writing formulas

Death by TEEL: Are formulas for writing harmful?

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.