teaching writing

Death by TEEL: Are formulas for writing harmful?

Teachers in Australia currently experience extraordinary pressures to teach to the test. In this post we want to take a closer look at how that pressure is affecting the teaching of writing. 

Tickbox template writing is now sought by external assessors in Australia where the focus is on basic skills and imitation of standardised practices. Teachers don’t want their students to be marked down so they teach these writing formulas. The question of whether formulas really help students may be forgotten. So, we ask, do formulas for writing actually improve writing?

We want specifically to look at the formula for writing paragraphs known as “TEEL” (topic, evidence, elaborate, link back to topic). It is used widely in Australian schools. Our discussion follows the suggestion that students in England are experiencing “Death by PEEL”, with PEEL (point, evidence, elaborate, link) being the preferred acronym there.

About us

We are two teacher educators and education researchers who have had extensive experience teaching English in secondary schools.  We are currently conducting research into secondary English teaching in Australian schools. We have a broad range of anecdotal evidence from years spent de-briefing with pre-service teachers about their placements, and we have an overview of practice, at least in Victoria. This article provides a series of points for consideration in relation to the use of TEEL, to help others evaluate its worth.

The problems with TEEL

  1. The use of formulas for paragraph writing has been critiqued for decades in the English teaching literature. Research has shown that while the scaffolding support provided by these formulas may help students with few prior skills, other students have their writing ability and their intellectual development hampered by having to conform to a narrow and simplistic model.
  2. Taking away decisions about how to structure paragraphs removes opportunities for students to learn how to structure, to experiment, to revise and to innovate.
  3. Experts in English teaching recommend that formulas should only be taught with strategies to move beyond them. Yet this does not seem to be happening, with TEEL paragraphs being an end point in many classrooms.
  4. TEEL paragraphs are boring to write, to read and to assess. In real world writing, paragraphs may have no topic sentence (often just a bland statement), even though they are organised around a single idea. Topic sentences, when they are present, may come anywhere in a paragraph. Links at the end of paragraphs may be to a following paragraph, or other parts of the essay, not back to the topic, which invites redundancy and mere re-wording of the topic sentence.
  5. In teaching TEEL, teachers are reduced to telling students what to do, and students to doing what they are told. This deficit model of students undermines the student-centred classroom, and constructivist understandings of learning that suggest students need to build their own knowledge.
  6. Real, expert, published writers know that formulas do not lead to good writing. George Orwell, for example, laments writing that “consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug”.

Where tickbox template writing is sought by external assessors, teachers will not want to disadvantage their students. Yet tedious TEEL writing, while mandated to fit the narrow requirements of assessment regimes such as NAPLAN, may disadvantage students in senior English exams, in which fresh, lively and authentic responses to texts are valued.

A recent review of NAPLAN found too much emphasis on paragraphing at the expense of thinking, and that formulas for writing are restrictive, serving only to allow for fast marking. The Victorian Department of Education and Training’s interim review at the end of 2019, found NAPLAN leads to “formulaic pieces that reflect student attempts to reproduce rehearsed writing prescriptions”.

The TEEL epidemic reveals how dislocated school writing has become from actual good writing. That it feels heretic to make claims such as “topic sentences can go anywhere in paragraphs” shows how constrained and cheapened school writing has become. Flawed implementation of “literacy across the curriculum” means that TEEL paragraphs are even compulsory in other subjects, such as History and Science too. In one school, every paragraph written, including by the administrative staff, must conform to TEEL. Student work is assessed on whether it fits TEEL, not whether the student has anything meaningful or powerful to say.

There’s a better way

We need to raise our expectations of students and free teachers to use TEEL if and when they consider it necessary, not as a straitjacket to make all writing the same. Writing in the real world is judged on whether it works to influence an audience, not whether it complies with TEEL. TEEL is an artificial and glib template to insist on for the development of ideas through writing.

If your child is finding school writing boring, frustrating or demoralising, you may be interested to ask what role TEEL has to play. In current high stakes environments, in which tests such as NAPLAN have the power to distort and demean curriculum, the TEEL epidemic is doing untold damage to children’s capacity to express themselves. With a broad review of NAPLAN calling for submissions by Friday 20 March 2020, now is the time to voice your concern.

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a former secondary school English teacher who is now a pre-service teacher educator and senior lecturer in pedagogy and curriculum at Deakin University, Melbourne. She has a PhD in English teaching and lectures in English method to future English teachers. Lucinda is a widely published expert writer currently researching the teaching of English in Australian secondary schools. Lucinda can be found on Twitter @LucindaMcKnigh8

Narelle Wood is a former secondary school English teacher who is completing a PhD in English teaching. She is now an academic at the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, Melbourne, tutoring students in English method. She is currently researching the teaching of English in Australian schools.

Learning to write in Year 1 is vital: new research findings

By the time children are eight they can spend up to half their day at school involved in a range of lessons that require them to write. Consequently, children who struggle with writing can be seriously disadvantaged.

My colleagues and I decided to investigate what was happening with the teaching and learning of writing in the vital second year of schooling, Year 1.

Learning to write is quite different to learning to read

Learning to write is quite complex and it is a skill we develop over a lifetime. Many adults find writing at work quite challenging. From that perspective it is quite different to learning to read. Most people can read quite well by about mid primary school and then difficulty is only determined by the content, context and familiarity with the language being used.

Learning to write however, has been likened by one researcher as similar to learning to play a musical instrument, it takes dedication, good teaching and lots and lots of practice to master. In the USA, research that explored adults’ ability to write suggests that poorly written job applications are a problem for many aspiring job seekers and many salaried employees in large companies require intensive writing instruction so they can write at the necessary standard for their jobs.

So what makes writing so complex you might ask? Firstly it is physical (handwriting or typing) but secondly it requires thinking and planning at lots of different levels simultaneously.

Authorial and secretarial writing

Specifically, writing involves two different groups of skills: authorial and secretarial.

The authorial writing skills are those involving understanding how to create a particular kind of written text (e.g. a business letter or a report), how to construct sentences in an appropriate way for the particular text and how to choose the best words to make your intended message clear to the reader. The secretarial writing dimensions or skills are focussed on spelling, punctuation and either handwriting or keyboarding.

We use quite different writing styles when we write for different purposes and audiences. For example, I write a lot in my role as a university academic but this is my first blog posting. I have had to think about how to write this blog posting quite differently to the way I think when I write a research article for a research journal. Children often start their formal writing with recounts but they then learn how to write narratives, letters, reports, persuasive texts and more.

Bringing the authorial and secretarial skills together is quite demanding for writers.

If a writer is concentrating on one or more secretarial skills it is harder for them to think about the authorial skills. Think about it as trying to keep lots of balls in the air at the same time.

What our study involved

In our study we were interested in how children in year 1 were managing the authorial and secretarial writing skills. We gathered samples from schools in NSW and Victoria at the middle and end of year 1. We analysed the samples using a tool which we designed for this purpose. (For details on the tool we used and to see some of the samples we collected please go to the Writing Analysis Tool HERE.)

Our findings

Our study provides interesting reading. Some of the findings were:

  • Children made improvement in all writing dimensions from the middle to end of Year 1, suggesting this is an important period of learning for them.
  • Across the samples the growth in sentence structure (an authorial skill) spelling, handwriting and punctuation (secretarial skills) were smaller than the growth in text structure, vocabulary use (both authorial skills). Sentence structure and punctuation showed the smallest amount of change from the middle to the end of the year.
  • Children were allowed to choose what they wrote about and most chose to write recounts (e.g. On the weekend I went to the football . . .)
  • Samples were examined in relation to each participating school’s Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) score as an indicator of Socio-Economic Status (SES). We found that in the middle of year 1, samples from schools with low ICSEA scores were not as strong as those schools with average or high ICSEA scores on all of the authorial and secretarial dimensions. However, by the end of the year, samples from children attending schools with low ICSEA scores had improved and had actually caught up with the children from schools with high ICSEA scores in terms of sentence structure.
  • Girls in the study performed marginally but consistently higher than boys on all dimensions at both data collection times. It is important to note however, that many boys achieved the mean scores for the girls.
  • We had a small number (40) of students in the study for whom English was an additional language. On average these children demonstrated scores on all dimensions at both data collection times that were marginally lower than the children for whom English was their first language. It is important to note however, that the EAL children’s gains between data collection points were greater than the non EAL children in 4/6 dimensions (text structure, sentence structure, vocabulary and handwriting). While they hadn’t yet caught up with their non EAL peers, they were making good strides towards doing just that.
  • In the second round of data collection, there was an interesting relationship between spelling and text structure.

Where to from here

Success with the authorial dimensions of writing means a child can organise their writing using a format which is appropriate for the intended purpose (e.g. a report or letter), write in grammatically correct sentences and carefully choose words so that readers can easily understand their intended message. Success with secretarial dimensions means a child can use tools like spelling, punctuation and handwriting (or keyboarding), to be able to write easily and efficiently and make their writing easy to read.

Our research can help teachers pinpoint children’s writing strengths and needs and track their progress. Teaching can become more focused in this way. We believe teachers of writing in the early years of schooling will find our research useful in their everyday classroom practices.



MackenzieDr Noella Mackenzie is a Senior Lecturer in literacy studies at Charles Sturt University, Albury. She provides CSU students with current, authentic learning opportunities and assessment tasks which link contemporary literacy and relevant technologies with teaching and learning theories, practices and pedagogies. Noella is a member of the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE). For the past 8 years, Noella has focused on the teaching and learning of writing. The program of research has included (1) the examination of the relationship between drawing and learning to write, (2) the transition experiences of early writers and (3) writing development in the early years. Her research informs, and is informed by, her ongoing professional work with teachers in schools and her university teaching. Noella has been recognised for teaching excellence through awards at the state and national levels.

The full study by Noella Mackenzie, Janet Scull and Terry Bowles is available HERE