Monday, 29 June 2015

Discussions--series 30--Professions English Teachers Network

Please visit Post 68 and then come back here. Thank you.

Discussions—Series Thirty
Topic 97
James Donahue Educator
Essay Writing: Where is the flare????
I teach AP Language and Composition. I also teach writing at the college level. Recently, I've expanded my educational experiences to begin reviewing writing composition textbooks. I'm wondering what other English teachers think about style in writing. The trend, especially with CCSS, seems to be so systematic that students often write like automatons. The content is there, the structure is there, and with the better writers the logic and evidence are there, but where is the rhetorical style? Where are the rhetorical devices that make writing creative and interesting? Where is the personality of the writer?

Should student essayists strive to make their writing sing? Should they include rhetorical questions and sarcasm and humor? Should they show their personality?

To get to your original question, I have been teaching writing for almost 15 years in ESL, and what I have found is that it is generally extremely difficult to get students to inject personality into their writing. Even in native-speaker classes, students at that age have difficulty finding their voice. It seems that most students are more concerned with doing it "right" and are trying to get the mechanics down rather than making it interesting.

In my opinion, this is fine. Especially with ESL students, the structure is more important than style. I encourage creativity when I find it, but adding yet another dynamic to what they are trying to learn can be overwhelming. It may be formulaic at first, but as they grow more comfortable with the structure they will become more creative.

Mr. Donahue's queries are far from pointless: they address an aspect of writing that everyone who is fond of sentences (and who cares about students improving theirs) ought to wonder about now and then, if not more often. His response to Proof Reader Extraordinaire is one I'll likely show some students so they may benefit as I have. Thank you for the interesting exchange.

Jeremy: Thank you for the feedback. I do understand your reasoning. Formulaic must come first. My contention is that advanced writers tend to continue this process when they could do so much more, and often I think it is because of the system. I still remember way back when I took the CBEST. I wrote one formulaic essay that was founded on deductive reasoning and five sentence paragraphs void of any figurative language or rhetorical devices. It received a high score. I then wrote my second paragraph using inductive reasoning and a much more poetic style. I really got into it and enjoyed it. And I received the minimum score to pass. :(

Douglass: Thank you for your kind words. I love your phrase "fond of sentences." That is what it is all about--a love for the music of language. Well, to balance the critical thinking and content, anyway. What grade levels do you teach?

I discovered that rhetoric was actually a subject in many American colleges and was intrigued to discover what it was and how it was taught. What I found was that it seemed to be taught by example. The study of great writers in terms of their style can be done with extracts and short works and thus by exposure, discussion and analysis, students "catch" the idea that they too can have a voice, a style or flair if you like. They are then encouraged to emulate what they encounter. This is a beginning of understanding of personal style. As to politicians - some of the greatest words ever written were composed by them in many countries. It is by studying the greats that we can judge those less competent and less deserving of our time or our vote. At secondary level the study of genres is very popular and even these younger students can be introduced to the terminology and concepts of style. Thus, it is a growth process and it is a "start simple and move to the complex" kind of journey.

Warren--well said. I think part of the problem is that some people have not studied rhetoric--from Aristotle to Cicero and then modern rhetoricians like Bitzer. Instead, they are only accustomed to the popular colloquial expression, such as a politician accusing someone of "soaring rhetoric" meaning the he/she was implementing hyperbole or merely lying.

In 12 AP we study rhetoric. In 12 ERWC we study rhetoric and expository writing analysis but to a lesser degree. I am going to begin a new position as a writing resource teacher, and this is part of my motivation to hear some perspectives. What I am seeing at both the high school and college level that in reading analysis, students study rhetoric, but then when they actually write, they do not implement the effective rhetorical devices of tone, hyperbole, symbolism, metaphor, anaphora, juxtaposition, rhetorical questions, and yes, at times, tones of sarcasm to make a point or to ridicule a person or decision that deserves ridicule a la Jon Stewart.

What my question really refers to, and for some reason some seem to fail to grasp what I thought was a pretty straightforward question, is how much should we value style. Some teachers actually punish students at the high school or college level for writing personal commentary, rhetorical questions, tone with exclamation points, etc. I do not think this is good writing. I think, as you have expressed, that a study of the great essays and speeches show style and flair, whether it is JFK or MLK or Malcolm X or our current President or historical figures like Queen Elizabeth or the Apostle Paul. In my opinion, when teachers punish students for being stylistic, they are reducing them to automatons.

I've been teaching academic writing to adult EFL learners, and it is indeed a challenge to do so. However, the fun part, and fulfilling for me, is when my students begin to develop a certain 'flair' as you call it, once we've gone through the process.

For beginner - low intermediate level students, you don't expect much to see style, for they need a lot of grounding on structure, an understanding of the English logic in writing, as opposed to the characteristic "roundabout" and flowery style of writing Asians are wont to use, in our respective languages. Even then, most of my students yearn to achieve that English style in their writing and make their writing sound more forceful and persuasive; hence, the motivation is there and that gives me more impetus to help them.

As Warren Daniel emphasized, reading a lot of great examples of essays, or even simple passages, help in their learning process, and this is more true of my more advanced students. We must acknowledge too that some already have a knack for capturing their thoughts and ideas beautifully on paper, so you help them polish in terms of structure and organization.

My experience with my EFL students in showing them my own examples of the kind of writing I want them to achieve in a certain task -- at the beginning of our program also helps my students a lot in improving their skills and in developing their own voice. Later in the program, they've become more at ease and need less examples of my own. They struggle, yes, but they enjoy when they feel their teacher is with them in their journey, and it does give them the satisfaction to see how they are becoming better writers in English.

As readers, we appreciate well-written essays, so it is just as important to teach our students the value of developing style in their compositions.

Glurbadubido-- I had thought my comments sufficiently bland to warrant no censure. But I hadn't factored in how my not contributing to the discussion might necessitate someone not contributing to the discussion in order to point it out. I apologize for forcing Mr. Hunter into such an awkward position. In any case, I continue to enjoy what the folks less bland, smarter and more contribution-minded than I are adding.

Douglas--You are appreciated and the irony is duly noted. I personally find it fascinating, and somewhat sad, how some people interact. I know this is a stereotype, and so I preface my comment by saying people are people and there are always exceptions, but having said that, I will proceed to say that often young people write in forums with a Freudian superego. They write to others in an extremely rude and condescending manner that they would not (usually) ever do in real life. Simple principles such as respect for strangers, respect for colleagues, respect for elders, etc. are completely lost. Somehow, they have developed false concepts that make them think written communication in the virtual world makes them omnipotent. They lose all concepts of effective communication. At the risk of being pedantic, I am going to list some principles that have to do with rhetoric.

* What tone will invite others to wish to dialogue with me?

* As a principle, do I want others to respect my opinions? Then, I should be sure to demonstrate them respect as well.

* It is okay to disagree and still remain respectful and kind--or if someone is incorrigible we can then stop communication and not lower ourselves. A proverb that I must repeat when I fall into this trap is a proverb: Do not harshly rebuke the fool lest you become like him. :)

* Am I an omniscient expert in the field? 99.9% chance that I am not, so being aware of my limited knowledge, I can offer what I have studied and experienced while still being open to new knowledge and the very real possibility that I will learn more, which will result in new paradigms and maybe even completely different positions in life.

* And finally, in a forum like Linkedin, am I aware of my audience? What if there is a future connection/friendship that may prove mutually beneficial? What if there is a future job opportunity? Am I aware of my representation to future colleagues or even clients? Would these people want to work with me?
Interesting that in rhetorical style we should be aware of the most effective tone to persuade our audience... :)


Maria Consuelo--gracias por tus comentarios. Yes, you note a key ingredient. I do model write with students. I have spoken with other teachers about this. Some may feel a bit awkward, but I think we must demonstrate the same principles we wish our students to follow, and that means being vulnerable to make mistakes or seek improvements. It took me a while to swallow my pride, but I think I'm pretty secure now. As part of the writing process, I will write in front of my students. They will point out spelling errors if Word does not, or typos, and sometimes offer suggestions in diction. Sometimes I even pause and ask them, "I'm looking for a word that would best describe...?" I actually call in interactive writing instead of Model Writing because I do it spontaneously and want them to see me make mistakes and verbally discuss the process of correcting my mistakes.


Thanks James, for your response. That is also what I do with my students - aside from giving them my examples culled from my files. I do write on the board along with them, right on the spot -- and my purpose is to let them see my vulnerability: that I can make mistakes too like they do, that it is also difficult for me to write down something, and it empowers them to be able to point out mistakes, or give suggestions for improvement. Hence, it is journeying with them through the painful process, and I know that doing that with your students gives you a kind of fulfilment being with them along the way.

As to the other topic here - on matters of courtesy and respect - I also agree that a forum like Linkedin is a venue for healthy, professional and civil exchange of views and thoughts, at all times. We can agree to disagree politely, and we can all learn from one another.

All the best.

I've just "published" a writing guide on how to use narrative writing techniques to craft college application essays. I would love to send any English/Language Arts teachers a free review copy (It includes sample essays). I think you will find many specific ways to flare up your students' essays in my Essay Hell guides. haha.

Just send me your request to:

My website is packed with helpful writing tips and advice as well:

Thank you, Janine. This sounds exciting! In English 12 we teach the UC Personal Statement as part of one of our ERWC modules. I am going to write you right away. :)

If only my students would write like automatons. . .then they would at least have a foundation for academic writing.

Rhetorical questions, sarcasm, and humor should be discouraged out of respect for academic readers.

Hi Kelly,

* I believe, like Jeremy much earlier in the thread, and simply as a sound form of pedagogy, that yes, structure must be presented first--paint by numbers if you will. I have some very strong templates if you would like me to share them with you (we can message each other and share emails for attachments) and I would love to receive anything you see that is providing success in the classroom.

* After this is accomplished, writing will become lifeless and stale if students are not allowed, and encouraged, to begin to use rhetorical style in their essays. Rhetorical questions or hypophora are techniques used by the greatest writers/speakers from Churchill to MLK. Sarcasm, too, can be extremely effective--it doesn't have to be caustic where we insult someone's mother :) but can be a technique to show the audience (reader) how ridiculous a position or proposed law may be. Humor, too, can create ethos in a way that other techniques may not. When writing narratives (reflections are often used for college entrance exams and for job applications) or persuasive essays, rhetorical style can make all the difference in the world--metaphorical language, symbolism, vivid imagery, some emotion with exclamation points or a type of pathos via a personal anecdote that moves the reader.

* I would only discourage rhetorical style in writing for an expository essay or expository research paper. Other than that, academic writing--from speeches to essays--need rhetorical style to truly move the reader.


Expository it is in my neck of the woods, James.

Hi Kelly,

Yes, for research papers, expository essays, etc. personality and strong rhetorical style is not appropriate. That is where strong analysis, logic, strong mechanics, etc. is needed.

Take care,

For high school, and at least the first years of college, I am satisfied if students write clearly, and present compelling evidence; I think they are too young to have rhetorical style, written flare...that comes, if at all, with much determination and practice. I'm satisfied with an occasional sentence, immensely satisfied with a paragraph, that has flare.

James essay is not and would never be fiction; I teach writing in all forms including essays
As a well published author and writer the word essay must be specific base and every student must construct their essay topic based on specific that is how I teach sarcasm or rhetorical does not form the basis of an essay rather the substance and topic.
My sincere advice to educators, teachers and writers is to be more real than cosmetics.
My students has learnt the need and importance of illustrations in their essay which makes every essay special.
Good Luck

Hallmark--thank you for your input.

Thank you too James and I wish you the best in your quest


To flair or flare...that is the question :-)

Sorry to be pedantic, but the word 'flare' is used as a noun for a rocket distress signal among other meanings whereas the word 'flair' is a noun connected with the ability to show style !

Sorry Mark, I had not seen your comment when I posed my question.

Everyone should check out the beginning of the thread. The error-- flare vs. flair-- was fleshed out eons ago.


My apologies for not getting back to you earlier. I understand completely your view, but I would encourage you to press advanced high school students for rhetorical style as well. We're using the CSU ERWC program for seniors now require close reading with comprehension analysis as well as rhetorical analysis--style, flair, some personal panache--of the author, and then writers, even with their limitations of age, are to incorporate both comprehension principles of logic, evidence, analysis with style to enhance the persuasive power of their arguments (persuasive essays or expository/persuasive response essays) by using tone (emotional tone--outrage, sarcasm, humor, sadness, joy, etc.) and other devices such as symbolism, hyperbole, anaphora, imagery, rhetorical questions and hypophora, and epiplexis. 12 AP are learning these advanced terms.

Of course I am not referring to beginning writers or younger high school students, but they, too, should be allowed some freedom to show their personality in their writing. My own feelings are that we often punish students for not writing in a "paint by numbers" system, so many never break out of this level. I once had a wonderful, very intelligent young lady who had just transferred from Mexico. Her English was limited, but her style and depth was far above my other students. I wanted to encourage her to continue as she built her English skills rather than force her to use very basic vocabulary and "play it safe" as I knew her intellect would never suffer that.

Take care,

Thanks Mr. Humphreys. If you look at the thread you will see that flare was used at least one more time AFTER one of the eons. Thanks for your advice though.

A double "thanks" operates similarly to a double negative, right? That's what I get for sticking my nose in where my foot's already lodged. Anyway, you're welcome-- doubly so. And good luck (for real)..

Douglas, I appreciate your flair. I'm not sure about the double "thanks" though :-)

I also like writing skill which I have thought for yesars and for me it isthe most difficult skill in english teaching , this is why most teachers avoid talking about it, in fact it is what we call "the hidden task"

Abdelhamid--Yes, definitely CCSS emphasizes reading analysis much more than writing skill. Out of curiosity, what languages do you speak, native languages and learned languages?

Take care,

I attended a PD session last weekend, titled "Good bye lofty sentence - hello lowly paragraph: the true unit of meaning" and I'll quote the write up. "While a sentence is a set of words that expresses one idea when arranged in a logical order with a subject and a verb, a paragraph is one idea that explodes with meaning, giving context and life to how (and what) we think. In this presentation I will argue that we should not dwell on the sentence or on cohesive devices but view these as springboards to the logic and meaning derived when someone reads a paragraph. Furthermore, a paragraph's inherent flexibility, e.g. length, register and complexity, allows writers of all genres to reach others' minds, whether to elicit agreement or reaction. For teachers, the message is... think in paragraphs, not sentences."

Other than for evaluating writing as ESL teachers, how often do we in fact "judge" a paragraph on whether or not it has a topic sentence, supporting information and a concluding paragraph? In real life, aren't we more concerned about meaning than form? Why are we so quick to judge our students by this standard?

A very interesting discussion resulted from the presentation, with many teachers now rethinking their stance on demanding proper form....

@Mary Lou I love those ideas, and the concept of focusing on the goal of language (whether words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.). As someone with a background in journalism and teaching English, I realized that language ultimately was mainly about communication and expression. While it's critical to learn the rules of language, it's equally or more important to learn how to use it for those goals. Otherwise, what's the point?

While working with students on the dreaded college app essay (really just a personal narrative with a marketing goal), I have seen how even the top achievers have little experience writing with a purpose in mind. They have built their vocabularies, analyzed how the greats wrote their masterpieces and wrote academic essays and reports. But none of them knew how to write for themselves, whether to express their own experiences or to make a connection with others. These are the real-life writing skills that they need. And they can be taught. I don't understand why it's not happening more in high school, especially when so much is riding on this ability (and I see these college app essays as just one example of that.)

MaryLou: Did you receive any materials that you consider practical? I'm thinking of a book "They say I say" and i second Janine as she shared with me some very wonderful material from her website

Love to hear more...

James: It was a one hour workshop session at a PD event, so the presenter gave his thoughts and then we only had time for a short discussion. The other point the presenter brought out was that to paraphrase a sentence, we usually just substituting words, changing the order of the words, etc. To truly paraphrase, he believes we need to use a paragraph to get a larger idea, and in context. That idea provoked a lot of discussion too, especially among EAP teachers....

From the look of it, it appears that ‘the college level’ refers to students whose mother tongue is English or who are born, brought up, educated and living in native English environment.

I see style as something that brims with or reflects an individual’s thought process (with a beginning, a middle and an end—logic, analysis and sequencing going with it), belief systems, schemata, perceptions and attitudes and seeing an issue under the influence of these personality characteristics. I see style as not something that blossoms and flowers in and yields fruits to these students who have been writing compositions on given topics or topics of their choice only for a few years. I see Style as something that results over a long period of frequent, if not constant, writing. I see style as something that matures into its own and shape and constancy only after a long period of time. I see style as something that emerges from how much reading they do, how much of writing they come into contact with, how many varieties of writing they are familiar with, how constant such reading is.

Style is something that can neither be learnt nor taught through exposing them to conscious reading and to familiarise them with the umpteen rhetorical devices or introducing them to rhetorical devices. I never ‘learnt’ rhetoric. I can never be sarcastic nor my writings are humorous. Style is something that forms on its own without conscious effort. Style is something that happens naturally. I wonder if great writers of the past or the present have ever been ‘schooled’.

If all this is true, isn’t it premature to expect students to exhibit a style of their own that is pregnant with rhetorical devices which are one too many? Yet it may be within reason to expect them to employ, yes, some basic devices like paraphrasing, similes, metaphors (even a simple device like parallelism is something not ALL excellent writer exhibit)

I see dedication in your tone, I see frustration in your tone, I see love in your tone, I see anger in your tone. Of course I could be wrong about my last supposition, I suppose. If so, I’m sorry.

Hi K R

First, let me say that you write beautifully! As a teacher of rhetoric, I love the parallel structure, the repetition, the anaphora, the figurative language, the tone, etc. of your writing. I see your personality in your writing--I see a face behind the writing. This is what I tell my students: Do I see an automaton (a computer generated automated response) or do I see your face i.e. a person with a unique personality behind the writing?

Though ESL students will struggle more than native speakers, college level is college level. Many of my students are ESL (or ELL as a more political term). They often write with great rhetorical style even though their vocabulary may be somewhat limited compared to their native tongue. In fact, many of my Hispanic students write with more style than my American students because they were taught under less rigid rules of structure. I think we are slowly becoming less rigid, but many students are still punished for not writing a topic sentence, and then evidence, and then a few sentences of personal commentary. Inductive structure is often not allowed, and beautiful and artistic structures that you have just demonstrated are often frowned upon as too individualistic or indirect or ambiguous.

There are a few perspectives I would respectfully disagree with. I think we can all learn at the high school (and some even before) level and can learn rhetorical style by studying great rhetorical essays, speeches, and articles--of course once the basics are mastered--and we must remember that students take courses in Latin, physics, calculus, and advanced government in public high schools and even more rigorous courses in many of the top private high schools--this serves as more than suitable evidence that they can release their creativity in language and write with style. Yes, our age and experience always limits us, but I think many teenagers are capable of some outstanding writing levels and even more so at the college level. Writing, like art, can be released through the heart once it is given the freedom to do so, but also like science can be polished by studying not a lifeless list of rhetorical terms, but combining this knowledge with not just the "what" and the "how" but the "why." Why did KR write the phrase "I see style" so often? Why did he use anaphora (or parallel structure) in his last paragraph. How is his overall tone authoritative yet humble in nature and why is this an effective tone? Let's study this...

Best Regards,

P.S. Are you from India? I am curious as I have many Indian friends. I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Karnataka and Kerala many years ago. I enjoyed the people and the culture very much. Truly an interesting country with a rich history, and of course I'm grateful for the birth of the Buddha, whose teachings I find to be incredible.

Last thing first. Yes, I'm from India, Tamil Nadu a South eastern State on the shores of Bay of Bengal. Karnataka and Kerala are our western cousins.

First thing next. Thanks for your compliments. If I write beautifully, let me be honest with you this style of mine wasn't there a few years ago. My style is getting embellished all along the journey. I know I didn't write this well fifty years ago when I was teaching undergraduates. Much less when I was an undergraduate or postgraduate student. But if I write this well, my personal and professional life has been immersed through and through in English--I taught English, I thought English, I spoke English, I wrote English, I dreamt English. For the past five decades. I’ve been married for six decades.

Non-native learners of English (even those who completed the school curriculum of 12 years in English medium) in India have problems with lexis and structure, paragraph and essay organisation, and I never faulted them for the lack because writing has never been taught as a skill--at school or college. I did point these out and told them to see if their writings reflect their personalities. I could only say these.

And even when ‘writing’ is taught as a skill, style is something that makes its presence felt only when you’re comfortable using the basics. Take care of the basics, style happens. Anyway this is my personal opinion. Of course I wouldn’t quarrel with those who try to encourage students with great examples and their analysis. It might work, too.

I used 'conscious' with regard to introducing students to and acquainting them with samples of great rhetorical writings. Anything learnt 'consciously' doesn't generally filter down and form the essence of expression whereas when read as part of the enjoyment process and as part of reading habit, the subconscious absorbs the juices with glee and lets you have the decoction when you're penning your thoughts on paper. This is my contention out of my personal experience. May be I'm wrong. But I'm of firm conviction that subconscious absorption stays and grows. Conscious learning stops at the peripheral.

Thanks once again for your acknowledgement of my little piece. I'm grateful.

You may please visit my blog: when you find the time. God bless! 

In your response to my post, John, you indicate that some of your students are able to show signs of style. Then why the frustration which I see in your topic paragraph?

Hi K R,
I will visit your blog and will attempt to connect with you. Frustration is because of the exact word you used: "some." I will go further and say "few." And often (qualified here--never all the time) when I speak with students about rhetorical style I see it is a uphill climb. They more than have the basics covered, but have simply never been exposed to stylistic writing, but instead were taught (and given the highest marks for very formulaic writing. For example, a paragraph about this topic may be the following:

Writing is a very difficult task. For example, many people spend years in school to learn the proper mechanics of writing. Also, most people enjoy reading more than writing. For this reason, I believe that writing is a difficult task. People must study very hard to learn how to write with proper structure, spelling, and punctuation. In conclusion, writing is difficult and takes many years to master.

As a primer, this paragraph works, but for advanced students, they should have left these training wheels behind a long time ago.

Take care and God bless,

Thanks, James. Your thread has definitely indicated an area where teachers don't seem to venture, and so neither their students.