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.

Kids like learning *stuff*

Figuring out what kids actually find fun has always been a struggle for me. To start with, it’s not my top priority – if something’s worth doing, I’m perfectly comfortable requiring students to do it, whether they’re excited about it or not. Still, a classroom where students are having fun is is a much happier place to be, and it’s easier to get them to do the work if it’s at least somewhat enjoyable, so I make as much of an effort as I can without sacrificing my larger educational goals.

A trickier obstacle is that my own ideas of fun are drastically different from the average thirteen-year-old’s. I genuinely enjoy searching through style guides for pointless, obscure punctuation rules. I am bewildered by the fact that kids still get uproariously excited when I bring up a Kahoot. I still haven’t managed to fully put myself in the shoes of anyone who reads Hamlet for the first time and has any response other than this is the best series of words that has ever entered my brain, despite ample evidence that my adolescent reaction to the play was not universal. On the rare occasions that I have promised my students something “fun”, I have faced, at best, mocking, and at worst, mutiny. I manage to keep myself entertained, but it’s time to face facts: I am not a “fun” person.

Speaking of things that aren’t fun – learning to write. Specifically, the slow, step-by-step method that I have found actually yields results. The more I teach writing, the more grammar work I introduce on the front end, and the better my results get, but this work certainly doesn’t get kids excited about their time with me. And no, basing their exercises on Fortnite or Riverdale doesn’t help, especially when kids’ interests are so varied and change so fast. And yet, the majority of my students (the ones where what I teach them isn’t dictated by their upcoming exams) are engaged and enjoy my lessons. Why? As with so many issues in education, my answer is: I teach them stuff about the world.

Subordinating conjunctions aren’t fun. But here are some things my students have found fun this year (links are to my related TpT products, where I have them):

  • Discovering how bees’ brains work and how pesticides affect them
  • Learning about the causes and effects of the Great Depression
  • Reading excerpts of The Odyssey and learning about Ancient Greek culture, then asking to stick with this topic for an extra couple of lessons so we can cover more of the story
  • Researching the historical context of Beowulf and enjoying a deliciously gruesome story from a thousand years ago
  • Being shocked by the ending of The Lottery and reading articles about psychology to decide whether they think people would really behave like the characters in the story
  • Hearing for the first time about the huge intellectual upheaval known as the Renaissance, and how it was in part set off by another pandemic
  • Reading advice about how to sell expensive products, and using this information to become more informed consumers
  • Learning about how Homo sapiens have developed over millions of years

I pretty much never set writing tasks that aren’t related to historical, literary, or scientific content. My tutoring sessions and online classes mostly operate as cycles of reading something interesting, and then doing a series of writing tasks that build their understanding and retention while also developing flexible and deliberate writing skills. Crucially, the topics my students read and write about are interesting because they’re about the world beyond their experience – for the most part, it’s all totally new. As I’ve built up my resources for a more cohesive curriculum that allows for students to carry their knowledge from one topic over to another, their enthusiasm has increased even further. Students leave my classes as better readers, better writers, better thinkers, and more informed about their world and how it got that way.

This stuff works. A knowledge-rich curriculum sets teachers up to build skills as well as knowledge. And, it turns out, it’s even “fun.”

How to teach writing so students actually make progress

This book changed the way I teach writing – and everything else.

When I went into my first year of teaching last year, I brought with me a hodge-podge of different approaches to teaching writing. I believed, contrary to what people kept telling me, that it was important to teach grammar explicitly and systematically, but I didn’t really know how to do that. I wanted my students to see the power of being able express their own ideas clearly, in ways that people would pay attention to, but I didn’t know how to do that either.

Most of my writing “instruction” took the form of journal-writing tasks, or the writing that was required for my seniors to complete their assessments. I set individual goals for my year nines based on each piece of writing they did, but didn’t actually get them writing often enough for that to help. I addressed grammar with proofreading exercises (which research suggests don’t help) or by going through individual students’ work, while they avoided my eyes until I gave in and told them exactly what they needed to do. It was massively frustrating, and my students’ writing didn’t improve.

And then, as they do, a book came along to save me. I’d seen lots of people on Twitter mentioning The Writing Revolution, by Natalie Wexler and Judith Hochman (NZ Link | US Link [these are affiliate links, so I may get a small commission if you purchase via these links – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!]). Around term three, I ordered a copy and read it feverishly, scribbling notes in it about how I could use it in the time-poor, assessment-driven context I was working in. Term four would only be a few weeks long, so we were really in crunch time for getting all those internals finished, and it looked like some of Wexler and Hochman’s suggestions could be the cure I needed for my students’ incessant “I don’t know how to put this in writing” issues.

The core of The Writing Revolution‘s approach is an emphasis on good sentences as a prerequisite for paragraphs and essays. This explained much of the problems my seniors were having; the instructions they were given told them pretty much sentence-by-sentence how to structure their writing, but they didn’t know how to turn each part of that structure into a coherent, grammatically correct sentence. So, obediently, I gathered up a few of the most promising-looking sentence tasks from the book, and started giving them to my classes as Do Nows:

A typical Do Now activity for my year eleven class. We hadn’t been studying The Hate U Give, but a few students who I was particularly struggling to engage had read it, and I thought this might get them interested.

For the most part, my students muddled through these okay. Really, though, I was too short on time to do the thing properly. The reminder to “use commas and conjunctions where they are needed” wasn’t backed up with teaching on how to actually do those things. I was using the exercises, but I’d missed the key point of the book, which is that you have to explicitly and systematically teach students how to use these different sentence structures.

The magic of The Writing Revolution is in the sequence, specifically the emphasis on single sentences. Most writing teaching, Hochman and Wexler argue, rushes far too quickly into writing paragraphs and longer compositions, without establishing the building blocks – sentences – that paragraphs are made of. The Writing Revolution lays out a sequence of activities, beginning with identifying sentence fragments and building up to a variety of ways to form more interesting sentences, like starting with a subordinating conjunction or adding an appositive.

This sequence is now a major part of my tutoring. My students spend most of their time with me reading challenging texts, and writing about them using TWR tasks. I use the sentence tasks to help students unpick what the text is saying, as well as practice articulating those ideas in their own words. The students I started with at the beginning of the year are now moving into paragraph-writing tasks, which help them consolidate their understanding of the text and prepare for essay-writing. I’ve tried skipping parts of the sequence, but I’ve had much better results when I start at the beginning, even with more advanced students who can get through the first few steps quickly. Of course, most students are continuing with longer-form writing at school, and sometimes that means I temporarily jump ahead in the sequence to give them a basic foundation for tests and assignments.

What I love about this approach is that it makes progress so visible, for me and for my students. Rather than just being told to write and then getting vague feedback about “adding more detail” or “checking your punctuation” (common in the feedback I used to give), students are taught the specific, concrete moves they can make to improve their writing. Here’s an example of the improvement I’ve seen in one of my students’ writing:

First tutoring session

Instructions: write a paragraph using at least four words from the word bank (he used calendar, governor, and character)

Dave Woke up one morning and Looked at his calendar it was a very important day he was acting he jumped into his car with exitment and drove to the studio they put him on the cameras imidiatly he was playing the govenor he was the main character and the cameras went on.

After one term of tutoring

Instructions: Write an extension to the ending of the short story “Autumntime.”

The acorn was an oak brown it was Slipery and rough at the same time. On the way back I was thinking any way I could bring back a tree. When we arrived home I droped the acorn on the marble floor! I picked it up and asked Mum and Dad What it was they said it was a seed for a oke [note: this is how “oak” is spelled in the story] tree They said it was a food delicasy and said they would cook it for me. When dinner came it didn’t taste like the acorn but just synthetic beef.

Clearly, the more recent writing is still far from perfect. There are still plenty of run-on sentences, which we’re still working on correcting (this is, perhaps, a bit of a gap in TWR, but the various sentence types students learn help develop their sense of what is, and is not, a sentence). But this student now understands that a paragraph is a group of sentences, and there’s more variety in the types of sentences he’s using. In both examples, the student wrote the paragraphs you see without my guidance; in both cases, we went through and improved the sentences afterwards. It’s worth noting that Hochman and Wexler would probably have advised against these tasks, as the student hadn’t finished the sequence of sentence tasks that ought to precede such vague paragraph-writing assignments.

Another thing I love about Hochman and Wexler’s approach is that it keeps content central. They emphasise the importance of using their activities across the curriculum; I can’t attest to how well the sequence works outside of English, but the book is full of promising examples from science, maths, and history. As I said, I use the activities in the context of reading, so they do double-duty by building reading and writing skills simultaneously. Writing about a topic is one of the best ways to solidify content knowledge and ensure understanding, and the sentence-level tasks are brief enough to use consistently, even when you’re not teaching “a writing lesson.” I’d love to hear from teachers of subjects other than English who can comment on whether this approach is actually helpful, not just for incorporating literacy teaching into your classes, but for actually improving students’ understanding of your subject’s content.

Outside of tutoring, The Writing Revolution has made another major difference in my life: it’s finally got me actually planning my writing. As a student, I always wrote in order to figure out what I wanted to say. I couldn’t really plan ahead, because I needed to articulate my ideas in sentences in paragraphs before I had any idea what point I was trying to make. My essays, and even my masters’ thesis, started as a random assortment of half-finished paragraphs based on brainwaves I’d had while reading or thinking, which would gradually coalesce around a thesis, and could then be rearranged into a logical sequence. This is a super-fun way to write, and it’s why I love research work so much. But it’s also hugely time-consuming. Now that I’m trying to blog regularly, I can’t approach everything I write like it’s an essay worth 60% of my grade. I also usually sit down to write these with a good idea of what I want to say, and so using the straightforward outlining system in The Writing Revolution is much more efficient. Had I tried to write this post, or my last, without outlining it first, it probably would never have been written.

In short, if you’re frustrated with your students’ inability to string a sentence together, or you feel as if the lack of variety in their sentences is making it hard for them to express more complex ideas, I can’t recommend The Writing Revolution more. It’s completely changed how I teach writing and reading. It turns writing into a set of discrete skills that can be practiced and mastered, rather than a magical talent that you’ve either got or you don’t. If I’d been trained to teach writing this way, I think my classes last year would have made much more progress with than they did.

You can purchase The Writing Revolution here to find out more: NZ Link | US Link. These are affiliate links, so I may get a small commission if you purchase via these links – this doesn’t cost you any extra and I only link to products I’m enthusiastic about!

Literature and Literacy: What’s the point of English?

Schools make students take English for longer than any other subject. At the same time, English has become less about literature and more about literacy. Should it be?

When I was in year twelve, on the heels of an exciting assignment in one subject and some less wonderful test results in another, I started to think that I might prefer a career as an English professor to one as a physicist. But this posed a problem; while the value to humanity of unravelling the secrets of the universe seemed readily apparent, I wasn’t completely convinced that allowing myself to be paid to read and write about Shakespeare wouldn’t basically be robbery. I started an English degree anyway, telling myself that education was about more than preparing for work, and that if I did pursue an academic career in the subject, I at least wouldn’t be contributing any less to the world than an investment banker or professional athlete.

By the end of my degree, I had added a major in Education, which came closer to fulfilling my need to be doing something useful. Still, the question of what studying English was meant to achieve continued to haunt me. I wrote essays about the importance of the humanities in education, and sometimes temporarily convinced myself that I was right. I’ve always been aware, though, that I was looking for reasons to justify a belief that I would have held regardless of its logic, and that this was affecting my judgement. Ultimately, the reason why I continued to argue for the importance of studying literature was because I loved doing it.

Most New Zealand schools require students to take English for longer than any other subject, usually through year twelve. Despite our constant bewailing of the emphasis on STEM above all else in our schools, English is actually treated as more essential than maths and science.

This has an impact on what high school English looks like, because for longer than any other subject, English classes are filled with students who don’t want to be there, who don’t see the point of the subject and may struggle with it. Last year I had a student who was moved into my class halfway through the year because she was refusing to complete any assessments in Music. There was no point in her remaining in the Music class if she wasn’t going to do the work, so she moved to a different option and her timetable was rearranged, landing her in my English class. She had no intention of doing any English assessments, either (despite being very able), but she couldn’t simply drop the subject. It was compulsory to be in an English class, regardless of what you were doing while you were there. Keeping such students engaged and earning credits becomes the English teacher’s job, adding another incentive to centre English classes on films and pop culture instead of literature.

So, why is so much importance placed on English? You don’t need me to tell you this: it’s because of literacy.

Despite frequent claims that all teachers are responsible for literacy teaching, and the availability of NCEA literacy credits across the curriculum, English retains responsibility for the actual teaching of literacy skills. When I’m hired as an English tutor, what’s usually wanted is literacy help. It’s English teachers who (hopefully) keep helping students improve their writing skills. It’s in English class that students are introduced to essay writing. English class is the only place where it makes sense to frequently put content on hold to work on the way a student expresses themselves. The lofty status of English in our schools is fundamentally tied to its reputation as a “skills-based” subject; while we can argue that the specific content of any other subject isn’t strictly essential, we have retained some sense that becoming educated entails becoming literate, and requiring students to sit in an English class for four years enables a school to at least appear to meet that obligation.

But what if English class isn’t the best way to teach literacy? There’s plenty of evidence that literacy skills are best taught in the context of learning content knowledge, but English classes (especially those for struggling students) have a tendency to turn into “literacy” classes. A glance over the NCEA English standards or the New Zealand Curriculum achievement objectives for English is enough to see that the study of literature (the content of English as a discipline) is not a priority. And fair enough: while studying literature has some advantages for literacy teaching in terms of encouraging attention to language and high text complexity, literary analysis and writing are very different skills, and writing a literary analysis essay has little in common with day-to-day adult writing tasks. Teaching students to analyse Shakespeare while also teaching them to write about it isn’t actually any easier than teaching writing alongside teaching chemical bonding. Because English teachers carry the responsibility for literacy teaching, however, the chemistry teachers get to continue teaching their subject, while the study of literature is cut out of English class to make room for literacy.

This is a shame, because the study of literature has much to offer students. Literature takes students out of their own heads, broadening their worldview and building empathy. Like other academic disciplines, studying literature builds conceptual knowledge. It also builds cultural capital, allowing students to participate in the wider intellectual conversation. Literature-centred English classes also give students access to the classroom’s most valuable resource – the teacher’s expert knowledge. Most English teachers have degrees in English literature, not literacy development.

However, just because something has benefits doesn’t mean everyone should have to do it. There are similarly strong arguments for the value of history, science, even PE (much as it pains me to admit it, as someone whose decision about which secondary school to attend was heavily influenced by finding somewhere that didn’t require PE beyond year ten). This is is how we end up with a bloated curriculum; we can always come up with a compelling list of benefits for any subject an enthusiastic teacher would like to offer. Literature is important. For some people (the kind who become English teachers), it makes our lives better. But I don’t see any reason why the study of literature – as opposed to literacy development – should be treated as more important than other academic subjects like history and science. In fact, when it comes to being an informed citizen, both of those subjects have more obvious value than knowledge of literature.

So, I’m not saying that high school English should be abolished. I’m saying that we should make room for English to be a subject in its own right, with a focus on literature rather than literacy. In this form, it probably makes sense for English to be equal in status with, say, history — introduced in the junior school, but optional for seniors. Perhaps there should be a requirement for students to take one humanities class, just as many schools require year elevens to choose a science option. Most importantly, this requires a significant increase in literacy across the curriculum. My favourite books on how to make this happen are Hochman and Wexler’s The Writing Revolution, and Mike Schmoker’s Focus. By properly, deliberately teaching literacy in every class (not just assuming that literacy teaching is happening because students have to read and write occasionally), students can spend more time building this essential skill set, and English teachers can get back to teaching the subject they know and love.

Image credits

“old books” by vandentroost is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

“Emptiness” by YuMaNuMa is licensed under CC BY 2.0