Teaching for Good Composition Writing


One other note: there is very, very, very little “well written academic writing” that is not so technical as to be opaque for an 8th grader, or, honestly, many high school students. It just doesn’t exist. Expository writing, yes. Plenty of examples. But “real” academic-style research is just impossible. I mean, an 11th grader can read and discuss Huck Finn perfectly well. And they can read an popular essay about Huck Finn–like Toni Morrison’s piece–fairly well. But when you pull out something like “Juxtapositions of Competing Paradigms of Masculinity in Huck Finn”, they fall apart, and it’s not just the vocabulary. Academic writing–good academic writing–is posts on a really slow moving message board. It assumes an academic audience who is familiar with huge swathes of the debate already, and entire schools of thought, avenues of discussion, etc., are brought up, rebutted, and dismissed in a paragraph. For a person with no context, it’s impossible to figure out–even roughly–what that paragraph is even about. And 90% of the paper is like that.

Kids can “read” academic articles by skimming them, ignoring huge chunks that they don’t understand, and pulling out nuggets of insight and observations that they can use. This is what kids do when they write research papers. They are reading for the content. What they can’t begin to do, by and large, is read for structure and function–read to understand how the article works, how it is constructed, what choices did the writer make, what choices did they reject? And because they cannot really comprehend the paper on a structural level, they can’t learn how to structure their own academic paper from reading “real” academic writing.

It’s like trying to teach people to design one-room school houses by walking them through cathedrals. Yes, there are parallels, and yes, many of the same principles apply, but they tend to be so overwhelmed by the experience that they can’t see them.

When teaching children writing, it’s very important that they have the ability to learn for themselves. Knowing how to do the research is equally important as proper grammar and sentence structure. The last thing you want is for your charges to end up useless and incapable of being able to figure out the simplest and most basic things on their own.

I am a fan of the formula because that is how I was taught, and as 90%of my job involves writing, something must have stuck.

A five paragraph essay teaches:

  1. You have to set your reader up. You can’t just start throw stuff at then out of nowhere. You have to catch their attention, give them any required context, and tell them what the heck you are talking about.
  2. You have to support what you say. Provide evidence, make citations,
    Whatever. Make an argument and back it.
  3. You have to close things up somehow. Pull your thoughts together and tie them to the bigger picture.

That’s it. It’s not a ton to learn, but it’s important and a lot of kids struggle with at least one of them. It doesn’t have to be a 5 paragraph essay to teach these things, but the fractal format of them really drives the point home and makes students very aware that writers make conscious choices about structure, you can plan your essays beforehand, and you can do nifty things with structure.

Anyway, there are other ways to teach this, but the old 5 paragraph essay is far from some fossilized relic designed to turn kids into mechanical writers.

even sven’s already addressed this, but I’ll just add that I definitely remember, from my high school years, that I spent my junior year mastering the five-paragraph essay, not because the teacher insisted on it or heavily promoted it, but because she gave lots of in-class writing assignments that lent themselves to that structure. And then I spent my senior year… well, not unlearning it, exactly, but going beyond or outside that particular structure (which made things more difficult but was a necessary step). And I think this worked well for me.

First, love that cathedral analogy.

Accessible academic writing exists in decent English 101 and 102 textbooks. It’s demonstrably good, though not literary doctoral thesis good. In the wild though, outside of textbooks, you’re correct.

It’s never purely inductive in the sense that there is no guidance. The point, rather, is that telling someone where to put a “topic sentence” or a “thesis” is meaningless if they haven’t cognitively processed the nature of what those could even be. What I described in #17 above is the rhetorical approach you have described, wherein this happens. As for providing a formula for what questions the developing writer should ask herself, however, I think for the most part the most effective way to do that is one-to-one dialog . Sure, we can write up generic heuristic lists of questions, but only a few learners will be able to just take that as a set of instructions and benefit much on their own. The questioning works best, especially with those who struggle with writing, when it’s couched in the content of topic. It can transparently accomplish what Schaffer accomplishes, without being presented in terms of meta-terminology that mostly is only meaningful to someone who has already gotten it anyway. After going through this enough times, the developing writer starts to internalize the rhetorical expectations. (I suppose you could say that is inductive learning.) I would suggest that the effectiveness of your approach does not result from the formula so much as that it’s fundamentally rhetorical.

Well, of course. For whatever level the learner is at you must find good examples of what you expect them to produce–ideally from their peers. This is the challenge for the OP. Obviously you’re not going to have eighth-graders read university level academic writing.

I think reading is important, and though I agree that to teach composition you need to read essays, I think that reading lots, in any genre, anything good is still important for understanding sentence structure, proper punctuation and grammar (real grammar, not made up rules from Strunk&White), learning vocabulary and variation, and so forth.

I am not a fan of the 5-para formula. I think teaching “how to plan and outline a composition” without being super-rigid on structure is a better approach – and may even result more often than not in a 5PE.

But I think the main problem is that students are not expected to write enough. If you are reading and writing every day, you will improve.

I also agree that incessant revision can do more harm than good. 3 drafts max, and that only for a major assignment, seems OK to me.

I don’t think we are really that far apart on this, but to clarify: of course you model applying the questions, the approach, the way of thinking on specific passages. You do this over and over and over again with gradually diminishing levels of guidance and support. My method, though, is to make sure they develop a meta-method for approaching writing in general. I find that kids do not automatically port learned skills. It’s so obvious to an adult that the sorts of things you observed about THIS passage are probably also at work in THAT passage, even though the topics and style are nothing alike. This is not at all obvious to a kid, and if you don’t persistently reinforce that there is an overarching concept here, they leave having understood specific works and able to write about specific works, but not having learned how to read and how to write.

Good upper level math teachers do this all the time. Once you get into pre-cal, where kids are expected to solve problems that are not exact models of what they have seen before, they teach kids how to think about problems: what sort of thing is this? How could it be expressed in a different way? Would it be easier to solve if it were? What I am really being asked?

What they don’t do is focus on the gimmicks, the quirks, the weird traits of this one problem that actually make it easier to solve in a method that wouldn’t usually work because of a coincidence of numbers. I feel like too many strongly inductive writing instructors do this. They focus too tightly on a particular passage and on how it works, and not enough on how good writing works. I think they underestimate how challenging it is for many kids to make the leap from the concrete example in front of them and to abstract out the techniques and skills they can apply to their own writing.

But that’s largely a philosophic debate: in reality it’s a pretty small shift in focus, since everyone talks about both substance and incidence. It’s a matter of 60/40 or 40/60.

The 5 paragraph essay is a good structure, IMO. You’d be pretty foolish to have no introduction. You could possibly get away without a conclusion depending on the final point you make, but usually it’s a good idea. Having a fairly explicit thesis isn’t necessary, but it’s usually better to just let your reader know up front what your point is. It can be frustrating reading an argument when you’re not entirely clear on what exactly they’re arguing for. A really good writer can pull off an implicit argument (or a thesis deferred until the conclusion), but you have to be pretty good at maintaining your reader’s interest to make it work.

3 content paragraphs is arbitrary, but a decent enough length enforcer for a short essay. The general structure of opening with a point, followed by a supporting example followed by an explanation generally works. Either ending a paragraph or starting the following one with a transition (but usually not both) is pretty good. I find most of my academic essays fall into the same sort of style as the 5-paragraph essay naturally.

Some people take it too far. Sometimes you have a couple highly related points that both tie into a single example/citation, and talking about them in concert works. Occasionally a point is complicated enough that you need to dedicate 2 or 3 paragraphs to it (but that’s usually only in long essays). But as a general rule, the flow of a standard 5 paragraph essay is pretty natural.

I’m not quite as sold as the ISO standard structure of the introduction. The “thesis as the last sentence” thing never really worked out for me, and I tend to shake up the structure of the hook (that and the conclusion are usually the hardest parts of the essay for me).

Though I do usually find that my thesis is my most rewritten part. Oftentimes I’ll write a thesis, write the body, change my mind about what my thesis should be based on the evidence and my argument, and then rewrite the thesis and its supporting sentences. Adhering too rigidly to your initial thesis and writing your essay around it tends to lead to grasping at straws and assuming the conclusion, in my experience. It’s really common for me to change my mind about halfway through the essay unless it’s a rare occasion where I already had really strong opinions about the topic. Even then, I’ll usually change the exact assertion to something stronger even if the spirit of my original thesis is the same. I tend to write towards “does my thesis match my argument?” rather than the suggested “does my argument support my thesis?” I’d be terrible to have on a debate team.

One more specific point: the reason why you tell them where to put their topic sentence or their thesis early on is not so they will put it in the “right” place, but so they will stop worrying about it and get on with the essay itself. And you need to be clear about that with kids: this isn’t the “right” way, it’s a functional way, and I want you to do it this way today because the skill we are working on is support."

The absolute worst writing teachers I know spend all this time trying to teach kids how to write engaging, interesting, well-constructed introductions, because they’ve noticed that all the best essays start that way. What I’ve found is that if you space and tools to write interesting essays (and exposure to good introductions), they figure out good introduction writing on their own: it’s a symptom, not a cause, and, as you say, once they understand what an introduction does, they can write one well in their own voice. But before you can understand what an introduction does, you have to understand what an essay does–and to do that, you need to write them. So you tell kids “Intro–bibliographic information, ‘This novel suggests that [theme]’,” or something along those lines. That gets the pencil moving and lets them get into the essay itself. Later, as they develop, introductions just start happening: theses evolve into two sentences, hooks appear. When it starts, you point it out, encourage, polish. But you give the kid something that works to start with so that they can get past that into the essay itself.

I tell my kids that thesis/support is like matching shirt/pants. You start with one and try to match the other, but sometimes when you try on five pairs of pants, you find the perfect pants but they don’t quite match the shirt you started with. So you start changing shirts.

I teach college-level composition and rhetoric, and although I don’t think I can add much to the good advice already given (read a lot and write a lot,) the one thing I wish my students really understood before they got to me is this:

Writing is a process.

Too many of them come to my class after being trained to write the 5-paragraph thesis paper for TAKS (or some other standardized test) that they think an essay is something you plop down in one sitting and then abandon. It’s like pulling teeth to actually get them to brainstorm, prewrite, outline, draft, revise, edit, polish…

Aside from basic grammar, I’d say the best instruction you could give to a student at any level is: Writing is a process.

Two statements I’ve carried from college and passed along every semester:

“A piece of writing is never finished, only abandoned.” -paraphrase of Paul Valery

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” -Justice Brandeis

Desert Dumpster above–and others–are right. The only way to learn how to write is to read–voraciously.

I teach English at the secondary level, and I try to make the connection for students between reading and writing. But by the time I get them, they either are readers and will continue to be, or they are not, and so they’ll almost certainly never be competent writers.

Given that students will read, there are many tricks of the trade that can be learned, practiced, and perfected.

I am seriously cracking up over here reading all y’all railing against the “5 Para” structure…in the 5 Para structure. (Or 3 Para, which is the same thing, but shorter.)

I’ve always been a great creative writer. Our school put on a play I wrote in second grade. I was never in the same English class as my classmates, but was always a grade or two ahead, or working entirely on my own. Poetry was never my thing, but it made my teachers happy. Short stories, no problem. Novels, natch. But what no one ever taught me was GRAMMAR and STRUCTURE. Until high school.

Mr. Marine wasn’t my English teacher. He was my Debate teacher. And he’s the one who taught me the 5 Para and how to structure an argument. “Tell 'em what you’re gonna tell em. Tell 'em. Tell 'em what you told 'em.” “Introduction, Point, support support support, point, support support support, Point, support support support, Summary.” < And that’s it. That’s the sum total of his teaching for an entire semester. The rest was practice. And it made me an incredibly better writer. Do I always follow that format? Absolutely not. But when it’s appropriate, I can, and it’s so easy and clear, it’s a beautiful thing. When I want a raise at work, that’s what my boss wants to hear. What do you want, why should you get it, more why, more why, okay, what did you want again?

For younger writers, what they almost always need is to write more. More details, more examples, more points. Things are so crystal clear in their heads that they don’t grok the need to write it out. So when a kindergartner writes, “My kitty is cute,” they think they’re done. “What does your kitty do that is cute?” “Chase string.” “What else?” “She stretches.” “What does that look like?” “Like when we do yoga in gym class!” NOW we’ve got something to work with! Now this kid really has something to say, something that he can get excited about sharing, some actual perspective on his (tiny) world! But you have to ask over and over for more.

Why does anyone bother replying to the OP when Jinx hasn’t returned to the thread?

Because OP’s begin threads, they don’t own them.

The problem with this is what many kids internalize is “Intro, point, bullshit bullshit bullshit, point, bullshit bullshit bullshit, point, bullshit, bullshit bullshit. Just get blah blah blah down because a paragraph is 9 sentences.”

Very highly structured approaches are lessons in begging the question: Make your point. Re-say it in different words three times. Restate in your original words, with a few pronouns swapped around". Kids with big vocabularies are then “better” writers because they can re-say their same point in a wider variety of ways. But it’s all bullshit, and they know it deep down. Over the years, it blossoms into a contempt for the study of English is general, because they’ve been taught that “success” in English is really about being the best bullshitter.

Now, a good teacher won’t let kids get away with that, but the real trick is making them not need to get away with it by focusing more on what support is, what it does, what it looks like, what it isn’t. That’s what I focus on when I work on developing writers. I may give them a pretty rigid framework just to save time, but that’s almost a detail leading up to what teaching writing is all about.

I never learned

Point. Support. Support. Support.

I was always taught

[Transition] Point. Example. Explanation. [Transition]

Where the example is a citation from an outside source, of if you’re analyzing, the text itself. Sometimes you’ll end up rolling the example into the point, if your point is something like [<Passage> is misleading]. Depends on the essay. Explanation explains how the example relates to the point, and why it supports it. After that’s wrapped up, it will usually tie your point back to how it supports your general argument.

It still works when you’re doing an argumentative essay with no “text” and no direct access to outside sources, but the nature of the “example” tends to be more rhetorical. One of the key words I find myself using in those cases is “consider” to establish a thought experiment.

If you can lay your hands on The Modern Practical Approach to Teaching English by Thomas O. Lund, you’ll find some excellent suggestions.

Mr. Lund was my teacher in middle school. An unforgettably good teacher.

One thing he did that I genuinely loved: He graded all papers with a double grade. First grade for ideas and creativity; second grade for technical execution. Many, many kids who were lousy spellers but natural poets learned that they had something worth saying–and realized that if they’d pay slightly more attention to the mechanics, other people would want to read what they had to say. Mr. Lund would often read these great story/crappy spelling pieces out loud.

Imagine you’ve spent your whole life getting B- on your writing. Now imagine that someone holds up your work as an example of Cool Stuff. Imagine how inspired that kid would be!

The New Oxford Guide to Writing is excellent.