Posted in Writing Theory & Practice

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!


Educator|Mentor|Artist|Aspiring Traveler|Student "Make a difference about something other than yourself." - Toni Morrison "Be the person you needed growing up."

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