A Formula for Failure: The Problem with Formulaic Writing

By Alex Kameen

As many writing teachers are aware, a power struggle exists today between standardized test writing and authentic writing, and this struggle threatens to disempower our students on a daily basis. Realized primarily through the pressures placed on teachers to prepare students for standardized tests, the impact of this struggle exists equally on a practical, theoretical, and political level.

Plainly put–young writers are getting ripped off, and we must find ways to change that.

Prepping for Tests: The Invention of Writing Formulas

One of the most widespread techniques for writing instruction that disempowers students on a daily basis is the teaching of writing formulas. As a teacher myself, I have used formulas persistently throughout my career to combat the pressures presented by standardized testing, but the more I employ them…the more troubled I feel towards their ultimate impact on students.

For example, in preparation for standardized short-answer questions, I have seen several variations of a common formula taught in classrooms across the country. Although the acronyms tend to vary, here are three examples of an equation I have seen (and taught) in multiple states nationwide:

  1. ACE: (Answer) + (Cite evidence) + (Explain)
  2. APE: (Answer) + (Prove) + (Explain)
  3. RAGE: (Restate) + (Answer) + (Give example) + (Explain)

I want to be clear that I am not criticizing teachers who use these formulas in their classrooms, (I use “ACE” most notably); however, I would like to take some time to think critically about the consequences that this genre has on the lives of students, in hopes of igniting a broader conversation around the ways that formulaic writing and the standardized testing genre are limiting the voices of our next generation.

Problems with Formulaic Writing

Formulaic writing removes the process of inquiry from the writing process.

As I have witnessed in my own classroom, writing formulas tend to strip the power of creation, discovery, and voice from writers, as my students are asked simply to “comply” with the parameters of an equation, as opposed to generating innovative ideas. This can frustrate their ability to experience the power of true inquiry, which is a shame.

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. As a result, the beautiful voices of many students are systematically silenced before they have a chance to rise.

Students who do not “fit the mold” suffer most.

Within my own classroom, I notice that the parameters of formulaic writing affect students with “non-mainstream” English backgrounds most of all, as they reasonably feel their voices undervalued by mainstream formulas for success.

“I know what I think,” students rightfully declare, “but I just don’t like saying it your way.”

Putting Ideas First: A Different Approach

Outside of the use of formulas in my classroom, I ask students to begin first by generating ideas before offering them structural support to best serve those ideas.  The key in this type of writing instruction is shifting the purpose of writing aggressively towards the process of inquiry and discovery, by positioning their writing within the context of real literacy practices (meaning, practices that are actually meant to be used in life outside of the classroom).   

For example, my classroom’s primary curriculum project throughout the year asks students to:

  1. Identify a real need within a community.
  2. Design an innovative plan to meet this real need.
  3. Implement their plan to create real change.  

Within the scope of this design-cycle, writing is positioned as a powerful form of expression meant to effect actual change in the world, as opposed to a performance of formulaic writing compliance. By doing so, the hope is that my students become aware that different structures and genres of writing can be used to support their ideas in powerful ways.

For example, my students often need to email community members to help support their projects, and I have noticed that they become more eager to learn about structures of formal writing when they understand how they can use these structures to their immediate benefit. This allows me to deliver mini-lessons focused on the structures of formal writing within the context of real literacy practices, as students will ultimately write, revise, and send their emails to real people.

Ultimately, I have seen how this type of writing instruction can position students in a much more empowering way, as it invites more kids to shout “I have an idea!” as opposed to “I followed a formula!”


Consequences Beyond the Classroom

Students who follow formulas are essentially required to engage in a non-consensual form of writing. This kind of writing curriculum positions writers in a socially unjust way. If we wish to create a future-public that is capable of generating ideas and discoveries, we must make an intentional shift towards the authentic teaching of the writing process. By placing ownership firmly on student writers, they can feel empowered to develop and use their voices. In this way, the process of writing mimics the process of productive citizenship, as it allows all voices a chance to rise.

Alex Kameen is an 8th grade English teacher in Nashville, TN. He began his teaching career in Austin, TX, and completed his Master’s degree in education from the University of Texas at Austin. While at UT, Alex was a founding cohort member of the UT Urban Teachers Program. He credits the Urban Teachers Program for providing him with enough time, space, and support to construct the theoretical framework that now supports his actions and decisions on a daily basis in the classroom.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


15 thoughts on “A Formula for Failure: The Problem with Formulaic Writing

    • Thank you for this feedback! I hope some of my thoughts may be helpful for other teachers. I know that many of us share the same challenges.

  1. I really love your approach when you said, “…I ask students to begin first by generating ideas before offering them structural support to best serve those ideas.” It’s such a balanced perspective- allowing the students to be thinkers and problem-solvers while at the same time offering supports as needed. As an instructional coach who is often called on to help with writing instruction, this has given me a lot of food for thought on how to approach writing more authentically. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Writing is such a difficult thing for new learners…

    I have found the opposite in my classroom. When students are given a structure and use the structure over and over again, something beautiful happens over time. As expert writers of something basic who feel secure in what they write, they begin to see opportunities for change and manipulate the basic structure. (Of course w/a little help from the teacher…) They can take the risk because they are grounded in something right from the start. Due to their own discovery, they end up developing much efficacy and can effectively give feedback of the writing of their own peers.

    Writing without structure, to me, is like trying to develop an art masterpiece without knowing basic artistic principles. You can give it a shot and few might succeed, but far more will exceed with basic principles and lots of encouragement to grow and explore once the basics are down

    • I agree writing without structure would be a disaster. But formulaic writing is something different. Using your analogy of developing an art masterpiece, formulaic writing is akin to painting by numbers. Is that really very creative? We need to teach the basic skills of writing through modeling and the use of good mentor texts.

  3. Thank you for your post, Alex. I appreciate the way it dovetails with my earlier one, adding important thoughts to the conversation on formula, which some folks still equate, problematically I think, with structure.

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  5. This is an awesome post! I am currently in school studying to become an English teacher and I am using this as a source for a paper I am writing about the problems behind teaching formulaic writing styles. Love to see teachers who speak out against these problems

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  7. Alex, when talking about student autonomy it’s such a foreign thing when having students have complete control over their assignments. It’s ingrained into our brains that there has to be some sort of structure or formula to complete an assignment. I was more comfortable with the structure and having my teacher tell me to go about an assignment one way because its easy to get the assignment over with but it always leads to inauthentic writing. Having the freedom to go about an assignment my own way forced me to be creative and made the assignment more interesting. Because I was so used to having my teacher tell me how to do the assignment I would always go to my teacher and ask if this is correct or ask for assistance.

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