Lightbulb #2 – Death to the Formula!

This, controversially, has been my battlecry for the past few months: I’ve been waging war against PEE. It started as a quiet revolution where I would no longer ask my students to write a ‘PEE’ or, as they are termed at the school where I work, a ‘PQA’. Next, I engaged in a more front-line assault with some sentence starters up in my classroom with phrases such as ‘Although we might think that…’ or ‘It is easy to assume that…’ in the hope that it would prompt more independent writing styles. After that, a direct attack: a lesson with Year 10 where I explicitly told them to not talk about PQA. Finally, a major offensive in the form of a four lesson mini scheme of work with Year 11, trying to give them an alternative way to think about essay writing. It worked, to a limited extent: there’s nothing quite like reverse-brainwashing, and it seems many of the requirements of the GCSE examination (timed essays being one) set restrictions on creativity in essay writing.

This sounds all well and good, but why all this effort, particularly when the exam system makes such demands on our students that we have to give them formulae to scaffold the tasks? Let me explain.

I like the website Grammarly a lot – many of its blogs are perfect ammunition for a punctuation pedant like myself. However, a couple of days ago, Grammarly posted this blog and shared it on Facebook: Tips for Writing a Perfect 5-Paragraph Essay. This is the US equivalent of PEE – a formula which originally began as a scaffold for weaker writers which has now become more of an end in itself – no longer a stepping stone to higher-level writing, but the destination. And this is where the problem lies, both with 5-P and PEE. The formats themselves are fine as support structures: they’re clear, simple, and easy to follow, and great for helping students who find the extremely demanding task of essay-writing difficult. But, they seem to restrict, bore and demotivate more able writers who simply don’t need that kind of support.

All writing is about communication, and yes, all forms of writing have generic conventions which need to be followed in order to support that communication. But very few conventions take this down to the micro level of how many paragraphs or how many of what type of sentence should be used. It is telling, in fact, that the Grammarly blog takes eight paragraphs to discuss how to write a ‘perfect’ five-paragraph essay. Something is clearly wrong here and the same is true of PEE. Yes, many paragraphs have a topic sentence, but is that always the first sentence? Or even the second? Is it possible to write an effective paragraph without a topic sentence? Does the analysis have to come after the quotation or could the two be blended together, perhaps with more than one illustrative example?

The inherent problem with these formulae is that they preclude individual thought and expression from the process of writing. And this is fundamentally wrong because, as it has been argued:

‘thought is not merely expressed in words – it comes into existence through words’

(Corden, R. (2000) Literacy and Learning Through Talk. Buckingham: Open University Press.)

In essence, this means that our thought is clarified by the writing process, and I’m sure that this is something that we have all experienced – that wonderful moment when new thoughts or ideas are reached during writing, which challenge what we thought we were writing about. How on earth can this sense of writing as an organic, highly personal process be developed if students are trying desperately to make this fit into a pattern? Surely this will actually make writing harder! No professional or academic writer would even begin to suggest that writing ‘PEE’ paragraphs is the way to present their ideas, and it is clearly not the defining feature of the genre.

What I propose here is a new approach to teaching essay-writing, which is based on the idea that all writing is a) communication and b) defined by the conventions of the genre. I propose that we illustrate to students the following:

  • Essays are a genre of writing just as a newspaper article or a formal letter is.
  • The genre dictates that you need an introduction, a conclusion, formal Standard English, the present tense, and a sense of developing argument indicated through paragraphs.
  • These are the only rules and all rules can be bent or broken if you know why you’re doing it.
  • Within the confines of the question, write what you want to write about, and with passion.
  • You have a reader, who wants to know what you want to say.
  • Essays deserve the same level of careful word, sentence and paragraph-level crafting as a poem or short story.

Although I found that my Year 11 combatants found it a rather relentless battle against five years of brainwashing – not helped by the examination requirement of writing an essay on an unseen poem in 30 minutes – there were key differences in the way they approached their writing as a result of this tactic. They told me they enjoyed approaching essays this way, that they were proud of individual paragraphs which they felt they had crafted particularly well, that they felt passionate and engaged by what they were saying, and that they felt there was a point to writing. While it did feel like an uphill struggle, and one I certainly would not have tackled with a less willing or less able class, I firmly believe the time has come to take up arms against formulaic writing.

So, will you join the fight?


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