Formula in Writing

The Popularity of Formulaic Writing by Mark Wiley addresses ideas that aren’t working for the writing curriculum and offers alternatives. Wiley begins by describing the school conditions, which are overcrowded and under-resourced, which is ridiculously accurate. This year I was told the school has no pencils or journals to offer for students.

Wiley focuses on teachers, who are poorly prepared to teach writing while others who may be prepared are overwhelmed by poor classroom conditions. These desperate situations then are perfect for teaching writing as a formula, which is easy to teach, learn, apply, and raise student test scores. Wiley focuses on one formula: The Jane Schaffer Approach to Teaching Writing. Schaffer advises the use of the four-paragraph essay that follows a specific format to achieve success.

The formula:
Topic sentence
Concrete detail #1
Commentary #1a
Concrete detail#2
Commentary #2a
Commentary #2b
Concluding sentence

Each body paragraph must contain eight sentences. It must include a concrete detail (facts, evidence, examples, proof, quotation, plot reference). It must also include commentary, which is the writer’s analysis. Body paragraphs thus must be 100+ words; the introduction and conclusions must be 40+ words. The introduction consists of at least three sentences and a thesis, while the conclusion consists of all commentary providing a finished feeling. Schaffer claims this format replicates what is found in high scoring essays on district-wide tests and AP exams. Isn’t that ironic? Something that is not implemented in our curriculum, something we are never taught as students, is what they expect us to produce.

While the majority of teachers agree that Schaffer’s method is beneficial in that it provides an acceptable structure of writing, rapid improvement rates, clear frame for writing, and essay grading for teachers. A minority of teachers argue that it leaves no room for students to make their own judgment because the method is formulaic. Wiley also offers criticism on Schaffer’s process, stating that real writers must decide what they will compose, who they will compose it for, and what effect they want the readers to project. The formulaic writing approach limits the strategies students will use to achieve multiple rhetorical goals. The focus on format does not encourage or help students explore a literary work, stifling authenticity. Though, he says, it can be useful for struggling writers.

Wiley concludes by offering insight on how to use formats but moving away from formulas. Writing contexts vary; writing tasks vary so out students should be able to decipher strategies for each situation present. He mentions James Collins, who argues the difference between strategy and formula, in that students do not apply it mechanically but understand how to adapt a form to fit a particular writing situation. The most important aspect of teaching writing as a strategy is it offers multiple methods of writing, so students do indeed have choices.

Similarly, Peter Elbow, in his piece “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” deals with the aspect of teaching writing to students. Elbow demonstrates the importance of low stake and high stake writing. Low stake writing is basically informal writing and is essential in creating high stake writing, which is thoroughly critiqued. He says we should honor nonverbal knowing (low stakes), and if we assign a great deal of it, students are less likely to be held back by the fear of not knowing what to put what they know on paper when it comes time for high stakes writing. I agree with Elbow in the sense that low stakes writing does help produce solid high stakes writing. As an undergraduate, during my senior seminar, we did a lot of low stakes writing throughout the semester, which helped me inevitably create a larger, more accurate piece without all the anxiety. Which was nice, compared to the other classes where there was a paper due every other week with no sense of direction, or at least that’s how I felt.

Elbow once again covers the idea of comments and its effect on students. He gives multiple ways to comment on student’s papers without causing any harm or discouragement. Such as Zero response on low stakes writing, which encourages a sense of freedom. I assign a lot of low stakes writing in my class, where students write journals and open-ended responses where I check for content to make sure they understand the concepts we are learning. The supportive response is interesting, it suggests pinning out the good from the paper and leaving a positive comment, and that’s all. This one is, though, for me, if I leave a positive comment without any other suggestions, my students believe they did great and don’t want to improve. However, Elbow has a good point in noting that we should minimally use critical response, actively setting up powerful conditions for learning.

Empathy is hard to feel unless it directly relates to you. The Syrian Journey escape route, I think, helped me empathize more than the article itself. Because I was asked to make decisions as if I was in Syria, and the choices weren’t pleasant. The video was heavy; to see how people have to escape because they are no longer safe is scary. The other video of the man who traveled to Turkey by foot was insane. He did it because of the lack of medical attention, and he couldn’t provide even milk for his child. You don’t appreciate what you have until you hear real-life stories like this.

The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (And Why We Need to Resist)

Within the reading for this weeks class to get prepared for the next presentations, we are taking a look into the role of Formulaic Writing. For those of my readers who are not sure about what exactly is Formulaic Writing is, I will gladly provide a definition. I pulled this definition for this term from another fellow blogger (I will leave the link below!).

Formulaic writing removes agency from student writers.Because formulaic writing holds the control over what, where, when, and how students write, students easily lose agency over the formation of their own ideas. ” – (This was also an interesting read and would recommend you to check it out!).

So to revert back to this article, there were a lot of interesting point that deemed important to address in the reading. The first point I would like to talk about is the opening statement made by Wiley in his article:

All Eyes on Me …
  • High School teachers concerns and prepping High school seniors for college course
    • What teacher wouldn’t want their student to exceed? The issue with this is that we as educator can have all the passion in the world to get our student to their highest peek of education, but aren’t we only human too?
    • Most teachers are up against:
      • Scarce resources (We buy our own material!)
      • Building in disrepair (On Friday of last week, I literally had an electrician interrupt the class to ask me about a light bulb in the hallway!)
      • Classrooms are over crowded (Every other week there is about 1-3 new students arriving in my class … I am up to 52 students now!)

Factoring in all of these issues, no including any outside personal issues, this is the stress level of your everyday educator; which brings me to the point of this article. Teachers are so burnout to this point that they look for the most convenient and easy way to teach. When looking at Writing teachers, this is where the five paragraph essay, and many others like it, format is born and taught! There is not to say that this format does not have its benefits, but we are in the same way hindering our students in the process of creativity and unique in writing; which many college professor are actually looking for in essays.

My one experience of how I was brutally tore away from this particular format was during my first writing composition course as an undergrad. My professor literally made all of us as a class go through the five paragraph essay process. After the class, and my professor included, made us do this task… she instructed us to rip the essay up and throw it in the garbage! That is how I was broken away from the rut of the five paragraph essay. But unfortunately, not everyone will have a professor like that, so what do we do next?

The Jane Schaffer Approach teaching Writing

As displayed above, here is a format sample of Jane Schaffer’s essay outline. Unlike the regular five paragraph format, Schaffer gives us a more advanced structure to teaching formulaic essays. This essay also goes alongside of pre-writing activities, diagrams, and graphic organizers. Even though this is still considered a Formulaic approach, but its a different breath of fresh air. The benefit for students: Learning how to separate fact from opinion.

Criticism of Formulaic Writing (page. 5)
Within this part of the article, Wiely goes on to address the issues and concerns to teaching students writing.

  • Traditional text book advice about forming essays are sending the wrong message about what writing is.
    • Too much focused on the product and not the process of discovery!
  • To develop as writers, students to build their repertoire of strategies for dealing with writing.
    • The same way we were not born speaking, is the same mind set we need to have towards in their own writing voice. We must not teach them what to say, but how to find their own voice!
  • Wiely goes on to put Scaffer’s approach into two categories:
    • Goal: Gives a formula to produce a well content essay.
    • Contrast: Real writers know what is needed, you can not contain them into a writing format bubble.

I also came across this interesting quote from Bruce Piere:

“We send students a perversely minded message when we emphasize that all-importance of structure and then structure can’t be very important.”

Teachers should try to focus on voice and opinion in writing. We are showing the above statement through teaching the formulaic format but want them to think out of the box… that is quite contradicting.

Using Formats as Strategies but Resisting the Formulaic

Now that we are coming to an end of this very insightful, I would like to point out Wiley suggestions and strategist to using this Formulaic format in an impact way without becoming writing robots.

  • Format writing = less messiness
    • Even though this format is frowned upon for creativity, it does serve its purpose as being like an idea organizer!
  • Students also need:
  • Procedural Knowledge: Answers the question of how to accomplish a particular task.
  • Conditional Knowledge: Answers the question of when to make a particular choice.

When applied to writing, all three factors are needed!

High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing

In this article, we will be taking a gander at pros, cons, and everything else around Low and High stakes Writing Assignments.

Assigning Writing

The first thing we are going to do is actually define what these terms me (I hate difficult language that interrupts my reading!)

  • High Stakes Writing Assignments: is graded for both content and mechanics. It usually requires us to consider a more formal audience as well. In school, high stakes writing is the essay that must conform to the teacher’s guidelines and can count for 20% or more of your grade!
  • Low Stakes Writing Assignments:  Frequent, informal assignments that make students spend time regularly reflecting in. written language on what they are learning from discussions, readings, lectures, and their own thinking.

Between these terms, there is a common theme as proposed by Elbow… both students and teachers can learn from each assessment! An example of High Stakes writing assignment Are assignments essay questions on a writing assessment, writing reports, etc. Some example of low stakes writing assignments would be prewriting, simple prompt questions, “DO NOW”, etc.

Another valid point that was brought up in the article was that:

  • Students can understand or know a piece of information but can’t articulate through writing. These students have the fear of not being to write, or not having the skills in general. This fear and stigma that is placed upon these students’ fears can be portrayed as “lazy writers”.

We should honor nonverbal knowing, inviting students to use low stakes writing to fumble and fish for words of what they sense and intuit but cannot yet clearly say.”

This statement from the text hit home for me because it reminded me of one of my most promising students from last school year. She was one of my ESL students that used all tools around her to develop her ELA skills. When I would work 1 – on – 1 with her to develop her writing, we would use sticky notes to write down all her ideas (low stakes) before we would do the writing assignment (high stakes). For the rest of the year, she would continue to use my sticky notes to develop her writing skills.

Importance of Low Stakes Writing

There is always a big to do when it comes to High Stakes Writing; due to us wanting to push our student’s skills, trying to satisfy a curriculum, or major test taking. We as educator need to take a step back and look at the importance of Low Stakes Writing. These types of writings help students develop with the agonizing feeling of judgement for us scary writing teachers. The are also many different forms of Low Stakes Writing:

  • Speech can be both used as a Low Stakes and used in an evaluating setting.
  • Writing can be informally: Kept secret, be revised before seen.

Special Benefits of Low Stakes Writing

  • Help students involve themselves in the subject matter: They are taking control of their own learning!
  • Livelier, clearer, and more natural writing: You would be surprised how good of a writer a student can be when they are not under pressure!
  • Improves the quality of High Stakes Writing: Practice! Practice! Practice!
  • Gives teachers a better view of how students understand the course: Low Stakes does not just benefit students, but teachers as well.
  • Forces students to keep up with the assigned readings: Our blogs… Ha!

To wrap up my lovely blog, I am going to share some other points I found valid to add on and sparks some interesting discussions! Please leave comments on your thoughts!

Responding to Writing

  • Unclear comments from teachers on students’ essays: Please refer to one of my older blogs “Responding to Students Writers” for more in depth conversation about the matter.

Continuum Between High and Low Stakes Responding

  • Zero response (low stakes): Students appreciate to be heard without dealing with a response
  • Minimal, nonverbal, noncritical response: Straight lines under phrases, checks in margins… In my case, colorful sharpie markers!
  • Critical Response, diagnosis, advice (high stakes): Asking crucial pragmatic questions: “Is this comment worth it?’“How much response do I need?”

Another little I would like to add as special treat for my fellow first year gradmates!

Formulaic Writing Might Lack Voice and Audience

The article “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist)” talks about how formula in writing can be a double edge sword, as it is better suited for amateur writing (beginners), but not the best choice for experienced writers. This type of writing refers to the four-paragraph essay format, which is taught to students early in education, and enforced all the way through high school. The article mention that this is a popular writing format that should be somewhat resisted because it hinders a writer with exploration when they write.

I personally can share my own take on this issue, which is on in favor of the argument being stressed in here. I too, like many other students, was taught this writing format and was forced to use it in my early years of education. If I wrote in a different format that when off in a different path (with more freedom), my writing was graded poorly. This is because my middle school and high school teachers all strongly supported this format. At first, years ago, I thought that this was required of me because I was an amateur and I didn’t know anything about writing. But now that I am older, and I think I know a little more, I can see why such writing format could have been changed a little, to give students a little more exploration and freedom.


Looking at the example provided in the article, we can see the strict formula to writing an essay, according to this format. Where is the sense of freedom, especially if you are trying to appeal to a certain audience in your writing. Do you always need intro and hook at the beginning of the essay? What if the audience is already familiar with your topic because is common knowledge, and you can be more direct to the subject at matter. This also brings up the question of whether “voice” is even considered in such elementary type of writing. In such case, you might bore them with introductions and hooks before they even get to the meat of the paper. But according to this format, you should do it all the time, and many times you should do it in a chronological way, where you are normally expected to you intro at the top and conclusion at the bottom.

The consideration of these two (audience and voice) are very important in writing, especially in college. But it seems that the four-paragraph essay method is poorly preparing students for higher levels of writing because of this custom which has become traditional at this point. And to be honest, I also feel that the idea of exploration and freedom are not strongly encouraged. The freedom and exploration I refer to is simply: having the ability to write in whatever format allows you to clearly express yourself through your writing; being able to think of other factors that are part of your writing and write in regards to them (e.g. audience, voice, and style).

The truth, to some degree, is that in later years of your writing (if you choose to become an experience writer) you will not think about the “four-paragraph essay format”. And when you do get to use part of it, you will still do it juggling a lot of other writing techniques to better write your piece. This is actually something I find myself doing right now, as a more experienced writer. I no longer just abide by the elementary format of writing because I have learned that it is just the “baby steps” (teaching you the importance of organization and clarity in writing). But once you have learned much about writing, you have more freedom and exploration on how you can have efficient writing, while still being clear and organized with you ideas and content.

Sentence Structure, Formulaic and Low Stakes Writing

When it comes to writing, there are more than a few moving parts for anyone who aspires to be a good and effective writer.  There is the content, writing in a context that is directed at the target audience you are trying to reach, and there is the more technical side of writing.  On the technical side, one piece of writing that seems to be a given is the sentence and sentence structure. This week we read an article by Robert Connors that analyzes the history and theory behind sentence structure.  Although dense, pieces like this are important for budding writers and pedagogists, as it sets the table for the theory behind sentence construction and like anything else in this life, helps us understand how we could improve.  Connors begins be analyzing Christensen theory, which was born out of his own frustration with the field and the pedagogy of sentence structure. “We do not really teach our captive charges to write better—we merely expect them to.”  Christensen was quoted saying this in response to how the field had been dealing with sentence structure and how it was taught. Lester Faigley tested this method by trying to prove that this method would improve syntactic maturity and that there would be a measurable increase in the writing skill of those prescribed to the method, and his hypothesis in both cases came true.  Enter PJ Corbett, who reimagined sentence instruction with the idea of imitation writing. In it’s earliest iterations, these were exercises where the student would literally just copy down a passage from a book or article. It was not about the content of what was being copied, but rather the repetition of constructing sentences in a more complex manner. Personally, I think this could be a very useful tool in teaching a new and inexperienced writer how to consistently use varied sentence structures so they can have a wide array to use in their arsenal.  Think back to that biology test in high school. The best way for some people to truly learn something is to copy their notes so that they can get a better grasp on the material. The same idea applies to this idea of imitation writing. The only real difference is that the exercise is is the purpose. The purpose here is for the student, or whoever is copying down these sentences is to familiarize themselves with these varied sentence structures. It is such an overlooked aspect of writing, but so important. Sentences are the basis of writing and the building blocks to tell a great story or write effective instructions for building that IKEA bookshelf. I found it funny that in the reading there seemed to be this pushback from some in the community.  Their idea of pedagogy only had room for the teaching of content, and none left for the teaching of structure, which does not make sense to me. What makes a good and informative sentence is the structure, no matter what the underlying content is. As someone who is considered among his friends as the “grammar police,” I find this entire idea of sentence structure to an important lost arts of sorts, and this article did a good job in going over the theory and idea behind the science of it, if you will.

The other readings that Susan is going to go over with us in class this week was interesting as well.  I found the one on formulaic writing particularly interesting. It is almost an oxy-moron of sorts to use the word formulaic to describe a process that is theoretically supposed to be free and a sort of creative backdrop for people to express themselves.  I know they are probably viewing this in an academic context, but I believe, as the article delves into, that prescribing to writing as a formula could be detrimental to the development of a writer as a whole. Writing to me is supposed to be a space of for people to express themselves and ideas and I do not think having to do so in a certain way or with any underlying parameters is fair and can undermind that type of reflection.  In the article, Wiley explains how it aids teachers with things like lesson plans, worksheets, and evaluations. So while I do understand the point from a pedagogical perspective, I think it can be counter intuitive. Later in the article as they talk about the criticisms of this formulaic idea. I think Wiley hit it on the head when he talks about how these things are counterintuitive to the growth of someones writing. “Schaffer’s approach the

goal of writing is to produce an essay of requisite length that contains the correct ratio of detail to commentary. In contrast, real writers must decide what they will compose based on their intentions, who will read their texts, and what effects they want their texts to have on these real and projected readers.”  This quote from the text puts it perfectly to me. While the formulaic approach offers a foundation of sorts, it does not account for the intangibles of audience and what the true purpose of what it is that they are trying to write or get across.  

The last article for this week was also an interesting read.  From Peter Elbow, who is quietly becoming the star of this class, takes us through the differences between high and low stakes writing, and the importance of the latter.  Low stakes writing allows those who are learning to write to do just that, write. I liken this to a kid who dreams of one day being a BMX cyclist. Their first foray into this kind of venture is not picking up a bike and riding right onto the ramp.  It is, rather, beginning at the basics, foundation, and freedom of learning to simply ride a bike. Before we can get too technical with our writing and be in a position where we can truly write in a polished and critical way, we need to first learn to just get our ideas on paper, and I think this article did a great job of explaining the importance of low stakes writing.  Not only as a mode of creativity, but as a foundation for one to become a truly great writer when they reach a point in their lives when writing becomes a high stakes activity.

Formulaic Writing , High/Low Stakes Writing and The Erasure of the Sentence

“Formulaic writing of the kind Scaffer advocates forces premature closure on complicated interpretive issues and stifles ongoing exploration.” Formulaic writing is just what it sounds like, a formula for writing. The problem with this type of writing is the writing! Writing isn’t supposed to be robotic. Reading about Jane Schaffer’s writing formula I find myself having mixed feelings. I understand all the pros for her type of formula writing but I can’t help but feel that it limits and cripples students’ writing abilities. According to Jane Scaffer’s formula writing should look like this:

  • Topic Sentence 
  • Concrete Detail 1 (CD=facts, evidence, paraphrase, proof reference, quote, or examples)
  •  Commentary 1a (CM=2 sentences; analysis, interpretation, explication or personal reaction)
  •  Commentary 1b
  •  Concrete Detail 2
  • Commentary 2a
  • Commentary 2b
Image result for jane schaffer writing formula

Additionally, each paragraph is supposed to have a set number of sentences. I understand how this may be appealing to teachers and students who deal with students who struggles with writing. But isn’t the role of a teacher not just give a simple formula, but coax students into thinking and learning how to get their thoughts down on paper? This goes along with teaching students process over product. Formulaic writing focuses on the product and not the process, but the process is what really develops a students’ writing and their critical thinking analytical skills. So why then do teachers need formulaic writing? Wiley began to discuss it in his essay when he talked about the despair that many low-income schools are in and the hardships that teachers face. On top of the day-to-day trials, high stakes testing has really put a lot of pressure on these teachers and schools to have the students perform well. And its really unfortunate that the students who need the most attention in developing their writing skills are often the ones who formulaic writing is usually hammered into their brains so that they may pass these high stakes tests. Students learn how to just follow the formula as a way to give their teachers what they want in order to learn a good grade. In addition to this, these students are taught this form of writing for so long that it becomes almost impossible to try and tear them away from this formulaic “raft” and go out into the open waters on their own. As far as the teachers, its easier to follow set lesson plans that teach formulaic writing, than it is to get to know your students and cater/tailor each lesson to be relevant to their interests and lives. And as Wiley pointed out many teachers are poorly prepared to teach writing. I like the idea of teaching students various strategies but not the formula itself. This way students can learn the strategies and adapt them to fit different writing situations. Not only can this method work for struggling students it doesn’t confine them or hinder their writing. However, the amount of work that would have to go into the lesson plans for teaching these strategies may be significant, and as I discussed earlier, there is an immense problem with poor teachers.

High stakes writing is a perfect follow-up to writing assessments as they both offer a small additional explanation for the use of formulaic writing. I do believe that students should be exposed to more low-stakes writing that are relevant to them. Elbow discussed not only the importance of low-stakes writing but also the importance of responding to writing. This discussion has been present since the start of the semester and it’s clear to see just how impacting comments in students’ writings can be. Elbow points out how comments can be depressing for students to read, and while teachers are hoping to further a students’ writing skills they may be actually hindering their writing skills. Many of the important things Elbow points out include:

  • Low stakes writing helps students involve themselves more in the ideas or subject matter of a course.
  • When students do high stakes writing they often struggle in nonproductive ways and produce terrible and tangled prose.
  • Low stakes writing improves the quality of students’ high stakes writing. 
  • Low stakes writing improves the quality of students’ high stakes writing
  • Low stakes writing gives us a better view of how students are understanding the course material and reacting to our teaching.

When it comes to a continuum between high and low stakes responding Elbow discusses a few key main points such as:

  • Even when we write clear, accurate, valid, and helpful comments, our students often read them through a distorting lens of resistance or discouragement—or downright denial.
  • Zero response (lowest stakes).
  • Minimal, nonverbal, noncritical response.
  • Supportive response—no criticism
  • Descriptive or observational response.
  • Minimal, nonverbal critical response
  • Critical response, diagnosis, advice (highest stakes)

Conners’ essay on the erasure of the sentence focuses on the pedagogical practices surrounding sentence composition. One professor, Francis Christensen, argued that the traditional pedagogy being taught to students were helping students learn how to write. Christensen believed that a student could become a good writer if they could learn how to write good sentences. At first thought this seems to make sense because after all, writing is just a bunch of sentences put together. However, what is writing if the sentences are dynamic but the thoughts and ideas inside the sentences are not? As a response to Christensen’s ideas, imitation writing was formed. Showing students what good writing looks was to make students’ writings similar to superior. But how is this form of writing prompting students to think? The problem doesn’t lay in learning how to make sentences, that can come later. What needs to be addressed is how to prompt students to create and explore their own ideas, then you help them transfer those ideas onto paper. Everyone can think and because we can all think we can all write or learn how to write. But people get caught up in what is “good writing” and not what is “good thinking.”

The Popularity of Formulaic Writing

ENG 5020

Blog #7

Fatima Muhammad

October 28, 2019

Mark Wiley, a composition coordinator of a university, is often asked to provide instruction on teaching writing. Teachers of high school students look for guidance on how to prepare their students for college. “While I enjoy these conversations, I am disturbed that too many teachers are looking for quick fixes for students’ writing problems.” (Wiley Pg. 61) Wiley understands the position teachers are in and the pressure that they deal with regarding the results of assessments. He recognizes the issues that teachers must confront daily: too many teachers are not trained effectively enough to teach writing, schools are not in the best condition, there are low school supplies, too many students are assigned per class, the list can go on. 

Nevertheless, Wiley offers a formulaic method that does not lead to, “pedagogical blindness” (Wiley Pg. 61). The Jane Schaffer Approach to Teaching Writing has, “successes so well conceal aspects of writing instruction crucial to students’ further development.” (Wiley Pg.61) This nine-week program provides instruction to teachers on teaching multi-paragraph essay writing. Some teacher training is required and this method assures success no matter the student’s level. The teacher and the student must both memorize and use the provided vocabulary. This vocabulary becomes their common language.

Below is the visual format of the body paragraph that shows each paragraph must have 8 sentences that follow a specific format. Please note the concrete detail consist of any kind of specific detail such as facts, evidence, examples, proofs, quotation or paraphrase or plot references. And the commentary consists of the writer’s analysis, interpretation, insight, explication, and personal reaction.

One chuck equals: one CD, Concrete detail, and two CM, Commentaries 

Chucks must have a minimum of 100 words

Introduction and conclusion:  

     -must contain 40+ words

     -(introduction), must have three sentences and a thesis somewhere in the first paragraph

     -(conclusion) must contain all commentary and provide a finished feeling to the essay.

Description: Image result for jane schaffer approach to teaching writing

                                                            1.Topic sentence

                    2.Concrete detail #1

                    3.Commentary #1

                    4.Commentary #1b

                   5.Concrete detail#2

                   6.Commentary #2a

                   7.Commentary #2b

                   8.Concluding sentence

Schaffer’s goal is, “to teach students how to write an essay.” (Mark Miley Pg.63) Some students have no idea of how an essay should be structured. This model has proven to be successful. Students learn how to explain and defend the topic sentence and are encouraged to write a complete paragraph with a minimum of eight complete sentences. Schaffer recommends that it is best to use this method during freshman and sophomore high school years, to lay a foundation for writing essays. You will find that some students may become dependent on the formula; while other students master these steps and then confidently, advance on to other styles of essay writing. 

I like The Jane Schaffer Approach to Teaching Writing. I like it because it offers a method that has easy to understand and easy to follow instructions. Students enter the classroom with different skills and different academic performance levels. Here is a method that each student can find useful.  Educators are pleased with this method because according to Schaffer the scoring of these essays is at the same level as AP exams. Also, this method comes equip with activities that support learning. Like prewriting activities and rubrics that the students can use to evaluate their work.

Here is a video of The Jane Schaffer Body Paragraph,   

Just Say No to Formulas in Writing; Do Not Erase the Sentence

I am pleased to report that in the Edison School District, a middle-class suburban school district in New Jersey, we do not teach formulaic writing that Jane Schaffer and her colleagues use in the San Diego school district. Schaffer’s approach to writing about literature and personal experience is too mechanical; it is similar to computing an algebraic equation.

Image result for algebraic equation
Compare this algebraic equation with Schaffer’s Formula fo Writing Literature and Personal Experience

Formulaic Writing at its Best: Schaffer’s Formula

Topic Sentence 

Concrete Detail 1 (CD=facts, evidence, paraphrase, proof reference, quote, or examples)

 Commentary 1a (CM=2 sentences; analysis, interpretation, explication or personal reaction)

 Commentary 1b

 Concrete Detail 2

 Commentary 2a

 Commentary 2b

Ratio: 1 CD: 2 CMs

Word and Paragraph Requirements:

  • 8-sentence paragraphs
  • Minimum of 100 words
  • Introduction and conclusions = 40 words
  • The introduction has three sentences

In trying to figure out why these teachers are resorting to such extreme forms of formulaic writing, Judith Langer reports that teachers and school districts resort to formulaic writing because of high-stakes testing. Students need to pass state-mandated tests for funding; if students do not pass, then teachers and administrators will be laid off. I just hope that this formulaic type of writing occurs a couple of month before testing, and afterward, the teachers resume their curriculum.

In poorer school districts where reading is not encouraged at home, it presents a problem for teachers. English teachers have only 40 minutes to spend with students. In classrooms with block scheduling, those teachers may have 80 minutes of class time. Students do not read on the weekend, during breaks, or during the summer. In response to this reality, teachers provide silent, sustained reading time in class (SSR). Without good models of writing, these students need more scaffolding and more structure when writing. As Langer reports, struggling writers do need “carefully structured assignments” along with graphic organizers but not teachers should not “repetitively assign the same assignments.” Teachers need to vary the types of writing assignments because it will be repetitive and monotonous for both the students writing the essays and the teachers reading the essays.

And yes, Langer is spot on when she concludes that a remedial student’s diet cannot consist only of “workbook drills, fill-in-the-blank exercises, and other test-prep materials” since this type of curriculum is “not relevant in their lives.” Although teachers agree with this line of reasoning, school districts are in a bind since administrators are afraid that students will not pass standardized testing without a test-prep class. In our school district, we have remedial English classes for struggling students such as ESL and special education students who have failed to pass one of the high-stakes standardized testing requirement, which is mandatory for high school graduation. These remedial classes, and perhaps Schaffer’s formula, may come in handy for these particular students, since these desperate seniors want to graduate from high school –even if it means producing formulaic writing.

Enters James Collins. He offers a viable alternative by suggesting that Schaffer’s formula can be used as one possible strategy for struggling writers; that is, teachers should teach strategies and not formulas. Collins argues that student-writers need three types of knowledge: 1.) “declarative, which is information (or facts) about writing”; 2.) procedural, which shows “students how to accomplish a task”; and 3.) conditional, which teaches the “students when to make choices.” Collins also makes an essential distinction between formula and strategy in that students do not apply a strategy “mechanically” as in a step-by-step formula but to learn to use different strategies (or tools) to “understand how to adapt a form to a particular situation.” To use an analogy, a writing teacher needs to teach the student that he cannot only drive in a straight line, but he also needs to make a left and drive in reverse. By using a formula, the student learns to write just one way. He does not learn to adapt to different writing situations. Therefore, he argues for “multiple writing strategies” and that these writing strategies are “social constructs,” where there must be a dialogue between teachers and their students. Teachers need to teach students when and how to use different strategies. To conclude, Collins states, “Writing instruction needs to equip student-writers with the tools (or strategies) to support their writing choices.” In other words, writing teachers need to allow students to think for themselves and to make writing decisions for themselves.

Once the student-writers learn how to write, then the writing instructors need to respond to their writing. In his essay “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” Peter Elbow’s argues for more “low-stakes writing” and more “minimal, low stakes responses” rather than critical responses. For instance: When I give my students feedback, I use the “mix response” where I praise the students’ ideas or writing techniques, then I tell them what they should focus on when they revise. I write, “Revise for…” Since I am the writing coach, I provide my students with opportunities to rewrite for a higher grade. This approach works well for me, especially since my students appreciate an opportunity to revise for a higher grade. 

Aside from providing feedback, how do we help improve student writing? As an adult writer, I have used sentence imitations and sentence combining and controlled sentence mutations in my writing. I use these strategies as revision strategies to help me improve my writing style. Adult writers use these strategies to help them improve their syntactical style. In “The Erasure of a Sentence,” Robert Connors provides some strategies for writing “longer, more mature, more varied, and more interesting sentences.”

Sentence Imitation 

Image result for sentence imitation
Sentence Imitation in Writing
  • In Francis Christensen’s article on “The Generative Rhetoric of a Sentence,” he teaches students to start with a simple sentence then attach phrases and clauses (or “free modifiers”) to produce a cumulative sentence. This strategy is helpful for writers who write simple sentences. As a revision activity, teachers can ask students to add a prepositional phrase or an adverbial clause to a sentence.
  • In Edward Corbett’s “The Use of Classical Rhetoric,” he introduces the strategy of imitation, defined as “emulation of the syntax of good prose models,” where “students copy passages, verbatim by admired writers.” This strategy may be useful when teaching rhetorical strategies in speeches. Teachers can ask students to copy a passage from their favorite speech so that students can internalize the structure of the speech.
  • Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester added a helpful strategy where the student was to asked “to read a provided analysis of the model’s structure” before creating an imitation. For a struggling writer, a brief discussion of the model’s structure may serve as a helpful guide.    
  • Edmund Miller combined sentence imitation and sentence combining by having students copy a passage and then make some changes to the passage.” He coined this approach as “controlled composition.” That is an exciting approach that goes beyond copying a passage. It requires critical thinking. 
  • By the 1980s, sentence imitation fell out of favor because critics claim that it thwarts individuality and creativity.

Sentence Combining

Image result for sentence combining
  • In 1957, Noam Chomsky introduced the idea of Transformational-Generative (TG) Grammar, which cast aside traditional and structural grammar. TG led to sentence-combining, which is the process of joining two or more simple sentences by using “embedding, deletion, subordination, and coordination.”
  • By 1985, sentence combining was slowly “erased” since critics James Moffet wrote that there is more to writing than syntax. He wrote, “we need to be concerned with the “meaning, motivation, purpose, and point.” 
  • Moffet is right. There is more to writing than syntax, and there is a causation-correlation fallacy; if a writer can mechanically combine clauses, that does not necessarily make him a good writer. 
  • Therefore, I maintain that sentence imitation and sentence combining should not be altogether “erased” (forgotten); preferably, these strategies should be used as revision strategies to help writers create longer and more varied sentences. 

Blog #7

Acting, like writing, demands fluid self-expression and adherence to structure.  One does not negate the other. An acting teacher of mine would often advise the development of his students by saying,  “If a river is to run freely it must have strong walls”: likewise, if the well of human experience is to be transmitted through the medium of writing, it can, more often than not, be communicated through formulaic conventions serving as vessels for thought, feeling, and observation. Familiarizing students with the conventions of writing can be achieved in tandem with exercises that develop critical thinking.  I think it is unwise for a pedagogue to be polarized by exclusively teaching techniques or offering exercises that exclusively nurture the development of only self-expression or adherence to structure.  Ultimately, writing is an art form and the development of a writer, or writers. should honor that possibility.  Innumerable exquisite classical piano compositions are built on major, minor, augmented, and diminished scales.  Likewise, jazz music, another genera, builds complex improvisations upon it’s own set of studied scales.  Students begin the study of music by practicing the foundational scales upon which more complex structures are built.  In doing so, they prepare to give the freedom of expression to the passion of their souls.

The authors of The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (And Why We Need to Resist) by Mark Wiley; The Erasure of the Sentence by Robert Connors; and, High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing by Peter Elbow, in combination, make arguments that can significantly lead to inculcating mature writers if the concepts presented in their contributions are synthesized and integrated into instruction in a balanced way.

Mark Wiley argues that The Jane Schaffer approach to teaching writing, “a nine-week, step-by-step method for teaching secondary students how to write the multiparagraph essay” (Wiley, p.61) falls short in achieving it’s objective.  I would argue that this method is an excellent STARTING POINT for young writers who are unfamiliar with channeling their ideas into a template that guides them to organize their ideas into a BASIC five paragraph essay.  Wiley wisely recognizes that “Writing teachers must recognize that writing contexts vary, writing tasks vary, and our students, in order to grow and succeed as writers, must gradually develop a repertoire of strategies for identifying and then handling the differences each situation presents” (Wiley, p66). Later on in his article he points out that Jane Schaffer approach is inadequate for writing that needs to accommodate other genres such as autobiographical, reflective, speculative, or argumentative.  He also quotes and recognizes the validity of James Collins argument that “Declarative knowledge provides an awareness of content; procedural knowledge provides ways of remembering, obtaining and constructing information to achieve communicative purposes; and conditional knowledge tells the writer what conditions call for selecting among options such as syntax, wording, tone, and register.  In this formulation, writing strategies consist of both a set of controls (procedures) for accomplishing an end and a clear, intentional sense of when and how to use the controls (conditions)” (Wiley, p.66). It should be a goal to educate young writers to a point of maturity where they can appreciate and apply Collins insights. Upon finishing Wiley’s article I was convinced that a school system could not rely solely upon Jane Schaffer’s approach to fulfill the need writers have to be capable of expressing themselves in multiple genres; however, young people are DEVELOPING writers that are likely to benefit from formulaic writing as a starting point.

Robert J. Connors “examines the sentence-based pedagogies that arose in composition during the 1960’s and 1970’s- the generative rhetoric of Francis Christensen, imitation exercises, and sentence-combining” (Connors, p. 96).  His thorough research exposes the fact that these methods were effective in improving student writing; yet, by the 1980’s “Teachers and theorists reacted against any form of practice that seemed to compromise originality and the expression of personal feelings…”(Connors, p. 114).  Christensen’s pedagogy consisted of short base-level sentences to which students were asked to attach increasingly sophisticated systems of initial and final modifying clauses and phrases” (Connors, p.99).  Lester Faigley set out to prove two hypothesis pertaining to the validity of Christensen’s method: The first was to measure if students would evolve in syntactic maturity and the second was to measure a qualitative increase in writing skill.  His experiments showed that both hypothesis were positive in producing measurable classroom results.  Another syntactic method was popularized during the 1960’s:  Imitation techniques were applied by having students directly copy passages, compose passages using models, or interact with controlled mutation of structures.  In 1977, William Gruber wrote that “imitation liberates students’ personalities by freeing them of enervating design decisions” (Connors, p.102).   “Noam Chomsky revolutionized grammatical theory with his book Syntactic Structures, (from which) the theoretical base was established upon which modern sentence-combining pedagogies would be founded” (Connors, p.103).  Sentence-combining “is the process of joining two or more short, simple sentences to make one longer sentence, using embedding, deletion, subordination, and coordination” (Connors, p.103).  In 1973 Frank O’Hare’s research, Sentence-combining: Improving Student Writing without Formal Grammar Instruction showed definitively that significant gains in syntactic maturity took place for students utilizing this method.  Despite the proven success of teaching sentence rhetorics, the line of criticism that had endured for about a fifteen-year period resulted in these methods becoming unpopular by the 1980’s.  An ongoing complaint among critics was that these methods neglected to teach students the more important skills of defining issues, thinking, generalizing, and expressing value judgments.

Peter Elbow’s article High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing, addresses the issue of giving the students an opportunity to develop critical thinking skills in the context of what he calls low stakes assignments.  Low stakes writing assignments allow the students to express their ideas informally knowing that the grading process will also be informal.  He does not negate that high stakes assignments should also be required which demand that the students articulate what they have learned in a sound and clear way.  This being said, he believes that lots of low stakes writing should be assigned before they culminate in a high stakes essay.  This approach enables the students to explore, articulate, and clarify their ideas in depth before they are required to hand in an assignment that will have a significant impact on their grade. Low stakes writing can take the form of “quickwrites, letters, freewrites, thinkpieces, or inkshedding” (Elbow, p.7).  He has found that in addition to leading students into involving themselves more with the subject matter of the course, in low stakes writing their prose is livelier, clearer, and more natural: This approach ultimately leads to improved quality of students’ high stakes writing. In order to encourage students independent thinking he offers a supportive or noncritical response to low stakes pieces and a more critical or diagnostic response to high stakes assignments.  Additionally, he recommends offering no more than three written comments so students can genuinely focus on the changes that are recommended.  Elbow also recommends involving students in the process of analyzing their own high stakes pieces: He engages their participation by asking them to write a short reflective paper or cover letter, to accompany their essay, that addresses “how they went about their writing”, “what they see as their main points”, “which parts they are most and least satisfied with” and “what questions they have for him as the reader” (Elbow, p.12)  In order to see if he communicated clearly when commenting he allows the students to take five minutes immediately after receiving their returned high stakes papers to write a short note telling what they heard in the comments and what their reactions are.

“The river can not flow freely unless it has strong walls.”  The writing practices recommended by Wiley and Connors contribute to the systematic development of rhetorical tools, while Elbow makes recommendations that encourage critical thinking and authentic expression.  Rhetorical tools provide the walls to the river that flows forward from unencumbered free thinking.  Art is the combination of the two as one.  Writing is art.

Formulaic Writing,High Stakes & The Erasure of the Sentence : 3 all in 1

Wiley speaks on Popularity of Formulaic Writing from Jane Schaffer’s method of this reading is used for students to use this formula in essay writing establishing her teaching materials in 1995 in San Diego, California where she teaches. Starting in the formula she uses the key terms that teaches and students must memorize so that both share a common language when talking about writing viewing the diagram.

  • Concrete detail #1
  • Commentary #1a
  • Commentary #b
  • Commentary #2
  • Commentary #2a
  • Commentary #2b
  • Concluding Sentence

Each body paragraph must have eight sentences. “Several students high school teachers also whom spoken with who have been using the Schaffer method generally saw rapid improvement in the writing of struggling students.” Although, using ” Strengths of Formula”

  • Topic Sentences
  • Thesis
  • Concrete detail
  • Commentary
  • Chunk

This helps the importance students must learn and student reading and informative instructions to the rubric. “Teachers while acknowleding that students must move beyond the Schaffer method if they are to continue improving, were never less left wondering what to do next.”

“Criticism of Formulaic Writing”

When it comes to students the classroom of criticism of formulaic writng student must educate themselves and make decisions about ” genre, content, structure, organization, and style.” They must learn to hone their judgments about the effects of the choices they make as writers.

This openly gives the students choices to know the basic of taking in criticism of formulaic writing in their own self writing when others are reading their work.

High Stakes and low stakes in assigning responding writing Peter Elbow

Elbow breaks down the high and low stakes in assigning responding writing.

*Assigning Writing

Low stakes writing is often informal and tends to be graded informally.

*Importance of Low Stakes Assignments

In truth, if we are looking for the best possible low stakes arena for language for using language to learn, explore, take risks, or commune with ourselves and not have our language be evaluated- writing is much better than speaking.

Also students have low stake writing assignments such as : frequent, informal assignments that make students spend time regularly reflecting in written language on what they’re learning from discussions, readings, lectures, and their own thinking called



*Free writers

*Think pieces

*Ink shedding

When it comes down to the last minute students slow down with their reading till an exam or major paper is due, they learn much less from discussions and lectures.

*Responding to Writing

Although teachers are to leave comments on students papers, students are likely to not understand these feedbacks from their teachers responding to them in a negative way and make a criticism judgement. pg. 8 “Even when we write clear, accurate, valid, and helpful comments, our students often read them through a distorting lens of resistance or discouragement or downright denial. “(Don’t we sometimes read responses to our own articles by professional reviewers through similar lenses?) When students read what we write, they are usually reacting at the same time all the past teacher comments they have received on their writing. The most obvious example of this that students tend to take almost anything we write as criticism- even if we are just asking them a question or making an observation, or even if we are just asking them a question or making an observation, or even making a low-key statement of mild praise.”

*Continuum Between High and how Stakes Responding

zero response (lowest stakes) “Many teachers require some low stakes writing that they don’t even read. Students can appreciate and benefit from the freedom of this private writing.

*Conclusion: Concrete Suggestions

“For high stakes assignments, it can be very helpful to require a draft a week or more before the final version. Teachers handle drafts in a wide variety of ways depending on their circumstances and styles.” This has been a good way to see what students sugggestions of starting their writing and to better their writing as well.

The Erasure of the Sentence by Robert Connor

*Christensen Rhetoric

“A Generative Rhetoric of sentence.” The last piece this reading in this article and in the works published up to his death in 1970, Christensen described a new way viewing sentences and a pedogoical method that could be used to teach students how to write longer, more mature, more varied and interesting sentences.