Breaking out of TEEL

How to teach essay writing without formulaic structures

I’ve been getting feedback from English teachers across Australia about why we teach writing, and what gets in the way. I’m also busy collecting samples of writing for the second book in the ‘Practical’ series – Practical Writing Strategies. We’ll be including lots of advice on how to teach writing from Years 7-12. The biggest question I get asked by English teachers is without a doubt, “how do I move on from TEEL?”

I’ve written about TEEL before, (and again more recently), and it’s safe to say that I haven’t used the acronym in my own senior classroom now for at least five years. That’s largely because when we use scaffolds and supports it tends to be only in the junior and middle years, and we work hard to remove those structures as the students mature as writers.

Anyone else get a fountain pen license in primary school? Is that still a thing? It should be. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What is an essay?

Let’s start with this quote from The Guardian:

To call an essay unconventional is a bit of a redundancy, in that the essay typically resists convention.

Top 10 Unconventional Essays

Unconventional?! If you were to survey a group of English teachers, particularly senior school teachers, “unconventional” is possibly the exact opposite of what comes to mind when describing essays. The unfortunate truth is that while scaffolds and supports have a place, they have become the end-point for many students, meaning that they never break free from the formula.

That’s why students who get 10/10 at the end of the year are invariably the ones who shine – the confident, capable writers who stand out from the TEEL crowd. The examiners themselves caution us against teaching “formulaic approaches” to essay writing, and yet there seems to be a Catch-22: If you don’t teach TEEL, even knowing that it will only ever get middling results, what do you teach?

The “unconventional essays” in the Guardian article are obviously a far cry from senior English essays. but nonetheless, the flair for language, the confidence in the subjects, and the sheer joy of writing is something we can all learn from.

Essays should be as expressive as any other art work. Individual student voice should shine through – and I defy anyone to say that every student, no matter their literacy skills, does not have a unique voice.

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Alternatives to TEEL

So how do we get students to write “unconventional essays”? It starts by acknowledging that their ideas are the most important part – no matter how fleshed out (or otherwise) they might be. All students have something to say, even if it’s “I haven’t read the book.” We need to meet them where they’re at and bring them to an essay that they can take ownership of and be proud of.

Formulaic writing approaches geared around standardised assessments – and I’m not limiting this to TEEL – are an attempt to short circuit the writing process. They’re a way of taking a student who hasn’t read, engaged with, or understood a book and “giving them something to write”. At best, it’s a kind but misguided gesture. At worst, it’s condescending.

Instead of trying to get students to write complete responses to texts they can’t or won’t access, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Engaging close reading activities that prioritise annotation, the formulation of ideas, and discussion over writing.
  2. Models of writers doing it well, including “unconventional essays”.
  3. Peer instruction, discussions, debates, and a focus on dialogue in the classroom, deliberately taking the pressure off the “final written piece”.
  4. A serious and meaningful drafting and editing process.

I’ll be going into all of these in more detail over the coming days and weeks.

If you’ve got something to say about what gets in the way of teaching writing in secondary school, let me know!

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