Academic journal article English Journal

Slay the Monster! Replacing Form-First Pedagogy with Effective Writing Instruction

Academic journal article English Journal

Slay the Monster! Replacing Form-First Pedagogy with Effective Writing Instruction

Article excerpt

Formula does not equal form-one is static, the other dynamic.

-Thomas Newkirk, Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts

How many of you," I asked my students, "were taught to write the five-paragraph essay in high school?" Every student in the class raised a hand.

I'm teaching the English Methods class in our credential program, and I knew from entries in my students' Writer's Reader's Notebooks (Rief) that they were struggling with the articles I assigned about the five-paragraph essay. Some were shocked to learn of the long-term instructional damage that focusing on form before attending to the interplay among purpose, audience, and content has on developing writers (Durst; Pirie; Tremmel). Such a formfirst instructional focus is not "scaffolding" as many claim, but a leftover from the current-traditional rhetoric of the mid-nineteenth century. Form-first instruction severely misrepresents composing's complex, messy, recursive nature (Hillocks). This oversimplification by form-first instruction gets in the way of enabling students to develop considerations of audience and purpose that drive authentic content choices and arrangements. Form-first instruction gets in the way of teaching students how to write.

In her wonderful monster cartoon, Sandra Boynton perfectly captures and parodies the fiveparagraph theme, characterizing its parts as having "lots of teeth but no bite" or being "somewhat limp and drawn out." Its development contains "some minor points" that are "mostly bulk." This is a monster in which form dominates, and content is considered only marginally. Indeed, form's imposing dominance makes this monster particularly dangerous and especially difficult to vanquish.

"And how many of you are struggling to accept the advice to not teach the five-paragraph essay?" Again, every student raised a hand. I've seen this response before. I understand students' difficulty changing a belief that is counter to years of explicit instruction in high school, often from teachers they cherished. Many students credit this instruction with teaching them to write. Many credit these teachers with inspiring them to become English teachers. However, as a writer, as a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant since 1980, and as director of a California Writing Project site, I am passionate about helping these apprenticing teachers understand the constraints that teaching predetermined forms impose on writing development.

"Help me understand your confusions," I said. "What are your questions?"

Julian raised his hand. "What I read in the articles made sense. Especially the Brannon article about a 'deficit' model of instruction. But I don't know what to replace the five-paragraph essay with. What do I teach instead? How do I teach paragraphing? And topic sentences?"

I nodded.

Another young woman sat, scowling, her arms crossed tightly across her chest. "What about you, Anahid? I can see you are having trouble with this." I knew her teaching situation was different from that of the others. She had been hired recently to fill in for a teacher who left mid-semester. She was in the trenches and, she confessed to me, a bit overwhelmed.

"I want to believe this," she admitted. "But it runs counter to everything my school and my department are doing. It's against everything they are asking me to do. We are all teaching the fiveparagraph essay to help students get ready for the district benchmark exams and for the Smarter Balanced tests in May."

Those of us working to replace the form-first approach to writing instruction with more authentic teaching face two primary obstacles: undoing traditional beliefs and habits, and offering readily adopted, effective replacements for those habits. Teaching the five-paragraph essay is a deeply entrenched instructional habit, repeated unquestioningly across the nation. Ironically, few teachers notice that the five-paragraph form they require from students has no connection to the rich variety of forms found in their pleasure reading. …

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