How not to teach writing

June 6, 2008

The March 2008 issue of English Journal includes an article by Alec Duxbury, a teacher at University Prep in Seattle. It’s called The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement, and it’s basically a well-reasoned rant against the way writing is commonly taught in high school:

The error in pedagogy that governs the essay is built on the sanctity of the thesis statement and the insistence that formula will produce quality writing. Teachers ask students to find a thesis statement first and to organize the content of their writing around that thesis statement. Most students encounter this set of rules in the general category of the five-paragraph essay, a form that students know exactly how to produce by the time they leave middle school.

I once was one of those students. Like many others, I mastered the five-paragraph essay in middle school. So why did my peers and I spend most of high school writing more and more essays in this same general format? Weren’t we ready for some new challenges? Didn’t we deserve a bit more artistic freedom?

Alec suggests that writing is taught this way in part because it makes grading easy. “The assessment of most thesis-first writing assignments,” he says, “is accomplished by checking the introduction for a three-part thesis statement, counting the number of examples, checking for topic sentences, and noting the repetition of the three-part thesis statement in the concluding paragraph.” But if the assignments don’t serve a useful pedagogical purpose, why bother?

There are appealing and effective alternatives to the thesis-centric mindset. At a summer camp I attended when I was 13, I penned many dissimilar types of essays: a personal narrative, a compare-and-contrast piece, an extended definition of a commonly misunderstood word, a satire, a movie review, and so on. I received thoughtful feedback that focused on important rhetorical issues, such as my relationship to my audience, rather than my ability to adhere to a rigid template. I learned lessons that have stayed with me to this day, some obvious in retrospect (don’t satirize Miami Vice unless you’ve actually seen it) and others less so (think of a review not as a list of likes and dislikes, but as an evaluation of the creative choices made by the artists).

By the time I finished high school, however, I was so immersed in the “support a single overarching thesis with a slew of examples” mode of writing that I found it awkward to do anything else. Even worse, this thesis-driven writing style started to affect my reading style. I approached each piece of literature with the goal of discovering its “one true meaning,” and I tended to ignore aspects that couldn’t be packaged into a tidy, concise interpretation. Once I reached college, my English 101 professor had to spend an entire semester convincing me that sometimes authors meant to be ambiguous and that I should reflect upon this ambiguity rather than ignoring it.

Alec concludes:

For students to learn the art of writing, certain conditions must be met within the classroom. Teachers must be ready to respond to the writing their students produce. To do this, teachers must be willing to write themselves, to risk the making of meaning with their writing, to provide a probing response to the writing their students produce, to engage student writing in a conversational manner, and to qualify — not quantify — the work they receive from students. The students themselves must be allowed to begin with a question on a topic or book, to seek its answer, to write themselves into a position of strength, to weigh and question the meanings they find in books, and to begin a piece of writing without knowing where it will end.

I hope that teachers around the world — including those at my old high school, who are outstanding in many respects — will take these words to heart.


  1. Interesting post, Greg. I myself don't recall having the 5-paragraph essay drummed into me to the same extent, at least not in high school (my memory of middle school is pretty hazy). But I'm sure I had to write numerous "thesis statement-examples-conclusions" essays at some point.I have to say, though, that Alec Duxbury's essay sounds like it goes too far in the other direction. Phrases like "risk the making of meaning" (what risk, exactly?), "write themselves into a position of strength", and "begin a piece of writing without knowing where it will end" sound pretty vague to me. (If I had to bet, I'd guess that Alex doesn't like giving grades or exams, either.) The kind of approach Alex suggests is appropriate to a *creative* writing class. But there are many kinds of writing in the world, and they can't all be taught the same way.The most important training I got for my current position as a scientist came from writing assignments in my high school English classes and my college philosophy classes. I wasn't writing rigidly formatted 5 paragraph essays. But I did have to support thesis statements through logical argument, analysis, and close reading of texts. This may not have been the best training for a poet (though it wasn't the worst, either), but it was great training for a scientist. Writing in the way I was taught doesn't just teach you how to write, it teaches you how to think. Putting your argument down on paper allows you to see it almost as if it were someone else's argument, and so exposes to you all the gaps and ambiguities in your own thinking that aren't revealed by mere silent introspection. Writing in the way I was taught forces you to think precisely, in much the same way doing mathematics does. And my teachers certainly provided "conversational" responses to the writing I produced. But it wasn't non-evaluative conversation of the sort Alex seems to suggest (though the quoted passages are a bit ambiguous on this). It was evaluative conversation, in the form of forceful counter-argument (there are as many types of conversation as types of writing). And if some students don't enjoy this kind of writing, or writing instruction, other students (like me, and many of my classmates) love it.And I took creative writing in high school too. I had the same teacher as for English lit. He was a terrific instructor for both. Had I had Alex as an instructor, I might have turned out better as a poet (though I doubt it), but I strongly suspect I'd have turned out worse as a scientist.

  2. Jem:Thanks for your comment. I daresay it was "thoughtful", "probing," and "conversational."I fear that, in quoting a few parts of the article rather than posting the entire thing (which I assume the Journal does not allow), and in mentioning my summer camp experience, I've misled you somewhat as to Alec's viewpoint. Also, his title ("The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement") is easy to misinterpret if taken out of context.Alec is *not* advocating a free-for-all in which students write whatever they want. He's saying that insistence on adherence to a standard template is a poor substitute for individualized, in-depth conversations with students on rhetorical effectiveness.When teachers overstress the importance of a strong thesis statement, students tend to formulate their thesis first, then cherry-pick examples that support the thesis while ignoring those that don't. (Not a style of analysis we want to encourage!) Teachers should adjust their approach so that students are compelled to gather and scrutinize all of the relevant evidence *before* deciding what they want to say about it. Then the students should be granted some flexibility in terms of presenting their analysis, as long as the thinking behind it is fundamentally sound.Here's another quote from the article that may help: "The five-paragraph essay is not an inherently incorrect form. However, it is destructive in that students are not ever allowed to discover if it fits the meaning they seek to make. Teachers insist on the form because it is easier for teachers. This is unwise."

  3. Greg:  I think I understand what the author is saying and the point that you are trying to make by presenting it.  I, too, was forced to write a number or those five-paragraph papers in high school and college.  Eventually, I became an industrial chemist before moving on to my "resting place" as a high-school chemistry and physics teacher.  Like Jem, I believe that the "magic thesis formula" (that is what my HS teacher called it) aided the development of my scientific writing because scientific papers are well-structured pieces in which the body of writing presents information that explains how a hypothesis statement was arrived at and how it was tested.As a science teacher at a school that is recognized as one of the top high schools in the country, I am supposed to develop students with exceptional scientific prowess – especially at presenting laboratory analysis papers.  I must break them of "flowery" writing while I must also ask them to "discover if it fits the meaning that they seek to make."  As a change of gears, I also ask those students in the college-level courses to write research papers.  I always warn them not to give me the "magic formula" unless they enjoy rewrites.My point, I guess, is that I see and appreciate both sides of this issue.  There certainly are many areas where structured writing, writing based on a thesis statement, is essential.  Some tasks, like story telling, journaling, or blogging :), come off as superficial and heartless if formulation takes precidence over soul-searching and thought development.

  4. Teaching is my hobby. My paying work is writing and editing.My experience is colored by the fact that I don't have a degree in English (both my masters are interdisciplinary) and that in college teaching over a 30+ year period, I've never had one student who wanted to be a writer or an English teacher.I'm one of those people who pushes the thesis statement and five paragraph essay. I've been doing it in freshman comp classes for a couple of reasons:1) It is teachable because it's standardized and repetitive.2) Students with minimal interest in writing can learn it.3) It is a structured way to think about content.4) It shows you quickly when the standard five-paragraph essay format won't work.5) It is a format that works for most ordinary writing most ordinary people do.I see the writing people must do as a skill, like driving a car. I can't recall ever hearing a drivers ed teacher gripe about the fact that nobody in the class was driving in the Indy 500. Why can't English teachers be content if every one in their classes has the writing equivalent of being able to commute to work?

  5. Thanks for the insightful comments, everybody.Shane, I won't argue with anything you say; I'd only add that there are many structures one can use for structured writing, which is why the "one structure fits all" approach seems unfortunate to me.Linda, I agree that the five-paragraph essay is a good starting point for teaching writing, due to all of the reasons you mention. My gripe is that I and many other students mastered this type of essay in eighth grade, yet our high school writing assignments didn't encourage much growth or exploration beyond this rudimentary format. When subjected to such endless repetition, those who write well — those who could have a future as journalists/editors/critics/etc. — will not learn much, probably will get bored, and may even grow to hate writing. That's a shame.

  6. Aha! So that explains why I continually find myself kicking and clawing my way towards the elusive "A" in my American Literature class. Personally, I am able to crank out the usual five paragraph essay (intro-support-support-support-conclusion) without much difficulty but I agree that some variety would be a little more stimulating. I'll have to show this to my English teacher if the current A-/B+ balance is tipped the wrong way on my second semester report card.Anyways, good insight on a topic that, now that I think about it, really should be subject to further scrutiny.

  7. Perhaps you did master the 5-paragraph essay by 8th grade, Greg, but the students in my college classes didn't!If assignments don't encourage growth beyond the formula, that isn't the fault of the formula, is it?I use the same formula that I teach my students. I use it for*instructional manuals in engineering and medicine*editorials*marketing materials*magazine articles*hard news stories*feature stories*humor columns*book and theater reviewsUsing a boiler-plate process lets me quickly figure out what I need to say. It does not restrict me to one way of saying it.Thanks for the chance to talk about this topic, Greg. I get tired of sitting quietly in front of my computer all day!Linda Aragonihttp://www.you-can-teach-writing.com

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