Teaching for Mastery with Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say
Lauran Fuller and Jared Pence
In an effort to revitalize the effectiveness of first-year writing courses and unveil the complexities of academic language for students, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein created their famous guidebook to academic writing, They Say/I Say (Graff, Birkenstein, & Durst, 2012). Their primary method for “demystifying academic writing” was to isolate the “moves” of academic writing and present them as fill-in-the-blank templates into which students can insert their own content (p. xx). These templates, according to Graff and Birkenstein, grant students access to the language needed to engage in academic conversations and thereby facilitate students’ ability to think critically. Although Graff and Birkenstein’s approach continues to receive glowing praise and is used at more than 1,500 higher education institutions, critics of the formulaic and potentially debilitating effects of using templates assert their voices against the template tidal wave (p. xvi). We seek both to temper the enthusiastic blanket approach to implementing templates and to resolve the concerns of skeptics who ignore the potential benefits templates provide to student writing.
As teachers of first-year writing ourselves, we are anxious to find resources that will aid student learning. Consequently, They Say/I Say is appealing for its simplicity and its sentence-specific templates, which assist students in expressing their own ideas in response to the voices of others. But our concern for student learning leaves us wary of such a formulaic method for teaching because students need not only the skills that the template can provide, but also instruction within the context and practice of such skills. Though templates can serve as useful tools for students, templates without the context provided by models and experience gained through practice can limit critical thinking, stifle learning, and mislead students’ ideas of proper engagement with other texts in their own writing. If used incorrectly, templates will work against their intended purpose. However, when coupled with models and application exercises, the templates of They Say/I Say can be useful tools to guide learning. So while we first want to explain the widespread popularity and magnificent potential of They Say/I Say and its recommended templates, we will also discuss some critiques of templates and Graff and Birkenstein’s text specifically. Finally, we will propose how the templates of They Say/I Say can and should be used—asserting that for them to be effective for student learning, they must be preceded by models and followed by practice and application.
Teaching with Templates: The Value of Sentence-Specific Guidance
Graff and Birkenstein’s main purpose is to help students realize that intellectual writing is, in essence, entering a conversation with readers, past writers, and future writers and that each student can not only witness the dialogue but can themselves enter and contribute (p. xvi). They hope to inspire students to raise their writing to a level which interacts with the material they read in class and find in research—what Graff and Birkenstein call “democratizing academic culture” (p. xx). Templates enter into the equation of “demystifying” academic writing by making “students more conscious of the rhetorical patterns that are key to academic success but often pass under the classroom radar” (p. xxi). By dissecting academic language and showing the “moves” to students on a sentence level, Graff and Birkenstein assert that students will be able to grasp the larger concept of approaching writing as an intelligent conversation and to use templates to unlock the language needed to communicate in a professional situation. So, according to the authors of They Say/I Say, students who are presented with templates will understand the moves used in academic writing and thus understand how to analyze and write academic papers themselves. The book outlines the strategies needed for effective rhetoric in multiple fields of study, demonstrating to students in various disciplines the moves they need to write successfully in their chosen emphases. By giving students the sentence-level tools needed universally in academic conversation, templates could provide a way to bridge what Deborah Dean (2010) terms a “genre gap” that often exists in general, non-major-specific first-year writing courses (p. 152).
Because language is an imitative skill, it is natural to use examples as a starting point when evolving into an independent writer. Deborah McCutchen, Paul Teske, and Catherine Bankston (2008), in their study about cognition processes in writing and learning, discovered that the novice writer needs assistance “emphasizing the implicit dialogue of a task schema that prompts more sustained cycles of text production” (p. 455). Graff and Birkenstein use templates to focus on this “implicit dialogue,” arguing that “critical thinking and writing go deeper than any set of linguistic formulas . . . [b]ut these deeper habits of thought cannot be put into practice unless you have a language for expressing them in clear, organized ways” (p. 2). Their templates provide words that students can use to incorporate what others have said into their own writing. McCutchen et al. (2008) conclude their study by endorsing “attention to a text’s macrostructure” in order to ensure long-term effects of learning writing (p. 460). Templates are valuable in unpacking a text’s meta-language, a step in what Dean (2010) terms the “scaffold approach” to teaching, a “supported progress toward [student] independence” (p. 184). In the classroom, the scaffold approach consists of supplying support based on students’ evolving needs—heavy guidance and explicit examples when beginning and eventually allowing students to write independent of formulas, specific instruction, etc., by removing the specificity and amount of guidance they are given. Similarly, Graff and Birkenstein “proceeded from the premise that all writers rely on certain stock formulas . . . that students can use to structure and even generate what they want to say,” acknowledging the student’s path from instruction, to imitation, to individual creation (p. xxi).
Acknowledging some teachers’ reluctance to brainwash their students with templates, Graff and Birkenstein assure that templates, rather than supplanting students’ voices, enable students to “generate what they want to say” by supplying the tools needed to express themselves—much like creating words when given flashcards of the alphabet (p. xxi). Graff and Birkenstein point out that templates “focus writers’ attention not just on what is being said, but on the forms that structure what is being said,” that they allow students to be “conscious of the rhetorical patterns” used in writing (p. xxi). Although they recognize the counterargument that using templates suggests “a return to prescriptive forms of instruction that encourage passive learning,” their intent is not to provide a cut-and-paste word-box for students; they instead hope to show students the calculated moves “seasoned writers pick up . . . unconsciously through their readings. . . . The aim of templates, then, is not to stifle creative thinking but to . . . [show] the key rhetorical moves that it comprises” (p. xxv). Graff and Birkenstein approve of students “modify[ing] and adapt[ing]” the templates to fit the “particularities of the arguments” in students’ work, hoping that templates will be used as a “learning tool” and not a “formulaic” writing process (p. xxv).
Thousands of teachers assign or reference this book and its advocate of templates. One of the professors at our university encouraged a class of graduate students to use this “little beauty” as a rubric in writing a final paper for her class. Laura M. Grow (2008) praises Graff and Birkenstein for their simple yet effective approach to increasing the eloquence of students’ writing and credits them for the progress her recent students have shown in writing. James Rhem (2008) recognizes more than a prescription for sloppy papers in They Say/I Say and congratulates Graff and Birkenstein’s focus on the argument structure inherent in writing. According to many, Graff and Birkenstein’s approach has galvanized writing classrooms into a whirlwind of improvement. Templates are useful because they provide detailed, sentence-specific instruction for a skill that often feels out of reach to first-year writing students.
The Trouble with Templates: Critiques of They Say/I Say
Though templates have been lauded as saviors of student writing, they are not without their critics. The templates of They Say/I Say can help students see specifically “that writing well means entering into conversation with others” (Graff et al., 2012, p. xix), but such a detailed focus on sentence-level wording is troubling to some teachers. Professors Matt Hollrah and Frank Farmer (2007), from the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Kansas, critique Graff and Birkenstein’s text because, though it provides students with strategies vital to successful writing, it fails to teach the context in which these moves can and should be made. Hollrah and Farmer are concerned that They Say/I Say is more interested in making moves than in what gets moved, that is, that students are receiving a one-size-fits-all writing approach rather than being shown appropriate academic conversations. Concerned that students will arbitrarily apply the templates to every rhetorical situation, they critique Graff and Birkenstein for touting the importance of entering an ongoing conversation in persuasive writing, but then “not [attempting] to provide those conversations for students” (p. 202). They note that providing the templates without discussion on the types of conversation that students enter has “the odd effect of diminishing the significance of all such conversations” (p. 202). Instead of helping students know how to converse with others on a particular issue, templates can make students believe that the quality of the conversation is irrelevant as long as they enter the conversation professionally. They are left to think that one conversation is as good as any other. In short, the problem with teaching templates without teaching context is that students will know that they need to fill in the blanks but will not know what to fill in the blanks with, having effectively memorized a reference or set of words but failing to master the skill. For long-term learning to occur, teaching writing skills needs to take students to a level of mastery where they can apply the skill without needing to reference a template.
Humans experience four stages when achieving mastery of any task: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 96–97). Learning starts with the student being unaware of what they don’t know and discovering that there is something they do not know or cannot do. Then, as the skill is learned, the student becomes aware that they are capable of performing that which they were previously unable to do. True mastery, though, comes when a student no longer has to consciously consider the tools and skills they are using; they are instead able to perform the learned skill without thinking about it. If teachers fail to teach students in the conscious incompetence stage, then students will not go through the mental processes needed to reach the unconscious competence stage (mastery) and will be unable to apply their knowledge in other areas of learning. Teaching a template without teaching the theory contextualizing the use of the template limits students to the conscious competence stage of mastery. They cannot develop the ability to use the skill the template is trying to teach if they are not learning when to use that template. For They Say/I Say templates, students who don’t have the context accompanying the template will not know when to enter a conversation, which conversations merit entering in the first place, or how to adjust a template to a particular context. They will forever be chained to using templates because they will be unable to adjust the templates’ meanings for different contexts.
In order to avoid this problem, Hollrah and Farmer (2007) recommend that teachers who use the text be familiar with Graff’s book Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind because, whereas They Say/I Say provides specific tools to learn how to converse in academic writing, Clueless in Academe gives the theoretical basis and rationale for using templates and for teaching students to enter conversations. These critics say that “templates . . . ought not to be regarded as fixed forms, immutable, universal, free from all contingencies and determinants. Templates must rather be understood as dynamic and situated, thoroughly imbricated in the contexts of their usage,” rather than a stand-alone solution for student composing problems (p. 205). They are suggesting that templates can be useful if taught alongside and intertwined with the conversations for which the templates are prepared. This way students would be able to know not only the words to use in entering a conversation, but when to enter the conversation at all, allowing them to enter the unconscious competence stage of mastery.
Hollrah and Farmer also argue that poorly used templates can feel like a “throwback to more benighted days when the teaching of writing was nothing but the teaching of standard forms” [emphasis in the original] (p. 204). The fear of returning to formalism is shared by others such as professor Amy Lynch-Biniek (2010), who sees the “continued popularity of Graff and Birkenstein’s text as a manifestation of a troublesome persistence of formalism, an approach to teaching that can certainly be useful, but which, if allowed to dominate composition teaching, can reduce the complex, intellectual process of academic writing to mechanical acts.” There is a concern that in using templates students will be encouraged to oversimplify complex arguments and will fail to grasp the full depth of a particular issue or conversation. So though templates may be able to teach the sentence-level skill of entering a conversation, they may at the same time be limiting students’ ability to use that skill in other contexts and keeping them from understanding the situations in which the language of the template would be useful.
Graff and Birkenstein, however useful their information is, rely too much on what Graff calls “hidden intelligence” in students, claiming that with templates students can jump from everyday conversation to intellectual argument with the sole support of these templates (Graff and Birkenstein 380–386). In the process of mastery, students become aware of what they can do with a template (conscious competence), but will not be able to move on to unconscious competence because they only know how to enter a conversation by using a template. They are missing the context and the application that would allow them to truly master the skill. Graff and Birkenstein need to explain that the role of templates in the writing process can be easily overlooked by teachers who naturally experience what many scholars refer to as the “expert blind spot” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 99). This occurs when teachers, who have already reached the unconscious competence stage of a skill, give information to students who, lacking the same experience and cognitive development, cannot follow. Teachers don’t realize that their students need help not only in becoming aware of the skill, but also in knowing how to apply that skill in their own writing. Templates can allow students to temporarily circumvent the path toward mastery, but actually decrease long-term ability and prevent arrival at the stage of unconscious competence. No matter how highly they are praised, templates alone cannot achieve that level of mastery.
Phyllis Benay (2002), although complimentary to Graff and Birkenstein for having “accomplished what so many of us labor to do in our composition classrooms,” is concerned that due to the structure of the templates, “it is possible that the facile fill-in-the-blanks format impedes the ability of students to truly understand and integrate why these writing maneuvers really matter” (p. 369–370). Benay’s warning to use the templates with “extreme caution” is based in the belief that the difference between advanced and beginning writers is not just a lack of knowing the academic moves, but also a lack in the development of complex ways of thinking. The easy-to-use templates create a worry that “the completion of the templates [will] replace the harder learning that takes place in the spaces between a formula and the integration of that formula into the learner’s expanded system” (p. 371). Benay, like Hollrah and Farmer (2007), can see that templates alone will restrict critical and creative thinking.
Likewise, Ann Jurecic (2005) is concerned with templates for the fear that they “can be mechanical and constraining” (p. 328). Jurecic reviewed Graff’s Clueless in Academe before the publication of They Say/I Say, but in the earlier text Graff recommends templates as well. Jurecic fears that templates “leave much of the hard work of teaching writing undone and, in fact, accomplish far less than Graff promises in helping students to develop as independent thinkers and writers” (p. 328). She acknowledges that templates alone are not enough to establish mastery of a skill. In fact, she remarks that “they are only truly beneficial if the students receive multiple templates, judiciously contextualized” [emphasis added] (p. 328). Jurecic believes that context can redeem a template from its otherwise debilitating nature; in fact, she uses templates in her classroom, but does so “within the context of an assignment, within the context of a class, and within the context of the students’ own ideas” (p. 329). Jurecic’s critique echoes the ideas of Hollrah and Farmer (2007) as well as Benay (2002): templates without context fail to achieve their purpose.
Teaching for Mastery: Using Templates with Modeling and Application
As children learning to speak, we are often introduced to particular letters separately. We memorize the sounds of individual letters and the way they form into words. But as speaking ability develops, we are not restricted to the letters on flash cards or the words from picture books. We are able to apply the skills we learn in memorizing letters to understanding more complex words and ideas. Eventually we can become very creative in the way we use words, understanding the nuances of language and tone and speaking in complex ways without thinking about what we are doing—unconscious competence. This kind of mastery is learned not just from memorizing a letter or repeating a word. Speaking is learned in observing others and the way they use words and then in practicing speaking in our own way. Similarly, teaching students to enter a conversation by using a template will not lead to mastery on its own. However, if templates are coupled with examples of that skill in models and applications of that skill through practice, entering a conversation can be mastered so that the student is no longer even conscious of it.
We cannot blame Graff and Birkenstein for what individual teachers choose to do with the They Say/I Say templates in the classroom. However, if more explicit information was available on how to apply the templates in the writing process, they could become the useful tool Graff and Birkenstein see them as. The sentence-level skills that They Say/I Say can teach are important skills to learn, so in an effort to preserve the templates’ value, we suggest a way that templates can be used to help students learn the skill and apply it to their own writing. Though both sides of the templates debate have valid arguments as to why teachers should embrace or eschew this learning tool, we feel we can present an acceptable compromise where templates are presented alongside explanations and examples of how they can be used and then altered to specific contexts as students practice using the skills templates seek to advance.
We wholeheartedly concur with Hollrah and Farmer (2007) that part of correctly teaching with templates includes teaching them in context of the conversations they should allow students to enter and the kinds of conversations that will lead to critical thinking and effective persuasive writing. The context—which we believe can be effectively taught through modeling—needs to be provided alongside (and actually before) templates are used so that students will better understand the situations when the skill taught by the template will be useful. When coupled with models of effective writing, templates unpack successful moves in a specific example through which students can ground their own experience. D. P. Ausubel, through his research in 1960 and again in 1978, found that students who were provided with an “advance organizer” to guide how to apply new knowledge before receiving the knowledge itself retained the information longer and were able to connect the new knowledge to other groups of past and future knowledge (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 53). So for templates to be effective, students need to know beforehand how the template can be applied in various situations. The weakness of They Say/I Say is in Graff and Birkenstein’s assumption that this “advance organizer” is being provided; Graff and Birkenstein fail to emphasize the practice of teaching context before teaching skills in their publication, causing many teachers and students using this book to miss that important aspect of effective template use. In short, the critics are correct: the templates are provided without guidance on how to introduce them in a usable context, leading many students to use the formulaic layouts as shortcuts to short-term competent writing.
If Hollrah and Farmer (2007)’s advice to read Graff’s other template supporting publications is followed, then teachers will be able to provide context for the templates, clearly seeing that They Say/I Say is not meant to be used as simply a fill-in-the-blank essay skeleton. Templates should be used as a part of Dean (2010)’s “scaffold approach,” where writing students are given templates after receiving instruction and models demonstrating the dialogue inherent in academic writing (p. 184). Dean argues that the use of models needs to be coupled with discussion, analysis, and an exploration of the text and its effectiveness before applying them to students’ writing (p. 158). Templates (like the models that Dean discusses) will be an illuminating facet of the new knowledge students receive when applied after context is already provided. If context is provided first, then templates will help students learn how to competently enter and engage in academic conversation rather than just a means-to-an-A-paper shortcut. If templates are given only as a writing reference and are provided to students without being preceded by the context in which they can be used, their effectiveness will disappear and they will become a detriment to students’ critical comprehension and long-term writing ability. Templates can target key moves in writing and provide imitable examples for novice writers— but teachers “must be able to ‘unpack’ or decompose” why those moves are effective in order for students to see the benefits of templates (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 100). Teachers must be conscious of their expert blind spot—just because the context of the template is clear to the teacher (due to his or her own writing experience and understanding of the academic conversation) does not necessarily mean the student has seen the connection between the template and the example’s successful use of it.
When used after explanations of academic writing and after demonstrations of models of where this is clearly the case, templates can be a valuable step in the scaffold approach. Without the context of when to use the skill, students will be left unconsciously incompetent, not realizing that even though they have seen how to use a template, they don’t know when to use it. When templates are accompanied by explanation and examples, students will not hold onto the exact formulas as a crutch but walk away with the principles behind the templates and a clear view of their role in academic conversation. The students will then, as Graff and Birkenstein predict, be able to generate their own writing with innovative and creative twists on the original template moves. They will be able to have the context that Hollrah and Farmer (2007) feel is missing from They Say/I Say. Language is an imitative skill, but just because we memorize letters and words doesn’t mean we can only speak in the phrases taught to us. It is not until students have a context for the skill that Graff’s reliance on the students’ “hidden intelligence” kicks in and they can move away from dependence on the templates (p. 198). “As the research supports it, studying models is supposed to aid students’ writing development by helping them learn about how others use language as a way to build options for their own use, not to have them become slaves to forms or styles that others have created” (Dean, 2010, p. 152). Models show students when to use a particular writing skill, and unless they plagiarize, it cannot become formulaic and crippling to their critical thinking.
So why not just use models? This seems logical to many critics of the template—it still allows students to imitate without tainting the classroom with formulas. Dean (2010) points out that long, complete models are less effective because they cover too much—a short model addressing one or two writing points actually helps students internalize the materials (p. 157). Templates actually increase models’ effectiveness and move beyond models by pinpointing sentence-specific moves, allowing students to pull out details from a larger piece yet still comprehend the larger context of the technique. When Hillocks researched models in 1986,
he concluded that “using models provided sound declarative knowledge, but didn’t help with procedural knowledge; that is, students might understand the nature of the finished product but not be able to take the steps to produce it” (Dean, 2010, p. 154). By using templates (for sentence-specific skills) and models (to understand the big picture context) side-by-side, teachers can provide students with both a concrete example of how academic conversation works and the individual moves that make that dialogue effective.
Because reading a model of effective writing can often be passive, it is important to practice the skill seen in the model and outlined by the template. Dean (2010) posits that “[k]nowing and using options is both engaging and enabling” [emphasis added] (p. 156). Models are based on learning through observation whereas templates are only useful through writing. Not only should teachers show students through models how to discover academic writing moves, they should ensure that practice immediately follows in order to certify the students understand the move rather than the cut-and-paste form of the example sentence. Students should practice using the template based on the context of the model and then directly practice implementing the move rather than the template by tweaking the template and using similar language, with
the same intent in mimicking the model. Templates aid in developing students’ ability to think critically when coupled with models that include similar sentence structures and help students see the connection without feeling the need to cut-and-paste. They are the next step in the learning process to “demystify” the structure of the argument after the existence of the argument is cemented in the students’ understanding. Templates, combined with models, allow students to “practice component skills in isolation [and] in the context of the whole task” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 101).
The model-template combination is incomplete unless used with the active guidance of a teacher who connects immediate activities with long-term applications. Students often do not connect in-class information with future tasks in or out of the classroom. Ambrose (2010) relates a 1983 study done by Gick and Holyoak in which college students were given a military situation that consisted of capturing a fortress by separating the army and zeroing in on the site using multiple roads in smaller groups. The students memorized the passage and then were presented with a medical issue easily solved through a similar tactic (using a surrounding number of lasers to attack a tumor). Even though the strategy needed to accomplish the task had already been presented to them, student groups with no context or application could not make the connection and solve the problem, whereas groups who received a small prompt to think of the situations together quickly and easily came to the correct solution. Due to the obvious connections between model, template, and application, even “a little prompting . . . can go a long way in helping students apply what they know” and cementing the effectiveness of this teaching approach (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 111).
Having such guidance in the moment helps students to connect abstract concepts (like the idea that writing is a conversation) with concrete applications (such as which words to use to clearly articulate their ideas). Schoklow and Judd displayed this concept in a study involving two groups of students throwing darts at a target submerged twelve inches in water. After practicing (during which both groups improved), one of the groups was taught refraction (an abstract principle). Both groups were then asked to throw darts at a target submerged in four inches of water. With this hands-on application, the group that had learned about refraction improved at an immediate and accelerated rate when compared to the group without the new knowledge. Ambrose et al. (2010), after considering this study, conclude that “when students have the opportunity to apply what they learn in multiple contexts, it fosters less context-dependent, more ‘flexible’ knowledge” (p. 110). Templates help solidify abstract concepts that when tied to the context give students’ knowledge the elasticity needed to last longer than a single assignment or course.
Graff and Birkenstein’s revolutionary text is deserving of its popularity. They Say/I Say is able to take an important writing skill and provide practical ways to use that skill. But, in order for students to advance from the conscious competence a template can provide to the unconscious competence attained through mastery, they need not only to be presented with the skill, but to be given understanding of the context of when to use it and the ability to apply it through practice. “[M]astery requires component skills and the ability to integrate them successfully. However, it also requires that students know when and where to use what they have learned. When students acquire skills but do not learn the conditions of their appropriate application, they may fail to apply skills that are relevant to a task or problem, or, alternatively, apply the wrong skill for the context” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 107–108). We don’t just want our students to know the appropriate language for entering a conversation (although that is important). We want them to be able to understand when it is appropriate to use that language and to have had practice at applying that language to their individual writing situations. The process of learning through modeling, templates, and then practice can help students discover the power of applying knowledge of skills into a task they can accomplish without consciously thinking about it.
As teachers, the responsibility for the effective use of templates lies with us. We must be the ones who help students go all the way from unconscious incompetence to the true mastery of unconscious competence. Keeping in mind the dangers of formulaic teaching, we can take the good that Graff and Birkenstein’s text offers and combine it with the other useful practices of modeling and application to ensure long-term learning.
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