A paragraph is a set of sentences united around a topic

One of the most imaginative tasks left to English teachers today is the devising of an imaginative acronym by which students may imaginatively ‘structure’ their paragraphs. I cannot say for certain, but I feel quite sure that when I was at school, much less emphasis was placed on this, to the extent that I barely even remember being taught anything like it in the 90s. And yet, today, students increasingly take it as a given that before they attempt writing any kind of text, their teacher will be sure to provide them with what everyone conspires to call ‘the structure’. Many students increasingly feel lost without this, to the extent that I wonder how they are going to manage when asked, if one day they might be, to produce a written text at work and their manager rudely fails to provide them with ‘the structure’.

There is little consensus between teachers as to what ‘the structure’ might actually be for a given text type, and some of them feel very proprietorial about their particular approach – as if the special combination of capital letter they have come up with represent some genuine act of insight or creativity. The result is a bewildering menagerie of acronymic animals – TEEL, PEAL, TEEAL, PEEPAL – so that one of the first duties of a teacher new to a school is to get themselves tuned into whatever is the going fashion at their new place. There are so far as a I can tell three chief justifications for this fashion, none of which is ultimately persuasive, though some of which at least have some merit. I shall tackle them in ascending order of plausibility.

The first argument is that ‘TEAL’ (this is the acronym I have most often been required to use, and so I shall use it as shorthand for all of the rest of them) helps students to understand that a paragraph is a set of sentences united around a topic. But this is categorically not true. A paragraph is a convention of graphic setting, and its definition is entirely distinct from any question of meaning or use: it is identified solely on the basis of the appearance of the letters printed or written on the page. Most students understand this, in fact, and so are often sightly confused when they are told otherwise. Of course, one of the uses of this type-setting convention is to mark off a series of sentences as being in some way thematically connected. But what a linguistic feature is, and what it may be used for, are two quite different questions, which in my experience are endlessly muddled across a whole range of issues regarding language.

A really unfortunate result of this misunderstanding is considerable confusion around what a topic actually might be.  Because successful paragraphs are presented as essentially united around a topic, students are encouraged to assess their paragraphs by reference to a topic as some kind of external standard. A topic is then something that is ‘out there’ in the world, to be observed, identified, and then used as measuring stick by which to judge one’s paragraph. 

But as anyone who has spent any time thinking about it will realise, all the ideas which sentences express connect to each other with endless complexity: they do not drop out of the collective human mind in ready packaged units. Rather, as writers, we create thematic shifts in the flow of our ideas by imposing order and categories on the vast range of ideas out there. A topic shift is a creative act, and the typing convention of the paragraph is just one way of doing this.  We can signal a topic shift in many other ways, so that a single paragraph can contain more than one topic. Conversely, a paragraph break may be used for purposes other than a new topic. A single topic is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the existence of a separate paragraph.

A second justification for the TEAL merry-go-round is that writing essays is very hard, and needs to be broken down into bits. TEAL logic not only breaks down the multi-paragraph text into smaller bits (ie, paragraphs) it also breaks these paragraphs down into even smaller bits –  the ‘T’ of the topic sentence, the ‘E’ of the evidence etc etc. The attachment that students increasingly have to ‘structures’ that I mentioned above is often cited as evidence that this works – but this is only because students are conditioned to feel that there is a structure for any given type of text, and so demand one.  When I raise the point that able students can write beautiful texts without this kind of intense, led-by-the-nose scaffolding, I am informed that this is because different students learn differently. This usually coming from pedagogues who in any other context have nothing but icy contempt for the notion of ‘learning styles’.

But managing meaning across sentences and paragraphs is a fundamentally linguistic act and so, like most linguistic capacities, is acquired by everyone the same way: scaffolded, but genuine, interaction. Where the written word is concerned, private reading is the ultimate form of genuine scaffolded interaction. When we read we obviously interact with a writer. If we have had a significant role in selecting the reading material, then the interaction we have is genuine.  And, when we read at our own pace, we are able to pretty easily adjust the experience to match our ability –  slowing down, or repeat reading, when something challenging crops up: scaffolding the interaction for ourselves, in other words.

Thus, ‘able’ students generally find so many of the skills of writing – including paragraphing – a relatively natural and straight-forward proposition because they have spent considerably more time engaged in the kinds of interactions  – chiefly reading – which secure the bedrock for these skills. It is not because their brains are somehow structured differently. Yet time and time again arguments in favour of ‘structures’, ‘explicit instruction’ and ‘breaking things down’ are based on what is essentially another iteration of the learning-style fallacy – that different students learn dramatically differently. This argument is, I fear, motivated at least part by professional and institutional paranoia: if the key to being able to write well was simply reading a lot, what use would teachers and schools be?

It is a truism that tasks at times need to be broken down to help overwhelmed students – no educator would disagree with this. TEAL, or something like it, is therefore of some use in some contexts. Things gets messily muddled, though, when a scaffold is presented as if it were the whole story. When my family and I play a board game for the first time, it is inevitably the case that, as play progresses, one or more of us returns to the rulebook and rereads rules as developments motivates particular reminders of what can and can’t be done. But this scaffolding ritual is not part of the game – it is not essential to its progress, and everyone generally understands it.  The way that TEAL is currently used in schools encourages students to believe that scaffolding of this sort is an essential element of the writing process. The challenge, I think, is to get students to stop asking ‘what’s the structure for this piece of writing?’ and to start asking, ‘can you suggest a scaffold to help me get started?’

As I have mentioned the power of reading to develop writing skills, I do believe that students do not read enough of the kind of texts that we want them to write. If they are to be assessed on writing essays about books, then they should spend a lot more time reading essays about books. At present, too much teaching relies on teacher-talk for this kind of stimulus. Even if we wanted them to, few teachers are capable of talking as one should write. Instead, schools should be much better at ensuring all students have spent considerable time reading the kinds of texts that they will ultimately be expected to produce for themselves.

The third argument given for TEAL is that it provides an effective framework for planning and editing of texts. Here, I have more sympathy. In so far as research in education is of any value, there is a reasonable indication that teaching students to plan and edit texts can and does improve their writing: they do need help with both understanding the importance of this, as well as knowing how to do it.

Planning and editing, however, are deeply technologically bound activities, and both tasks are today almost universally carried out by real writers using word processors. Crucially, the technological shift to word processors has altered the balance between planning and editing. When I write, the boundaries of my paragraphs are constantly up for revision, and that’s because it’s very easy to change them. I can’t believe that there are many professional people today who edit and plan paragraphing dramatically differently. The upshot of this is that, for real-world writers, planning has become less and less important, and editing more and more so.

The TEAL approach to writing is very much oriented in the other direction. It encourages students to formulate relatively rigid plans for essays, and then faithfully write them up. In my experience, most teachers and schools will admit to being pretty poor at ensuring the following edit/rewrite stage actually happens, despite the fact that research highlights it as being just as, if not more, important as planning is. I suspect that part of the reason for this is embarrassment at asking students to do something – write and rewrite a text by hand – that no sane writing professional would dream of doing. And yes, I am genuinely awestruck when I think about how the great writers of the past managed to plan and edit without word processors. But I’m also amazed about how they managed without electric lights: this does not mean that I should start trying to get my students to write by candlelight.

The particular skills and procedures associated with planning a hand-written essay are pretty much useless in today’s world. And yet English teachers spend an extraordinary amount of time teaching them. There are I think three reasons for this miserable waste of time, and they are of an increasingly depressing nature. The first is that teachers lack the time, confidence and inclination to challenge the status quo. I have enormous respect for English teachers as individuals, though less respect for the conservatism of the group. I discuss elsewhere the sheer strangeness of our continuing expectation that secondary students handwrite tasks: it is a strangeness that must to some degree be put down simply to the lure of tradition, and the ‘didn’t do me any harm’ reflex of the instinctive conservative.

More important than this unreflective conservatism is the unsettling fact that TEAL sticks because it so well suits the handwritten five paragraph essay. It is therefore an excellent strategy for preparing students for the all-important exams, and a particularly good way of helping the less literate students at least squeeze their way through to an acceptable result. Here, it is the policy makers and senior leaders who are at fault, and I am considerably less sympathetic. The hand-written examination should have been phased out twenty years ago, but that was roughly the same time that an ill-considered policy of marketisation started to take hold in so many school systems. Now schools are encouraged to compete for students, and exam results abused as the core consumer signal required to drive that competition. A generation of well-meaning but muddled leaders have been incentivised and trained to ensure that this all happens in just this way. TEAL-logic is just one, relatively small, unpleasantness at the student-end of this administrative farrago.

The final and most depressing reason for TEAL’s dominance is that it encourages students and teachers alike to misunderstand the nature of thought and debate itself. It reduces writing to a series of tickable boxes, and posits building an argument as the capacity to digest and reproduce a set of ready-made truths.  The particular logical structure of a piece of writing is in reality a creative and provisional act, reflecting the particular needs and point of view of the writer at that moment. These two words – creative and provisional – frighten the bejesus out of the increasingly corporate managerial culture which has taken hold in our schools.  Nobody sets out to teach TEAL with this in mind, of course, but the ease with which it is assimilated into a broader dynamic of truths-delivered-and-assessed-with-authority sets it up as the perfect solution to paragraphing in a world where student autonomy is the dirtiest of words.

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