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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Making "TEA" can improve students' writing

Updated: Mar 27

Heads up that this is a very applied/practical post, compared to some of the more philosophical or opinionated pieces that have recently run in this space.


A sketchbook page depicts a latte, americano, hot chocolate, and cup of tea, along with notes about the location and the names of the drinks (all text is in French). The sketches are made with pencil and watercolors.
Hot, tasty beverages sketched in Quebec City (credit: B.G. Merkle, 2012)

This sketch of tea and other hot drinks hails from my time living in Quebec City. It always reminds me that there are a lot of ways to make a tasty beverage -- and that the same is true for writing a compelling sentence or paragraph. However, just like some folks are picky about what kind of tea they drink, so too are people uber-particular about what makes a paragraph compelling. And yet, most of us struggle to articulate why, precisely, we think one paragraph says something more effectively, eloquently, humorously, or respectfully than another version attempting to convey the same points.

Today, I'm going to share a tool that made this "why" effort much easier for me (and much more accessible for students I've worked with).

But first, a detour to clarify why I'm sharing this tool right now. I've spent the past year co-writing a book to help instructors and research mentors help developing writers. What this means, at least in part, is that we're writing a book to help students both write better paragraphs and understand what actually makes a paragraph better.

I've spent the past many years teaching writing and communication at a university, through workshops, and before that as a journalist and editor. In all those experiences, I've found something quite consistent. Even people with as much experience writing and coaching writing as I have still struggle to clarify what an effective paragraph actually is and does. That does not make it easy to explain it to students, of course!

It's no surprise that articulating what makes a paragraph (or even a sentence) effective is hard for us. After all, most of us learned to write primarily through exposure, not direct tuition. Even those of us old enough to have diagrammed sentences still weren't taught the vocabulary needed to say what, rhetorically speaking, makes Paragraph B more compelling than Paragraph A when both are about the same subject.

I didn't realize this was an issue when I headed into the trainings that prepared me to teach freshman composition (and germinated the idea for my book). In fact, I thought I was pretty well equipped, thanks to all my previous experience as a journalist, editor, etc. But, I quickly found I also had trouble articulating to students why exactly a paragraph of theirs wasn't getting the job done. Then, I was introduced to the "TEA paragraph" -- it was a tool I was expected to teach to freshmen students in my section of English 1010, a required writing course for all freshmen at my university.

And, to this day, the TEA paragraph persists as the useful resource I use to help people say what goes into an effective paragraph to help developing writers see how to create such paragraphs.

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