DISCLAIMER: Engaging in discussions about TEEL can be bad for your health.
If there’s one thing that comes up time and time again when I’m talking to English teachers it’s TEEL. The acronym, which stands for Topic – Evidence – Explanation – Link, is so widespread that you can find it plastered across the walls of primary, secondary, and tertiary level classrooms all over Australia. It’s so widely used that some accept it unquestioningly: it has become ingrained in the teaching of English and is seemingly inextricable from the writing process.
I’ve spoken to English teaching colleagues in the UK and US and am generally met with confusion. In fact, if you Google ‘TEEL UK’ or ‘TEEL US’ you’ll get autocorrect suggestions for British Steel and “Tell Us” but absolutely no advice on how to construct a paragraph. TEEL seems to be a very Australian phenomenon. Like the drop bear, TEEL is a beguiling and slightly confusing idea to a foreigner like myself; unlike the drop bear, many Australians have actually been confronted by TEEL in the wild.
What is TEEL?
For the uninitiated, a brief explanation of TEEL is probably warranted. TEEL is a scaffold or structure for writing paragraphs, often mostly used in the body paragraphs of analytical or persuasive essays. It suggests that the body paragraph has four components:
Topic sentence: Introducing the topic or main argument of the paragraph.
Evidence: Using direct quotes from the text in an analytical response, or providing evidence, using statistics, or quotes in a persuasive piece.
Explanation: An explanation of why the evidence provided backs up the argument.
Link: A savvy little segue into the next topic, or, sometimes, a link back to the main contention of the essay.
Why does it get used in classrooms across Australia?
The simple answer is: expediency. Scaffolds like TEEL (and despite my earlier comments the UK and US have their own versions, ranging from the childishly dodgy ‘PEE’ to a series of ever-more confusing images of triangles) are used because they are a convenient, consistent way to teach essay writing.
The arguments in favour of TEEL include:
- TEEL can help early or unconfident writers get a toehold into essay writing.
- TEEL allows the teacher to teach consistently and fairly.
- TEEL provides clear guidelines and models for consistent essay paragraphs.
- TEEL can be assessed against clear criteria (a descriptor for each of the four elements).
- TEEL is a necessity for high stakes, exam style essay responses.
- TEEL is easy for students to learn, and therefore particularly suited for students with issues accessing the English curriculum.
- TEEL helps students to build confidence.
So should we use TEEL?
Some of the reasons above are perfectly valid. For example, using a scaffold like TEEL to support a struggling student or to build confidence is perfectly acceptable. But there’s a catch: scaffolds are meant to be removed. The sad truth about TEEL is that it persists all the way through to senior secondary school and the tertiary sector, when the training wheels should have been removed much earlier.
Another quick Google (extensive research being used here to bolster my arguments) instantly reveals several prominent universities with pages dedicated to TEEL, including Monash and RMIT. These pages make no reference to TEEL as a starting point, and imply that the structure is the way to write body paragraphs.
What do we do about it?
The push back against TEEL has already started. Many teachers, heads of English, and university lecturers have gotten sick of the same bland, predictable essays that take lesson content and churn it back out in TEEL structure. The responsibility for these essays lies with us, not the students: they’ll write how we teach and model.
I write for several publishers, including Insight and Jacaranda. While working on Jacaranda’s English 8 and Insight’s upcoming update to their Year 11 textbook, both publishers requested sections with alternative approaches to TEEL. The TEEL sections remain, but as a starting point, not an end point. Organisations like the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE) continue to run sessions promoting alternatives to TEEL. I’ve written posts in the past about using quality models and where to look for them, and many of these ideas will feature in my next book, Practical Writing Strategies.
For those of you interested in moving away from TEEL, the help is out there. Hopefully, as the major publishers and English teachers shift away from TEEL, we’ll see a continued improvement in our students’ abilities to express themselves in their own unique and interesting ways.
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