Back in ancient Greece, literature was divided into two main categories: tragedy and comedy. Nowadays the list of possible types and genres of literature can seem endless. But it is still possible to narrow down the vast amount of literature available into a few basic groups.
The five genres of literature students should be familiar with are Poetry, Drama, Prose, Nonfiction, and Media—each of which is explained in more detail below. You’ll see some overlap between genres; for example prose is a broader term that includes both drama and non-fiction. At the end of this article we’ll also touch on a couple of narrower but still important literary categories.
This is often considered the oldest form of literature. Before writing was invented, oral stories were commonly put into some sort of poetic form to make them easier to remember and recite. Poetry today is usually written down, but is still sometimes performed.
A lot of people think of rhymes and counting syllables and lines when they think of poetry, and some poems certainly follow strict forms. But other types of poetry are so free-form that they lack any rhymes or common patterns. There are even kinds of poetry that cross genre lines, such as prose poetry. In general, though, a text is a poem when it has some sort of meter or rhythm, and when it focuses on the way the syllables, words, and phrases sound when put together. Poems are heavy in imagery and metaphor, and are often made up of fragments and phrases rather than complete, grammatically correct sentences. And poetry is nearly always written in stanzas and lines, creating a unique look on the page.
Poetry as experienced in the classroom is usually one of three types. There are the shorter, more modern poems, spanning anything from a few lines to a few pages. Often these are collected in books of poems by a single author or by a variety of writers. Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” is one of the most commonly taught poems of this type. Then there are the classical, formulaic poems of Shakespeare’s time, such as the blank verse and the sonnet. And finally there are the ancient, epic poems transcribed from oral stories. These long, complex poems resemble novels, such as Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Once you know what poetry is, it’s easy to define prose. Prose can be defined as any kind of written text that isn’t poetry (which means drama, discussed below, is technically a type of prose). The most typical varieties of prose are novels and short stories, while other types include letters, diaries, journals, and non-fiction (also discussed below). Prose is written in complete sentences and organized in paragraphs. Instead of focusing on sound, which is what poetry does, prose tends to focus on plot and characters.
Prose is the type of literature read most often in English classrooms. Any novel or short story falls into this category, from Jane Eyre to Twilight and from “A Sound of Thunder” to “The Crucible.” Like poetry, prose is broken down into a large number of other sub-genres. Some of these genres revolve around the structure of the text, such as novellas, biographies, and memoirs, and others are based on the subject matter, like romances, fantasies, and mysteries.
Any text meant to be performed rather than read can be considered drama (unless it’s a poem meant to be performed, of course). In layman’s terms, dramas are usually called plays. When written down the bulk of a drama is dialogue, with periodic stage directions such as “he looks away angrily.” Of all the genres of literature discussed in this article, drama is the one given the least time in most classrooms. And often when drama is taught, it’s only read the same way you might read a novel. Since dramas are meant to be acted out in front of an audience, it’s hard to fully appreciate them when looking only at pages of text. Students respond best to dramas, and grasp their mechanics more fully, when exposed to film or theater versions or encouraged to read aloud or act out scenes during class.
The dramas most commonly taught in classrooms are definitely those written by the bard. Shakespeare’s plays are challenging, but rewarding when approached with a little effort and a critical mindset. Popular choices from his repertoire include Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, and Romeo and Juliet, among others. Older Greek plays are also taught fairly often, especially Sophocles’ Antigone. And any good drama unit should include more modern plays for comparison, such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
Poetry and drama both belong to the broader category of fiction—texts that feature events and characters that have been made up. Then there is non-fiction, a vast category that is a type of prose and includes many different sub-genres. Non-fiction can be creative, such as the personal essay, or factual, such as the scientific paper. Sometimes the purpose of non-fiction is to tell a story (hence the autobiography), but most of the time the purpose is to pass on information and educate the reader about certain facts, ideas, and/or issues.
Some genres of non-fiction include histories, textbooks, travel books, newspapers, self-help books, and literary criticism. A full list of non-fiction types would be at least as long as this entire article. But the varieties most often used in the classroom are textbooks, literary criticism, and essays of various sorts. Most of what students practice writing in the classroom is the non-fiction essay, from factual to personal to persuasive. And non-fiction is often used to support and expand students’ understanding of fiction texts—after reading Hamlet students might read critical articles about the play and historical information about the time period and/or the life of Shakespeare.
The newest type of literature that has been defined as a distinct genre is media. This categorization was created to encompass the many new and important kinds of texts in our society today, such as movies and films, websites, commercials, billboards, and radio programs. Any work that doesn’t exist primarily as a written text can probably be considered media, particularly if it relies on recently developed technologies. Media literature can serve a wide variety of purposes—among other things it can educate, entertain, advertise, and/or persuade.
More and more educators are coming to recognize the importance of teaching media in the classroom. Students are likely to be exposed to far more of this type of literature than anything else throughout their lives, so it makes sense to teach them how to be critical and active consumers of media. Internet literacy is a growing field, for example, since the skills required to understand and use online information differ in important ways from the skills required to analyze printed information. Teaching media literacy is also a great way for educators to help students become participants in their own culture, through lessons on creating their own websites or home movies or commercials.
Other Types of Literature
These are far from the only important genres of literature. Here are a few more that are sometimes used in classrooms:
Oral Literature: The oldest type of literature, and the foundation on which culture was built. Now most oral texts have been written down, of course, and are usually taught in the form of epic poems or plays or folk tales.
Folklore/Folk Tales/Fables: A distinction is often made between regular prose and folklore. Most folk tales were originally oral literature, and are short stories meant to pass on a particular lesson or moral. They often have a timeless quality, dealing with common human concerns that are just as relevant to us today, while still being products of a very specific culture and time period.
Graphic Novels and Comic Books: It used to be that most educators saw comic books as the lowest form of literature, not suitable or valuable for children. But times have changed, and many teachers have come to realize that comic books and the more modern graphic novels are both appealing to kids and are a valid form of literature in their own right.
"Literary Genres" by the California Board of Education
"Literary Genre, Mode, and Style" at The Victorian Web
"Helping Children Understand Literary Genres" by Carl B. Smith