Shedding The PEEL - The Problem With Essay Formats Taught In Schools

by Jerrold Soh | Aug 30, 2013 | 4220 views

We all know the drill.

After getting the essay paper, you analyse the question using the [insert acronym here].

Next you need to start planning your essay. If you take around 15 minutes, you’re on track. Oops, you took 14. Now to wait 1 minute before you allow yourself to begin.

Then, the paragraph, where you must apply the PEEL format.

Point. Evidence. Evaluation. Link. Or was it Point, Explanation, Elaboration, Link? How about Point, Example, Evidence, Link? What other words can E spell again? Enunciation? Exams? Exasperation?

What the PEEL actually is:

The PEEL format of answering taught in schools is an attempt to introduce structure and organization into essay scripts. It’s based on one (mostly true) assumption that students at this level need some help in sorting out their usually messy thoughts. And this format helps ensure candidates write what they’re trying to say first, followed by the facts and figures they can use to support it, before analyzing what these facts show and then bringing it back to the question.
In essence, the PEEL.

The problem, then, is that even after a long period of mindless adherence to such formats, students may not understand the rationales and, therefore, significance of ordering an answer this way. Rote learning replaces the development of a skill when one is no longer able to understand why he is doing something in a certain way.

And that would be fine, actually, since we’re only concerned about marks here anyway. If not for how every kind of essay question requires a slightly different answering format. One that is more optimized for it. And that is not to say that there is any one single format best suited for a particular question. This varies along with the writer’s own style, knowledge, arguments, preferences, time of day, and the number of butterflies in the world.

So when a new question that calls for something different comes up, an unsuspecting PEELer has no defence. The futile format does nothing to advance his cause except provide the beginning and end of the paragraph. When do I write the explanation? Now’s the time for evidence! But something tells me it isn’t right. Why do I find it so hard to evaluate now when I’m supposed to? Am I allowed to write an explanation after the evaluation? What does E stand for and in what order??!

Going Bananas?

If you really thought about it, you’d realise the PEEL makes no sense. If it were even clear that the evidence/example came before the explanation/elaboration/evaluation (hint: it should), then the next problem is what happens when the evaluation needs some evidence? Could you have an explanation of your point and elaborate on that explanation before producing your examples? Would that not count as blasphemy?

In fact, to really make sense of it all, you’d need to remove Elaboration and Explanation from the picture. Because they can be put, when they are required, in any part of the paragraph. If the point you’re trying to make its unclear, explain it. If the link isn’t very well expressed, elaborate. If there’s a very detailed example you’re trying to give, there’s no way you can do it without elaborating.

For the record: to explain means to make something clearer by providing additional details, illustrations or reasons. Elaboration is, basically, to say more things about something. They’re not even two different things altogether.

And then, evidence and examples. By the same logic, can they not be placed as and when they are needed? The point here is that knowing when something is needed is far more important than knowing when the PEEL format calls for it.

A new paradigm

What do you do when something doesn’t work? You fix it, or throw it away. You wouldn’t really want to throw the PEEL away unless the answer schemes do, though, so what you have to do is fix it. Can the PEEL be fixed? Maybe, if you start to understand the reasons behind it.

One way of doing that would be to change the way you look at the PEEL. Instead of thinking of it as a systematic, ordered dictation of what and how to write, see the two Es in the centre as a symbol of the interaction between all the evil E’s of essay writing. The middle of the paragraph, therefore, is a mixture of explanations, evidences, elaborations, examples and evaluations (did I miss anything out) that are mutually interdependent and build upon each other.

P-EE-L. Or, as I prefer to see it, the PPP. Barring how ironic it is that I’m suggesting another acronym here, this stands for: Proposition, or what argument you’re bringing up to prove, Process, the means by which you prove the proposition, and Point, the proven proposition we can purport as the Point you just made.

In practice, the Proposition is exactly the same as the point in the PEEL. It just shouldn’t be called a point until you have made it, or, in other words, argued successfully for it. Then you’d feel like there’s something to argue for. The Point at the end is like the Link, except that, because it’s made on the back of the Process, a far stronger and more refined Point can be made here compared to the initial Proposition. You don’t have to simply link back and restate the question every time.

Now the most important part – the Process, or how you turn your Proposition into a Point. It forms the logical arguments, empirical facts, and rationalization that go into making your opinion so persuasive that someone accepts it. Within the Process come other sub-Ps: that of logical Premises, Proof, Persuasive writing, and really other things like deduction, induction, and comparison, as well as the evil Es. In short, there’s nothing that should be limiting what and how you prove your point, as long as you prove it well.

Note that this is not meant to replace the PEEL as much as it is to reinforce it by providing an alternative way of looking at how a paragraph works. There is no need to stick to a structural order that not only doesn’t make sense, but is not optimized to question requirements. Thinking of the EE’s as a Process you need to go through to prove your point may make things harder initially, but as you Practice more and more, you’ll realise the flexibility and space to experiment you gain would have tremendously improved your writing, reasoning, and marks-scoring skills.

In the end, a fruit’s peel may contain healthy vitamins and fibres that we should eat even if it tastes bad. But when life gives you bananas, you may find the peel rather inedible, and easy to trip on.

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