Before coming to Australia I’d never heard of TEEL, but as soon as I stepped into the classroom, I was confronted by this strange and menacing acronym. TEEL – Topic Evidence Explanation Link – is a scaffold for writing essay paragraphs. Of course, if you’re an English teacher, you don’t need me to tell you this. The acronym is pervasive, as omnipresent as Big Brother’s watchful eyes in Orwell’s dystopia, and just as dangerous. OK. Perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic, but it’s certainly true that the acronym – and its neighbours TEEEL (extra E), PEEL (point) and CEEL (claim) – appears to be the mainstay of many an English classroom.
Why? Well, it offers structure, guidance, and a shortcut to paragraph writing. It’s a way of giving students who lack confidence or skill something to pin their ideas to. It’s a support mechanism, and a means of ensuring consistency when you’re trying to teach twenty to thirty individuals how to write an essay. But stop and examine those points. Scaffolds are supposed to be removed. Shortcuts often miss the point. Not all students need extra support, and of those that do, it’s rare that they all need the same support. And as for consistency? Who really wants writing to be consistent anyway?
We want writing to be expressive, fluent, confident – this is even the language of the examination criteria. To me, the word ‘consistency’ suggests Industrial era manufacturing, and TEEL is the perfect vehicle for the mass-production of essays. That the structure has even made its way into university courses (I recently came across it in a university style guide on academic writing) is a disturbing indictment of a system that prioritises consistency over expression, form over content. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We axed TEEL from our curriculum a few years back whilst working with VATE on the Community of Practice. Although the focus of the CoP was exploring reading, the facilitators had a very clear stance towards TEEL. Go to the VATE website and check the Beyond TEEL programs, and you’ll see what I mean. The fact that these lectures, videos, and articles have been so popular with English teachers proves that we’re looking for something more. It didn’t take much to convince the faculty that TEEL was a dead-end. The trick is finding something to replace it with.
A life without TEEL
Remove the scaffolds, and watch as the walls come tumbling down. That’s the fear when getting rid of a structure like TEEL from a curriculum that’s had the supports up for many years. Like removing the training wheels from a bike, there’s a very real concern that the students will wobble and fall over without the structure that TEEL offers. And they will. And that’s good. Part of the problem with TEEL is that it creates the illusion of success – fill in these blanks, and you’ve written a good paragraph. But we know that isn’t the case. It’s far better for students to grapple with framing their ideas and expressing themselves without the limitations of TEEL, even if it means they have to struggle for a bit longer to get a handle on it.
When we removed TEEL from our curriculum, the obvious question was, ‘what do we replace it with?’ The answer is ‘writing.’ We get better at things by doing the thing. With writing, that means there is really no substitute for just sitting down and writing. TEEL isn’t writing. It’s a cloze exercise where, instead of filling in the blanks in an underlined worksheet, you’re filling in the blanks in someone else’s idea of a paragraph. Instead, we teach paragraph structure through modelling, discussion, and writing, writing, writing.
It’s a longer process. It’s a more difficult process, for the teacher and the students. But, despite frequently hearing Year 12s who do Specialist Maths complaining about how hard probability is, I’ve never heard the Spec teacher offering up some magic shortcut. Why should English teachers shy away from the fact that genuinely decent writing is hard work? Why try to mislead students about the fact that writing is a discipline, like maths or science, which requires study, effort, repetition, practice, and perseverance.
It’s tempting to offer structures like TEEL as a shortcut, but, like many shortcuts, it misses the point: It’s not the destination that counts with writing, it’s the journey.
Want to hear more about effective strategies that go beyond TEEL and teach students to really value the writing process? Sign up to the mailing list: