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Dorina Sackman, a middle school teacher in Orlando, Fla., uses a writing "recipe" and manipulatives to teach her 8th grade English-language learners how to structure a five-paragraph essay.Students practice crafting a thesis statement and organizing three supporting arguments.There are five of them, which, according to the recipe, need to be filled in precise order. I trace its roots to a series of formalisms that dominate US education at all levels.
Then in graduate school comes the five-chapter doctoral dissertation. By the time the doctoral student becomes a professor, the pattern is set.
Form, therefore, is not just a crutch for beginners to use in trying to learn how to write; it’s also the central tool of writers who are experts at their craft. Consider key words that signal a particular kind of relationship between words, ideas and sentences: Addition: also, moreover Elaboration: in short, that is Example: for instance, after all Cause and effect: accordingly, since Comparison: likewise, along the same lines Contrast: although, but Concession: admittedly, granted Conclusion: as a result, therefore The last set of examples comes from (2006) by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, which seeks to explain the rhetorical ‘moves that matter in academic writing’.
In his lovely book The conventional wisdom is that content comes first – ‘you have to write about something’ is the usual commonplace – but if what you want to do is learn how to compose sentences, content must take a backseat to the mastery of the forms without which you can’t say anything in the first place. In the appendix, they list a set of syntactical templates that extend over 15 pages.
Writers need to figure out what they want to say, put it into a series of sentences whose syntax conveys this meaning, arrange those sentences into paragraphs whose syntax carries the idea forward, and organise paragraphs into a structure that captures the argument as a whole. The issue is this: as so often happens in subjects that are taught in school, the template designed as a means toward attaining some important end turns into an end in itself. For example, elementary-school students learn to divide a number by a fraction using this algorithm: invert and multiply. This gives you the right answer, but it deflects you from understanding why you might want to divide by a fraction in the first place (eg, to find out how many half-pound bags of flour you could get from a 10-pound container) and why the resulting number is always larger than the original.
Something similar happens with the five-paragraph essay. Teachers teach the format as a tool; students use the tool to create five paragraphs that reflect the tool; teachers grade the papers on their degree of alignment with the tool.