comprehend. However, some of the sentences are too long (for instance, the last sentence of the chosen passage), and the readers need more time to comprehend their meaning.

Sommers’ argument is significant, since she tries to persuade both teachers and students that writing has colors and shades, and every person can find his/her personal style and fashion. Moreover, she claims that the students should not be compelled to write but they should be taught how to write effectively. The author writes that every student must be treated differently. Some students are afraid of telling something wrong, while others are too self-confident. It means that the first group of students should be encouraged “to take chances, to try on something new,” and the second group has “to be shown the false, commercial side to their choices”. Sommers’ approach to teaching writing is new and effective, since it provides inter-communication and close co-operation of a teacher with students. Such an approach could be very effective in a writing class, since it would allow the students to reveal their writing skills without being afraid to make something wrong.

While reading Sommers claim, another article comes to mind. In his “Making Meaning Clear: The Logic of Revision,” Donald Murray writes about the importance of revision in writing process. He affirms that revision is an integral part of writing, since it helps to find the meaning of the essay, and it cannot be used as a punishment for a bad work. Murray tells, “it is the student, not the teacher, who decides what the writing means”. Thus, his claim is similar to that of Sommers – a teacher must assist a student in his/her writing process but not tell what meaning is right and what is wrong.

In conclusion, “The Language of Coats” by Nancy Sommers is a persuasive and meaningful essay with a strong claim. The claim is that the goal of a teacher is to help students find their personal ways of writing and to not be afraid of making mistakes. Every piece of writing, as well as every new coat, has its language, and it is necessary to make this language different, to fill it with a sense and soul. Thus, a profession of a writing teacher is difficult and creative simultaneously; it requires different approach to every student and cannot apply some standard models of evaluation.

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