Still not teaching the 5-paragraph essay!

“Our concern is not to banish the evils of incoherence, nor to promote writing as the free expression of the author’s voice. We have seen over and over that the explicit and thorough teaching of genres is the best way to level the playing field and give marginalized learners of all ages access to the high-stakes ways of knowing, reading, and writing that will open doors in their academic, professional, and social lives.”

– Read the rest of my post with Luciana de Oliveira on the TESOL blog and for an example of genre-based pedagogy in action (or at least in a series of ESL textbooks), take a look at Inside Writing!

 

Updates from the anti-5-paragraph essay campaign

I’ve spent much of the winter break typing up students’ papers for my dissertation research. The task was descriptive writing — first describing the student’s house, apartment, homestay, or dorm room, and then (after the intervention) writing a featured home article about a house for sale as if for a local newspaper. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was still struck by the number of students who tried to shoe-horn one or both tasks into a pseudo five-paragraph essay, and this despite the fact that neither prompt mentions essays or even paragraphs! In fact, the featured house article is taught as a genre with a regular structure that has little to do the so-called English theme. Some of the results are awkwardly amusing: Everyone has a house, even animals. I’m going to describe my house. Or: this house has two floors. First of all, the first floor.  You can imagine the rest.

For anyone still harboring a sentimental attachment to the “ahrehtorical” (to quote Christine Ortmeier-Hooper) and ageneric (as I keep misquoting Christine Ortmeier-Hooper!) teaching of a universal form of bland, banal writing, here are some recent articles fighting the good fight for teacher genre-aware, context-specific writing skills:

Plus a few of my previous thoughts on the subject:

Update: Well, this is getting interesting. Over on the TESOL blog, Rob Sheppard has written a spirited defense of the 5-paragraph essay in which he usefully critiques Brian Sztabnik’s rather over-enthusiastic piece. But we couldn’t let that stand, so Luciana de Oliveira and I have written a rebuttal, “Why We Still Won’t Teach the Five-Paragraph Essay.” Let the games commence!

 

 

Jumping into Genre

Study Tips

This post is the second in a series of blogs I’m writing with an introduction to genre-based writing instruction to coincide with the launch of Oxford’s new writing textbook series, Inside Writing. Last time, I talked about how to shift your focus from a rhetorical view of writing 5-paragraph essays to a genre-based concern with how language is used in different social contexts, including the context of schooling.

In this post, I’d like to move into classroom practice: how do you help students learn to write in your target genre? The method I use is a well-developed technique that originated in Australian middle schools called the “Teaching-Learning Cycle” (Rothery, 1996)*. Typically, this starts with an activity they call “Deconstruction,” which is basically a teacher-led analysis of several writing models to help students deduce staging (the typical structure of information) and features of the language used (especially for ESL or other linguistic minority populations). I happened to hear a great example of this on NPR recently about a 6th-grade English class in Chicago. One of the merits of the new Common Core State Standards in both English Language Arts and other disciplines is a great deal of interest in genres of writing. Notice that the students already have a pretty sophisticated understanding of genre — they know that argument is different from persuasion. Now, they look at examples of arguments about about banning cell phones in school (I used almost exactly the same topic, except set at a university, for a unit in Inside Writing!)

Continue reading “Jumping into Genre”

Starting out with genre-based writing instruction

overcoming writer's block - crumpled paper on wooden floor - crushed paper

To mark the publication of Inside Writing, a series of genre-based writing textbooks from Oxford University Press, I’m writing a series of blog posts about my understanding of genre-based writing pedagogy. Today’s post is inspired by a conversation I had in the faculty lounge yesterday. A colleague told me he was interested in breaking away from (your friend and mine) the five-paragraph essay, but he wasn’t sure where to start. After the break, I’ll tell you …

Continue reading “Starting out with genre-based writing instruction”

From Generic Writing to Writing Genres

My short essay/conference review From Generic Writing to Writing Genres has been published in TESOL’s Second Language Writing Interest Section Newsletter (October 2013). In it, I argue (again!) in favor of a genre-based writing pedagogy as an antidote to the five-paragraph essay. I also summarize my 2012 and 2013 conference blitz, and you can find all the PPTs and handouts here: CCCC 2012, TESOL 2012, Genre 2012, SSLW 2012, EATAW 2013, and TESOL 2013.

Talking about the five-paragraph essay (as I so often seem to be), there was a great article in Slate recently denouncing the (five-paragraph) essay component of the SAT (one of the standardized tests taken by American high-school students as part of their university application). The title says it all: “We are teaching high school students to write terribly.” The article quotes Professor Anne Ruggles-Gere of the University of Michigan writing center:

“For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging. “The SAT does [students] no favors,” Gere says, “because it gives them a diminished view of what writing is by treating it as something that can be done once, quickly, and that it doesn’t require any basis in fact.”

The result: lots of B.S.

As Professor Gere says elsewhere in the article, the result is that college writing teachers like me have to un-teach what students have “learned” about writing — and it’s not just American students. International students trained to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or other English language proficiency tests also arrive with what Linda Flower has called a “limited literacy.”

Lest you think we exaggerate, here is a horrifyingly amusing blog post by Jed Applerouth, a teacher and doctoral student who takes the SAT regularly to help him tutor high school students to ace/beat the test. Since SAT essay raters are explicitly trained to ignore the veracity of the writing, here’s how to get a top score:

I stuck John Fitzgerald Kennedy in a Saxon war council during the middle ages, grappling with whether to invade the neighboring kingdom of Lilliput. Barrack Husein Obama shared a Basque prison cell with Winston Churchill, and the two inmates plotted to overthrow General Franco. Cincinnati’s own, Martin Luther King Jr. sought out a political apprenticeship with his mentor, Abraham James Lincoln, famed Ontario prosecutor.

Finally, an example of writing with absolutely no communicative value whatsoever. The SAT essay as anti-genre?!

(Hat tip to my Facebook friends and friends-of-friends for these links.)