Formulas for Writing?

After reading my post about the fear some teachers have of writing, one of my best friends told me she was very upset. As a middle school English teacher, she agreed with my notion that many teachers, especially non-English teachers at the secondary level, have a fear of writing. We discussed how the implementation of Common Core State Standards is making all teachers more aware of the role literacy plays in all content areas and that is a big shift.

But it was this line from my original post that upset her:

“Most of us were taught to write using formulaic structures, such as the dreaded five paragraph essay, that have little to no significance in our adult lives.”

She wholeheartedly disagreed with my opinion that the five paragraph essay, or formulaic writing in general, should not be what we teach students. We had a debate and agreed to disagree (so that we could enjoy a peaceful lunch together!). I am still thinking about her words, however, and I’m sure she is still thinking about mine.

My first thought this morning was that I would do a Mentor Text Monday post that pulls out examples of real, nonfiction writing that does not follow the typical hamburger model paragraph. I am going to do that, but not right now!

My next thought was that if my friend, an experienced teacher who is a voracious reader and a strong teacher who cares about kids, feels this way, there are probably many more teachers who feel this way about writing. So not only do we have a community of teachers who may fear writing, but we also have a community of teachers who believe that kids need to learn formulas and structures of writing in order to write.

My third thought went back to this: When, as an adult, do I read or write formulaic texts? I do not read anything like that, because it would bore me and I would put it down! I do not write like that, and haven’t since I was in college. Yes, I was taught the formula of:

  1. Write an introduction in which I tell my reader what I’m going to say in a list with commas
  2. Write body paragraphs, each one telling about one thing I said I was going to say from the list in #1
  3. Write a conclusion that tells the reader what I just told them, listing the items in backwards order from the way I listed them in #1

This formula got me through high school and some of my college writing. This formula was what I taught my students during my first few years of teaching, as so many of us have done. However, once I attended the Columbia University Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Summer Institutes, I was forever a changed reader, writer, and teacher.

Hearing Lucy Calkins herself talk about the power of literacy, of a community of readers and writers, was inspiring. Participating in a week focused on my readerly life followed by a week to develop my writerly life was a life-changing experience. I am forever grateful to my principal who found the funds to support my partner teacher and I in attending these workshops. I realize that not every teacher is afforded this incredible opportunity. But that does not, and should not, mean that the face of writing instruction cannot change.

As I read the ten writing standards outlined by the Common Core State Standards, I see the phrase “multi-paragraph”, but I do not see formula or structure. I see the phrase,       “… appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” in College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard #4.

When I looked up the SAT Scoring Guide for the writing portion of the SAT (this didn’t even exist when I took the SAT MANY years ago!), I found that to receive the highest score possible, a six, a student must do the following:

  • Effectively and insightfully develop a point of view on the issue and demonstrate outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons and other evidence to support its position
  • Is well organized and clearly focused, demonstrating clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas
  • Exhibit skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate and apt vocabulary
  • Demonstrate meaningful variety in sentence structure
  • Is free of most errors in grammar, usage and mechanics

However, the SAT will no longer be using this measure. Some critics say that in such a short time period, students were able to use big words and a simple formula to achieve a high score without writing anything worthwhile. NPR addressed this here. Thank you to my friend and colleague Barb, who shared this tidbit with me and will, hopefully, add her own thoughts on this topic to her blog soon.

To compare, I looked up the ACT Writing scoring guide and found that they have a 12-point rubric in which students are expected to:

  • Express Judgment
  • Focus on a Topic
  • Develop a Position
  • Organize Ideas (in which they do call out an introduction and conclusion)
  • Use Language (to communicate ideas)

Nowhere do I see the idea that a student must follow one particular structure or formula. Nowhere does it outline that a student would be penalized if he or she wrote a one-sentence paragraph, followed by a six-sentence paragraph, followed by some other length paragraph.

What I also don’t see is an acknowledgment of the fact that we write for a purpose.   Writing for a “test” is not an authentic purpose.

Where are we getting the idea that our students cannot be successful in life if we don’t teach them a formula or structure for writing?

When I saw Dr. Tony Wagner speak at the ASCD conference in Los Angeles last month, he discussed how schools are preparing students to be, at best, college students, but not successful adults outside of college. No matter your career choice, the writing we do as adults does not mirror the writing we ask students to do in classrooms all across America. I believe this needs to change.

Writing is a form of communication. Communication is not always simple and neat. It definitely does not always follow a common structure or formula. But when someone is an adept communicator, you know it, you feel it, you sense it, you see it. My hope for our students, and our future, is that we are teaching students to communicate in authentic, purposeful, meaningful ways.

CC licensed photos and the International Olympic Committee. Mike Linksvayer, October 12th, 2009. Weezie's Birthday Ballooning by Richard Giles / CC BY-SA

CC licensed photos and the International Olympic Committee. Mike Linksvayer, October 12th, 2009. Weezie’s Birthday Ballooning by Richard Giles / CC BY-SA

  • What are your thoughts about writing formulas and structures?
  • What type of writing do you do as an adult outside of school?

About Amy's Reflections

Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services in Southern CA, taking time to reflect on leadership and learning
This entry was posted in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Formulas for Writing?

  1. Pauline says:

    Great thoughts regarding writing. I am still on the fence to what direction our middle schools and high schools should go in — as we are beginning to venture towards the new writing demands of the CCSS. We definitely are not working to teach our students to be college students verses preparing them for a career but there are necessary elements in writing that our students must understand to succeed in college and progress to their future careers. This is a big topic and I am excited to see where the world of instruction leads us with our new CCSS and statewide assessments changing.

  2. Pingback: [Mentor Text Monday] Paragraphs | Reflections on Leadership and Learning

  3. Pingback: The Joy of Writing | Reflections on Leadership and Learning

  4. Pingback: [Abecedary of Reflection] Voice | Reflections on Leadership and Learning

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