Formulaic Writing

Yesterday, my students read an essay about the very proscriptive Jane Schaffer method of teaching writing. Schaffer advocates a rigid paragraph structure with topic sentence, concrete details, two sentences of commentary, another concrete detail, two more sentences of commentary, and then a concluding sentence. She also asserts that body paragraphs should average about 100 words and that introductions/conclusions should average about 40. Schaffer even includes counting words as part of the revision process. The article my students read tries to be even handed, pointing out some of the benefits of formulaic writing while still critiquing the approach. My students' reaction surprised me.

Although they labeled the approach "extreme," they said they had never seen this sort of formulaic approach used in schools. They seemed unable to see the parallels between Schaffer's approach to writing and the five paragraph essay, which many of them said was the way they were taught to write.

So . . . I backed up. I asked them to tell me what they saw as defining these kinds of approaches. They listed things like thesis statements, topic sentences, etc. When I tried to get them to think of these things as genre conventions specific only to certain kinds of writing, they resisted. One student even said she couldn't imagine any kind of writing that didn't fit that kind of structure--and she asked me to give examples of writing that didn't. I was happy to provide some, making sure to include an argumentative piece of writing that might have a paragraph structured as a comparison/contrast or some other type of organization that didn't fit the evidence/commentary model. Another student asked me what other approach to teaching writing existed (a question that I think she thought would stump me). Keep in mind, that I started this part of my curriculum with a handout that detailed different approaches to writing. And that over the last few weeks, we've been studying genre theory and talking about how teachers can help students learn to make decisions and be strategic when they write.

Although I'm glad that my students feel that their teachers emphasized that the five paragraph essay can be flexible, I'm troubled that they feel that formulaic approaches to writing have a premium on helping students understand structure (which is always related to genre rather than being something that can be reduced into one structure for all essays). Even more troubling is the idea that teachers need to give students a format for their essays, that kids are incapable of learning how to make those decisions themselves.

Realistically, I know that kids need help with writing. I know that many have difficulty generating ideas and figuring out how to put them on paper. In my opinion, the five paragraph essay can be useful for on-demand writing, i.e., timed writes with little time for brainstorming and the generation of ideas. However, I maintain my belief that writing is thinking--and that teachers who provide short cuts to thinking ultimately hinder students' writing development.

So . . . today I'm feeling like a failure as a teacher.

One thought on “Formulaic Writing

  1. admin

    When my friend Jonathan read this post on Facebook, he pointed out that he actually felt like this was a successful class. He's right. I was so lost in not persuading them to see my view that I forgot how paradigm shifts take time. My students were engaged and talkative. They were asking questions about writing instruction and trying to understand how to be a good writing teacher. I just hope they're able to see good writing instruction in action--and that the flexibility they learned in their classes makes its way into their classrooms.

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