Throwing out the PEEL: An Argument-based Approach to Teaching Paragraph Structure

Really, a PEEL pun? Who am I?

I never liked the burger/sandwich metaphor for writing paragraphs. Sure, it looks good on a poster – but when was the last time you ate a burger bun-first, working your way through one layer of ingredients at a time? When has a mouthful of bread given you a useful preview of what the rest of the burger’s going to taste like? The burger model might give students a superficial idea of what their paragraph is supposed to look like, but it doesn’t offer an understanding of how paragraphs are supposed to function.

Superimposed over those burger images is usually some kind of acronym – SEER, SEED, TEAL, TEEPEE, TEXAS, PEE, SEE, SEXY, and PEEL. Most of these acronyms ask for basically the same thing: a topic sentence, an example, an explanation, and some kind of concluding sentence. This is how I was taught to write paragraphs (we used SEER), and it’s how I taught paragraph writing as a classroom teacher (my school preferred SEXY, in the forlorn hope that it would get students’ attention). While the capable writers quickly transcended the formula, it gave the middling writers something to cling to, and the struggling writers something concrete to aim for.

This approach to writing never sat well with me. Yes, structure and scaffolding are very good things. But these templates always felt like a straightjacket to me. How often can you actually say something useful with one example followed by one piece of explanation? Those elements work best when they’re intertwined, guiding the reader from the general to the specific and back again, multiple times, in various permutations. This is a complex process, but I don’t think we make it any easier by forcing students to use formulae that prevent them from expressing their their ideas in useful ways.

This is a post about writing, so of course I’m going to talk about The Writing Revolution. Hochman and Wexler don’t use PEEL – instead, they emphasise topic and concluding sentences to frame and focus a paragraph, with a number of supporting details in the middle. These supporting details can include examples, explanation, elaboration, sub-ideas within the main idea, and so on. It’s a much more flexible format that’s also much more applicable to real-world writing.

I’ve used this approach to paragraph writing for all of 2020, and I’ve had great success with it, but I’ve also had some issues. Freed from the confines of one example, one explanation paragraphs, my students struggle to select and sequence their supporting details. I often find myself reading paragraphs that are a jumble of vaguely-connected ideas, jammed in between the topic and concluding sentences in no particular order. Without the certainty of knowing in advance what kind of sentence goes on each layer of the burger, some of my students had no idea how to put their ideas in a logical order.

Enter transition phrases. These are introduced in the revision chapter of The Writing Revolution, but I find it helpful to have students use them earlier, as they plan their paragraphs, to help them sequence their ideas.

One they have a grasp of the basic topic sentence-supporting details-concluding sentence structure, I give my students a table with lists of transition phrases from the six categories given by Hochman and Wexler: time and sequence, illustration, emphasis, change of direction, cause and effect, and conclusion. I introduce these, not just as cute phrases to jazz up your writing, but as moves you can make as you build your argument. After they’ve written their topic sentence, they can decide how they will structure their support for it – will they list reasons, using time and sequence transitions? Will they introduce an example with an illustration transition? Will they introduce an opposing argument, then flip it around with a change of direction transition? After they’ve made a couple of points, will they draw them together with a cause and effect transition? To practice using these transitions to sequence their ideas, I have students rearrange sentence cards (about the content we’re learning, of course) in the most logical order and put transition phrases in between some of them (it’s important to remind them that they don’t need a transition between every sentence).

This approach gets students thinking about the relationships between their supporting details, and how they ultimately combine to form an argument. It gets them out of the rut of giving a list of disjointed reasons in support of their topic sentence, which ultimately leads to better arguments at the whole essay level, too. In fact, I think that this is one of the key factors that distinguishes a good essay from a poor one in the higher grades and at university. Some students never move beyond “My thesis statement is true because of reason #1, reason #2, and reason #3.” Those who succeed end up with arguments more like this: “Idea #1 is an established fact. Therefore, idea #2. Because of this, idea #3 and, despite objection #1, idea #4. Consequently, my thesis statement is correct.”

It takes more than a table of transition phrases to get students thinking like that, but so far, I’ve found it a pretty good start.