"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


When Remediation Does Not Provide the Remedy

December 24th, 2013 by

I do hear this from time to time.

“The five paragraph theme should be taught because it introduces structure to students.”

Most recently, I heard it yesterday from a friend. He was bemoaning the complete absence of structure in his students’ writing. The joke here, the point that my friend missed, of course, is that these students who don’t know how to structure their writing have all been taught the five paragraph theme.

My friend’s answer to this dilemma? “Teach the five paragraph theme more. It’s about structure.”

“Do you mean that they haven’t gotten it yet?” I asked. “They’ve been taught the five paragraph theme, and they still don’t get structure?”

This is how we approach students we believe are in need of remediation. When we see the abundance of surface errors and the lack of a clear thesis or even the lack of paragraphs in their writing, we think that they haven’t been taught any of these aspects of writing yet.

In most cases, they have.

What they haven’t been taught is how to structure their thoughts for the current assignment. They know the structure of the five paragraph theme. And they know that the current essay the teacher wants them to write in college will not fit the five paragraph structure. So what do they do?

The answer is this. They try their best. But they don’t know how to structure the new assignment they’ve been given. And the five paragraph theme doesn’t even begin to approximate that structure for them.

It is our job to teach them new structures.

What the Five Paragraph Theme Teaches

Here’s what students learn from their lessons in the one essay format they’ve been taught to write. First, pick three things to say about a topic. Those three things do not need to be connected, and the writer won’t need to defend those three things to an audience that doesn’t agree that these are three items to discuss.

In fact, what the writer is doing is merely stating facts that are evident to most people already.

Next, students are taught to open with a generalization, not a specific case. They are also taught to repeat at the end what they said in the introduction and the body. In other words, they have been taught that their audience is not very interested and lost track of what was said a paragraph ago.

These three items add up to poor rhetoric. Imagine, though, if we taught the five paragraph theme and then followed it up with a theme that required writers to argue why the three things they have written about, say, HIV, are the three things that are interconnected in some way.

Teach that and we have begun to teach thinking.

Teach that and we have begun to introduce students to audiences that are thoughtful.

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