Can We Teach Writing Formulas Rhetorically?

By Jennifer Fletcher

Mark Twain writes in Tom Sawyer Abroad that a man who carries a cat by the tail gets “knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn’t ever going to grow dim or doubtful.” Holistic scoring has been my cat-by-the-tail experience; I’ve learned things from reading thousands of student essays for district, state, and international writing exams that I could not have learned in any other way. And one of these painfully memorable lessons is that formulas can both help and hinder young writers.

If we chose to teach pre-fabricated structures—for instance, the reason-reason-counterargument essay I’ve repeatedly seen as a response to argument prompts on standardized tests—we can at least teach these structures conditionally. “Use only if appropriate” is the message students need to hear if they are going to be able to repurpose their learning for other situations. What matters is that students make their own strategic choices about structure, even if they occasionally choose a stock formula to organize their ideas. Being mindful of a writer’s options will assist students in the many situations in which the formulas they’ve learned no longer apply.

To do this, however, writers have to be able to go below the surface of a text and its rhetorical situation. They have to know how communication works. They need their own internalized understandings of a writer’s options as options, not just assignment directions. In a session I attended at the 2017 Convention of the National Teachers of English (NCTE), literacy scholar Michael Smith called out the importance of this explicit theoretical knowledge for transfer of learning. “Unless you can name it,” he said, “you can’t move it” (“Preparing Students for Tomorrow by Arguing Today”).

Writers also need to be mindful of the effects of our choices, formulaic or otherwise. If playing to our audience’s preference for a formula helps us achieve our purpose, so be it. One might argue that New York Times writers are sometimes formulaic (or at least predictable) in their organizational choices. I recently counted around a dozen op-ed pieces in which the third or fourth paragraph began with the word “but” or “yet,” signally an abrupt shift in the article’s direction. But even a formula should be deployed as a rhetorical choice, not a default response to a task.

The point is that if we want students to successfully navigate the diverse rhetorical situations they’ll encounter in their lives, they need to be aware of when and why they make particular choices as writers–including the choice to use a formula.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Work Cited

Smith, Michael. “Preparing Students for Tomorrow by Arguing Today.” National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, 2017.

Scaffolding for Independence (and Avoiding Acronym Overload)

Scaffolds are temporary structures intended to support and extend learning and move novices toward mastery. Effective scaffolds don’t substitute a simpler task for a more complex one; they support students in developing the procedural and conceptual knowledge that enables them to grapple with complexity. Over-scaffolding, on the other hand, undermines students’ autonomy by telling students what to do and how to do it.

What does over-scaffolding look like? It might look like a few too many acronyms. I’ve been thinking about what our students see—and what they learn—when we fill our curriculum or classroom with mnemonics for teaching literacy skills. Try making a list in your head of all the reading and writing acronyms you’ve seen over the years: TPCASTT, SOAPSTone, OSCAR, RAFT, DBQ, CER, DIDLS, SQ3R. The list goes on and on.

I proudly decorated my first classroom with colorful TPCASTT and OSCAR posters I made on my home computer. A quick search on Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers yields thousands of charts for displaying popular teaching acronyms. It can almost seem like we can’t teach a concept or skill unless we encode it in an abbreviated form first.

But here’s the thing: These kinds of acronyms are often just a list of directions. They tell students what to do with the texts they’re reading or composing without developing their understanding of why they should be doing these things or how to change their approach when circumstances demand. A literacy strategy such as RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) or DIDLS (Diction, Imagery, Details, Language, Structure) unaccompanied by any exploration of underlying principles and purposes is just a mandate to do what the teacher says.

We can’t call this modeling expert thinking if we’re not also modeling the deeper concepts, practices, and provisions that experts draw on in doing their work. Too often, the acronym becomes just a shortcut to mimicry—a way to superficially imitate what experts do without engaging in the recursive, interrelated processes that characterize expertise.

What matters is not whether students know what’s a FATT sentence or a DOK question but the extent to which students can activate appropriate strategies and draw on principles as the situation warrants. It’s the questions students learn to ask about concepts such as audience, language, and structure that are important:

  • What are the audience’s values, needs, and interests?
  • How do the writer’s language choices affect the mood and tone?
  • How do the writer’s organizational choices shape the reader’s experience?

If students can’t unpack the questions and principles behind the acronym–principles such as academic discourse being characterized by a shared set of language conventions–the acronym may be getting in the way of deeper learning. The group of letters can seem like just one more thing students have to remember for school that they’ll never use in the real world.

Here’s my other worry about acronyms: they can trick us into thinking we’ve taught a literacy strategy when we haven’t yet. We introduce OSCAR, pass out some OSCAR graphic organizers, put the OSCAR poster up on the wall and believe we’ve taught a revision process when we’re really just getting started. Students learn to revise their writing by revising their writing. OSCAR might help make a few aspects of this process visible, but there’s no substitute for getting into the weeds with writers’ choices and readers’ reactions.

I’m guessing you probably don’t have a RAFT or SOAPSTone poster hanging in your home office or wherever you do your own reading and writing. And why not? Because when you have a deep understanding of literacy principles and processes, you don’t need an acronym to tell you what to do.

And that should be our goal for our students: the kind of expertise that lets them do their own work as readers, writers, and thinkers. Literacy instruction might start with modeling the practices of fluent readers and writers, but it shouldn’t stagnate there. Effective literacy instruction needs to move students beyond just copying someone else’s approach.

Expert learners have their own flexible processes for doing—and enjoying!–intellectual work.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Teaching for Change

By Jennifer Fletcher

Teaching for transfer prepares students to be flexible thinkers who notice what’s going on around them, assess the current situation, and adjust and respond as needed. In 2020, the ground shifted under us. Economies were shuttered, schools closed, tests were suspended, jobs were lost or transformed, and the world turned upside down while millions of people lost their lives to a disease that was new in human history.

While nothing could have prepared us for this catastrophic loss of life, it was clear that the coping skills we most needed were those that help us navigate radical change. Rhetorical thinking and a spirit of transfer help us to be alert to changing conditions and contexts. After years of teaching about the importance of situational awareness and responsiveness, I repeatedly asked myself in 2020, “OK, just how good am I at handling change?” I didn’t always cope as well as I wanted to. But I found that what I had learned about transfer and rhetoric helped me to coach myself through the more difficult transitions.

As the news cycles rolled out in a relentless series of unthinkable headlines, we had to jump from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C. Even the old reliables of K12 education–standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and AP exams–fell away or were transformed as colleges and testing companies scrambled to adjust to new realities. What remained the same, and indeed was more important than ever, was the need for people to figure out what had changed in their world and adapt accordingly.

We need to prepare students for an unknown future, not teach them rules and formulas that perpetuate the status quo…or even that just assume that the literacy tasks of tomorrow will look the same as the literacy tasks of today. 

But teaching for change isn’t always something we’ve done well as a profession. We tend to prefer fixed targets. And assessment and accountability systems rarely consider the extent to which students can adapt and apply their learning in new situations. Yet this measure of learning is exactly the one that matters most right now. Because we’re all having to adapt like never before.

The things we used to know and do fit a reality that continues to shift away from us even as we struggle to map its contours. Never has a list of fixed rules or stock formulas been less relevant to our students’ lives or to their preparedness for the future.

How many times in the past year have you heard someone say, “there’s no playbook for this”? There is no playbook for the world we’re living in now. We do our students a grave disservice if we act as if everything is business as usual when it’s not.

What endures, what still matters today, is the learning that helps students figure out how to read, write, and solve problems in unfamiliar situations, including like the one we’re all living through now. 

Teaching for that level of destabilizing, disorienting change involves teaching the concepts, processes and ways of thinking that enable students to adapt, respond, and even thrive when the ground shifts under them. Teaching students rules and formulas sets students up to be frustrated with change.

We can’t get things back to the way they were. The most effective vaccines and treatments won’t undo what has already happened. This, of all times, is not the moment to double down on protecting the status quo. Instead, it’s the moment to embrace our human capacities for adaptation, responsiveness, and resilience–and to cultivate these qualities in our students as our best path forward. 

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.