O.D.ing on Prescriptive Paragraphs

A while ago, I came across a “free classroom poster” on Pinterest that made me want to headdesk so hard it would alarm local seismologists.

It’s supposed to look like a hamburger. Source.

Students of mine have described prescriptive paragraph templates like these as relatively common. As with the five-paragraph essay, it’s the dose that makes the poison, and students are O.D.ing on this shit.

Look at that deformed hamburger. Does what it describes sound like a paragraph you’d actually want to read? I think it sounds like a bunch of insipid bullshit. Teaching writing this way is like saying you’re going to teach someone how to cook, then just giving them a pile of expired Lunchables.

A few years ago I had the misfortune to learn about the Schaffer paragraph, another highly prescriptive template for body paragraphs in essays (usually five-paragraph essays, because of fucking course they are). According to my sources (students), there’s also a pernicious variation of Schaffer paragraph taught by the unwieldy moniker “TS CD COM COM CS.” Essentially, the idea here is that a paragraph should be a string of sentences like so:

  1. TS – topic sentence
  2. CD – concrete detail (such as a quote)
  3. COM – commentary
  4. COM – more commentary
  5. CS – concluding sentence

I hate these kinds of prescriptive templates with the burning passion of a thousand exploding supernovas.

Like this, only more so.

These kinds of templates train students to focus on filling in the blanks, completely sidestepping questions of purpose or meaning in writing. When students have learned to write using the deformed hamburger or its kissing cousin the Schaffer paragraph, their paragraphs go something like this:

  1. TS – the student writes a topic sentence, which may or may not introduce the reader to the main idea of the paragraph, and may or may not develop the central idea of the piece of writing as a whole. Kind of a crapshoot, really.
  2. CD – the student plugs in a quote, frequently with no lead-in. The quote sits there like a dead fish, and seems to have been chosen on the basis of a key word in the quote which could theoretically relate to the topic at hand, though the quote as a whole decidedly does not, and in some cases directly contradicts the overall point the writer has theoretically been attempting to make.
  3. COM – Here the student is on firmer ground. “Aha,” the student has said. “I have quoted something, and my reader needs me to explain the quote.” And so the student closely paraphrases the quote, unintentionally conveying the impression that he or she believes the reader to possess the comprehension and attention span of a dumpling.
  4. COM – Often the student doesn’t actually include this, because he or she is not sure what to say after quoting and then paraphrasing the quote. When the student does attempt further commentary, results vary. In some cases, the student has done enough thinking about the issue at this point in the paragraph that he or she produces what would, if moved to the appropriate position, make a reasonably good topic sentence, because the student has managed to figure out what point he or she actually wants to make. In other cases, this sentence ends up being total word salad as the student attempts, and fails, to reconcile the disparate elements that have been thrown together thus far.
  5. CS – Here again the student feels on firmer ground. “Aha!” the student exclaims. “I shall herein transition to the next paragraph!” And then the student writes a topic sentence for the next paragraph, unintentionally marooning it like a castaway from a sunken ship, which is an entirely appropriate metaphor because the paragraph ends up making about as much sense as the TV show LOST. Alternatively, the student ends up repeating his or her thesis, or the topic sentence, as if the reader will find this repetition charming and utterly convincing.

And thus students arrive in my classroom, eighteen years old, with high school diplomas under their belts, absolutely certain that a paragraph should contain precisely three (or five, or maybe seven) sentences, but with no real sense of what those sentences should do.

Next time, I’ll tell you about how I was taught to teach paragraphs, and why I think it’s a damn sight more effective than the Schaffer or the deformed hamburger fill-in-the-blanks method.


10 thoughts on “O.D.ing on Prescriptive Paragraphs

  1. when you mentioned the whole structure of an essay of the “TS CD COM COM CS”, it immediately took me back to sophomore year when my teacher would give us a paper divide in those columns, at first it seemed easy to write a perfect essay, but once I actually had to put them together and make it flow… I struggled and it would make me wanna throw the paper back at her for making that ‘rough draft paper’ part of our grade for our final essay.


  2. “Alternatively, the student ends up repeating his or her thesis, or the topic sentence, as if the reader will find this repetition charming and utterly convincing,” reminded me of middle school and freshmen year of high school, when teachers thought it was okay with integrating the same topic sentence from the introduction into the conclusion. Not only is it repetitive but it makes me cringe upon reading it!


  3. It’s funny because everything you said about filling in the blanks is true. That’s what I’ve been taught in high school and I still feel like when I’m writing to this day, I’m just trying to fill in the blanks.


  4. It’s ridiculous how when we are taught how to write paragraphs they put us in such boxes of how to write them. It leaves barely any creativity for the writer. At the same time no one has actually taught us what comes after the topic sentence in a paragraph.


  5. I realized that I’ve gone through this situation as well, I believed that there was a formula that was taught to follow, or else, the essay would be incorrect. This idea, I always found weird, because I realize that anything that I read, never follows the same formula This always made me wonder, why can’t I do this? or what did I do wrong?


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