High school writing instruction should be less creative and more ‘formulaic’

by Grace

Academic writing is formulaic“, according to one SAT tutor who has written a number of books on the topic.  It would seem to follow that creative writing should not be an important focus of high school curriculum.  Students should master the “formula” before they spend too much time on poetry, journaling, or similar exercises in creative writing.

… one of the things I try to get kids away from in terms of their academic writing is the idea that everything they write has to be wildly new and creative. Academic writing is formulaic. It just is. Clarity trumps pretty much everything. You can be creative when you’ve mastered all the rules, but until they, you need to pay attention to what people with more experience do and learn from them. (I think part of the problem is all the hysteria over plagiarism: of COURSE kids shouldn’t be stealing other people’s work, but they also need models! How else are they supposed to learn to write?) When they try to be creative, they write jumbled sentences and the like — it’s just a disaster.

When it comes to writing, most students need to learn the rules before they can break the rules.

Students are not being taught academic writing in high school.

In his “third column on the teaching of writing in colleges and universities“, Stanley Fish addressed a question from readers.

Isn’t the mastery of forms something that should be taught in high school or earlier?

His response, based on years of experience as a college professor:

By all the evidence, high schools and middle schools are not teaching writing skills in an effective way, if they are teaching them at all….

High schools should try something different.

I think K-12 schools would see greater success if they used something like the Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’, a methodical and efficient approach to writing instruction.  I would love to see a separate composition course in high school, employing a basic method like that of Kerrigan, and involving plenty of practice writing.  I suspect a course like this would work well as an online option.

It worked at New Dorp High School in New York City, where it was found”that returning to fundamentals like explicit grammar instruction and formulaic writing has succeeded in turning around the dismal performance of high poverty students”.

6 Comments to “High school writing instruction should be less creative and more ‘formulaic’”

  1. I completely agree! My students could definitely use more help in this area. Although, to be fair, I notice that the writing instruction in my son’s middle school class is extremely structured (don’t know that I like the term “formulaic”). Most of their writing this year has been in standard 5 paragraph essay format. They are required to use outside evidence and to cite it correctly. What I think is most interesting is that when they hand in drafts, the different components of the essay have to be marked – they highlight them in different colors. They have to mark things like the thesis statement, supporting evidence and transitions. The teacher also does not allow them to state unsupported opinion, or to say things like “I feel that”. As a result, my son is now a much better writer than most of my students.


  2. At first this might be construed as an attack on creativity. But it isn’t. University writing is a whole different ball game from anything in high school (at least in Scotland).

    School doesn’t teach analytic and rule based writing in terms of essays well. And there should be distinct teaching of both creative and formal writing. But as usual school doesn’t really teach kids any useful information for the real world.

    Having said all that formaulaic writing does need to have some flex also in terms of creativity but it’s about knowing where to use it. Facts and evidence are the backbone.


  3. CSProfMom – Your son’s writing instruction sounds great. I think highlighting the different components in different colors actually makes sense.

    I wonder if this reflects recent changes stemming from the change to Common Core Standards. I don’t remember what you describe from my own kids’ middle school years.


  4. lionaroundwriting – Interesting to hear your perspective on writing instruction in Scotland. I agree that some flexibility should be allowed, and even encouraged. But only after the student has mastered the basics of academic writing.


  5. I just finished grading a bunch of papers from my students on “great computer scientists”. I do that assignment to help them learn that there is an actual discipline, and that computer scientists have big impacts on every day life. Anyway, the exercise of grading the papers is always sad. Besides the horribly garbled papers that make no sense at all, there is another group that also makes me nuts. These papers invariably start with some utterly general platititudes tha have nothing to do with the person who they are writing about: “Computers open the word to so many. We would be nothing without computers. I will now write about Sergey Brin, whose contributions have made a better life for all of us”. Then you get a few paragraphs that have been obviously paraphrased from Wikipedia or company webpages, and then finally a conclusion with some kind of verbiage like this “Sergey Brin shows us that if we only put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything. He is my inspiration for my life”.

    Ack! Someone had to have TAUGHT them to write like that, because that isn’t a natural way to write.


  6. “Ack! Someone had to have TAUGHT them to write like that, because that isn’t a natural way to write.”

    That language looks familiar. It sounds like a middle school or high school mission statement. 😉


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