Death by TEEL: Are formulas for writing harmful?

By Lucinda McKnight and Narelle Wood

Teachers in Australia currently experience extraordinary pressures to teach to the test. In this post we want to take a closer look at how that pressure is affecting the teaching of writing. 

Tickbox template writing is now sought by external assessors in Australia where the focus is on basic skills and imitation of standardised practices. Teachers don’t want their students to be marked down so they teach these writing formulas. The question of whether formulas really help students may be forgotten. So, we ask, do formulas for writing actually improve writing?

We want specifically to look at the formula for writing paragraphs known as “TEEL” (topic, evidence, elaborate, link back to topic). It is used widely in Australian schools. Our discussion follows the suggestion that students in England are experiencing “Death by PEEL”, with PEEL (point, evidence, elaborate, link) being the preferred acronym there.

About us

We are two teacher educators and education researchers who have had extensive experience teaching English in secondary schools.  We are currently conducting research into secondary English teaching in Australian schools. We have a broad range of anecdotal evidence from years spent de-briefing with pre-service teachers about their placements, and we have an overview of practice, at least in Victoria. This article provides a series of points for consideration in relation to the use of TEEL, to help others evaluate its worth.

The problems with TEEL

  1. The use of formulas for paragraph writing has been critiqued for decades in the English teaching literature. Research has shown that while the scaffolding support provided by these formulas may help students with few prior skills, other students have their writing ability and their intellectual development hampered by having to conform to a narrow and simplistic model.
  2. Taking away decisions about how to structure paragraphs removes opportunities for students to learn how to structure, to experiment, to revise and to innovate.
  3. Experts in English teaching recommend that formulas should only be taught with strategies to move beyond them. Yet this does not seem to be happening, with TEEL paragraphs being an end point in many classrooms.
  4. TEEL paragraphs are boring to write, to read and to assess. In real world writing, paragraphs may have no topic sentence (often just a bland statement), even though they are organised around a single idea. Topic sentences, when they are present, may come anywhere in a paragraph. Links at the end of paragraphs may be to a following paragraph, or other parts of the essay, not back to the topic, which invites redundancy and mere re-wording of the topic sentence.
  5. In teaching TEEL, teachers are reduced to telling students what to do, and students to doing what they are told. This deficit model of students undermines the student-centred classroom, and constructivist understandings of learning that suggest students need to build their own knowledge.
  6. Real, expert, published writers know that formulas do not lead to good writing. George Orwell, for example, laments writing that “consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug”.

Where tickbox template writing is sought by external assessors, teachers will not want to disadvantage their students. Yet tedious TEEL writing, while mandated to fit the narrow requirements of assessment regimes such as NAPLAN, may disadvantage students in senior English exams, in which fresh, lively and authentic responses to texts are valued.

A recent review of NAPLAN found too much emphasis on paragraphing at the expense of thinking, and that formulas for writing are restrictive, serving only to allow for fast marking. The Victorian Department of Education and Training’s interim review at the end of 2019, found NAPLAN leads to “formulaic pieces that reflect student attempts to reproduce rehearsed writing prescriptions”.

The TEEL epidemic reveals how dislocated school writing has become from actual good writing. That it feels heretic to make claims such as “topic sentences can go anywhere in paragraphs” shows how constrained and cheapened school writing has become. Flawed implementation of “literacy across the curriculum” means that TEEL paragraphs are even compulsory in other subjects, such as History and Science too. In one school, every paragraph written, including by the administrative staff, must conform to TEEL. Student work is assessed on whether it fits TEEL, not whether the student has anything meaningful or powerful to say.

There’s a better way

We need to raise our expectations of students and free teachers to use TEEL if and when they consider it necessary, not as a straitjacket to make all writing the same. Writing in the real world is judged on whether it works to influence an audience, not whether it complies with TEEL. TEEL is an artificial and glib template to insist on for the development of ideas through writing.

If your child is finding school writing boring, frustrating or demoralising, you may be interested to ask what role TEEL has to play. In current high stakes environments, in which tests such as NAPLAN have the power to distort and demean curriculum, the TEEL epidemic is doing untold damage to children’s capacity to express themselves. With a broad review of NAPLAN calling for submissions by Friday 20 March 2020, now is the time to voice your concern.

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a former secondary school English teacher who is now a pre-service teacher educator and senior lecturer in pedagogy and curriculum at Deakin University, Melbourne. She has a PhD in English teaching and lectures in English method to future English teachers. Lucinda is a widely published expert writer currently researching the teaching of English in Australian secondary schools. Lucinda can be found on Twitter @LucindaMcKnigh8

Narelle Wood is a former secondary school English teacher who is completing a PhD in English teaching. She is now an academic at the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, Melbourne, tutoring students in English method. She is currently researching the teaching of English in Australian schools.

12 thoughts on “Death by TEEL: Are formulas for writing harmful?

  1. Stephanie Wescott says:

    Thank you for this piece, Lucinda and Narelle. TEEL really has become cemented in English pedagogy, and it is very challenging for teachers to express their philosophical opposition to formulaic teaching approaches. As your article illustrates, there must be nuance in how we teach TEEL and how we understand its purposes and value. In my experience, for some students, TEEL can be difference between constructing an essay and staring at a blank page, for others, it is constraining and creatively limiting. As you have written, marking identically-structured essays can be incredibly dull for the teacher, and in some faculties adhering to structure is a core component of the marking experience. I hope this piece is shared widely among our English teaching colleagues so that we can begin a productive and necessary conversation.

  2. Thanks Stephanie. That’s exactly what we hoped for this article: that it would create debate amongst English teachers, in their professional communities of practice, about how TEEL can best be used to support the teaching of writing. This is in contrast to it being imposed as compulsory by testing regimes. We’ve had some examples of pre-service teachers having had to write even creative pieces at school using TEEL for every paragraph! Yikes!

    We hope all readers will understand that we are not arguing for TEEL to be thrown out, but for teachers to have the freedom to use their professional judgement about when and how to use it.

  3. Stewart says:

    A timely reminder – ta! I’d add a couple of things. First of all, that TEEL has problems for less able students as well. Most of us work naturally from simpler ideas to more complex ones – TEEL requires the complex idea in the opening sentence.
    Secondly, I’d add that I still use them – they’re ubiquitous. and used well, they can help students learn about alternative ways of structuring paragraphs. But I stress that they are a step on the way towards effective writing.
    Thirdly, I’ll agree with Stephanie. At HSC marking, teachers need to know that not everyone writes to their favourite formula!
    A necessary conversation. sharing it now.

  4. Lucinda McKnight says:

    Hi Stewart

    Thanks so much for reading and sharing the post! I reckon most English teachers probably use TEEL… if necessary. Having it as the end-goal is something else though. I totally agree with you re problems for less able students- I hadn’t thought about it your way (great point re complexity), but here is lots in the research literature about diverse students being limited by low expectations (ie. “TEEL is all you’re capable of”).

    BTW, my daughter was taught a formula that her opening topic sentence had to refer to each of the three body paragraphs’ topic sentences. How’s that for complexity! Yikes!

  5. Kelly Carabott says:

    Thank you Lucinda and Narelle, you have illustrated the challenges that exist when rigid writing formulas are used exclusively. While TEEL can be one-way to scaffold students writing, it is only a scaffold and one that should be removed after writers become more confident. In my experience, the overreliance on this framework can, in fact, hinder and disadvantage writers. If we look at the paragraph structure of many great writers, they do not follow a TEEL approach. Instead of focusing primarily on TEEL, students need to discuss and explore many different writing styles. A wealth of written texts can be used as mentor texts for students to gain insights into a writers craft through the analysis and deconstruction of different types of paragraphs. Writing is an art and putting such tight boundaries around what is considered the ‘right way’ to do it is, in fact, doing a disservice to our students. Where is the pleasure? Where is the expression of ideas? Where is the nurturing of the craft of writing if all we focus on is TEEL?

  6. Lucinda McKnight says:

    Hi Kelly

    Thanks so much for reading and responding to our post. I love how you talk about students discussing different writing styles and options. This is what rigid use of TEEL shuts down: the learning that comes with an evaluative approach to different models or examples. High stakes and pressurised environments, though, make it hard for teachers and students to resist the apparent solutions that formulas offer. “Where is the pleasure?” is such an important question, too. Perhaps we need to consider TEEL as significant in the disengagement with school at the middle years?

  7. Timothy Mannix says:

    Hi Lucinda and Narelle,

    Yes, I agree with Stephanie, it certainly can assist students to gain confidence, but can also pen others in. Whilst I do teach TEEL (or a variant of it anyway) I always preface this with the fact that it is a basic structure that confident students can change and adapt to their needs. This is particularly relevant for teaching Literature where formulaic responses are ineffective.

    On the other hand, I have found it entrenched in assessment rubrics and in teaching practices, often I have found suggesting a move away from TEEL is met with angst and sometimes disbelief. This is the attitude that I have found most troubling. Are we killing the teaching of analytical writing when we lean too heavily on formulae?

  8. Lucinda McKnight says:

    Hi Tim

    Thanks so much for reading and responding. Very interested to hear about the angst and disbelief. Makes me wonder whether English is becoming removed from actual writing in the world beyond school, and wedded instead to what is demanded in reductive rubrics. Yet I know the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English has run a very popular series of workshops called “Beyond TEEL”. There’s a hunger out there to move beyond it. Hope you might be able to use the post for faculty discussion.

  9. Michelle says:

    It’s easy to teach a formula when the curriculum is so packed. I also find that some students like to follow the TEEL structure because it’s easy for them to see if they’ve been successful, and they don’t like to fail. When we start playing around with structure and take away the scaffold, they are more likely to make mistakes. I think an important point is changing the culture of schools and attitude of students- that it’s okay to fail. I dont think we always have the time at school to provide enough opportunities for students to learn through failing.
    I try to encourage my students to use TEEL as a checklist rather than the structure of their paragraph.

  10. Hi Michelle

    Thanks so much for reading and responding to our post.

    I think that is a really important point that you make about failing, and learning through failing. We also need to learn through experimenting- trying things one way, and then another, and evaluating the differences. Wordprocessing makes that so easy, to play around with language. And yet, as you say, the high stakes, time-pressured, exam-focused environment makes teachers and students anxious to get things right the first time, and potentially reliant on formulas.

    Interesting to hear about your checklist approach. I’d love to hear from other teachers how they use TEEL.

  11. Alice Elwell says:

    Thank you, Lucinda and Narelle, for writing about an issue that many English teachers face. While I agree that TEEL can be a useful scaffold, I see how it can constrain and restrict writing into contrived and lifeless responses. It can often be an issue for students who are at that B-level because they are trying so hard and want to reach those upper levels but they end up writing really formulaic responses that lack the unique voice of A-level responses. Students can often feel almost betrayed – “But Miss, you said I should follow TEEL and I’ve done that, so what’s the problem?” The problem is, of course, that rather than teaching how thinking and writing are entangled, we focus our attention on conforming to a structure. I shared your article with a colleague who remarked that TEEL can often mean “writing by numbers” and I agree. Let’s focus on developing our thinking, our clarity of purpose and our enjoyment of language. The structure will fall into place. Also – I’d be willing to bet that none of our comments on this article rigidly conform to TEEL!

  12. Peter Edman says:

    You raise valid points. As a former senior English teacher who’s worked in different educational settings I see the point of teaching it to students as a basic format. I have taken it further with the CAT PEEL TAG format for the whole essay, even colour coding the different sections for beginners (ESL and non-ESL students). I have had students tell me they add an extra E to produce TEEEL/ PEEEL paragraphs! However, they’re struggling with introductions and conclusions, as are some teachers, hence the whole essay format above. I agree that it is important to have a basic learnt structure and also that, once mastered, they need to be shown (and allowed) to break the rules. Teach them how to walk, then show them how to hop, skip and run freely.

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