To PEE or not to PEE? (That is, the paragraph model.)


Someone from outside of education, walking past classrooms and hearing teachers reminding their students to ‘PEE’, would surely raise an eyebrow. After all, teachers are meant to tell children that they “should have gone at break”, and not incite mid-lesson bog-jollies. But no, PEE has nothing to do with urination, folk – it’s yet another teaching acronym! (*Canned laughter*)

The PEE paragraph model has become the ubiquitous teaching method for analytic writing in secondary classrooms across the country. Despite its prevalence over the last half decade or so, it seems that education theory has only recently begun to scrutinise its near-universal use. Direct contemporary criticism — which, interestingly, is found in teaching journals in History rather than English — falls roughly into three categories:

  1. The PEE model is too simplified;
  2. The PEE model makes students lose perspective of the question they are supposed to be answering;
  3. Students become over-reliant on the PEE model and struggle to move beyond it.

History Teacher, Kirstie Murray, questions whether we can really boil successful analysis down to “a ‘big point’ with a piece of ‘evidence’ which is then ‘explained’” (2015: 14). She claims that such simplified requirements, set by well-intending teachers as a means of scaffolding, are actually “removing the rewarding challenge, rigour and complexity of analytical writing.” Murray’s solution to this over-simplification is to add ever more letters to the PEE acronym. And indeed, in order to address the ‘simplistic‘ concern, lots of schools have augmented the PEE model to reflect the more complex demands of an effective analytic paragraph. My own department, for example, uses ‘PTEEDRAWC’. What sounds like the name of a pterodactylesque Pokémon actually stands for ‘Point-Technique-Evidence-Explain-Develop-Reader-Writer-Audience-Context’. But this solution, by Murray’s own admission, still doesn’t boost the quality of higher-ability students’ explanations, and can often make their writing unnecessarily lumpish. History teachers, Rachel Foster and Sarah Gadd, share this dissatisfaction, suggesting that their students “seem to think that as long as they include an ‘example’ after their ‘point’, they have done what is required of them” (2013: 24). My own personal experience suggests that this is often true of lower-ability students who, having worked their way up to GSCE grade 2 or 3, then struggle to work out how the hell they’ll ever attain a ‘standard pass’.

And then there’s the second problem with PEE: the loss of perspective. This is a huge challenge I currently face with my top set year 11s, many of whom are struggling to break out into the heady realms of GCSE grades 8 and 9 — though I hear that getting a 9 is about as probable as winning a beluga whale in a tombola. The ‘loss of perspective’ contention is raised by Jennifer Evans and Gemma Pate (again, you guessed it, History teachers!) who state that the PEE model makes students “atomise things and lose a sense of what was being examined” (2007: 18). Students are only able, they observe, to focus on further extrapolating information from the point they have made and the supportive evidence they have found, and forget to revisit the question originally asked. This is probably why many teachers favour the PEEL variant, which explicitly reminds students to ‘Link’ their analysis back to the question.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of all concerning the PEE model is the third criticism: the “over-reliance on writing frames” (Foster and Gadd, again). It may be that students lack the confidence to move beyond the frame, or it could be that the deficit of academic literature or training on this specific issue means that teachers don’t know how to help students disentangle themselves from the ‘safety’ net. Either way, the result is the same: the upper echelon of GCSE results becomes stratified into those who have transcended the writing frame scaffold, and those whose potential may have been retarded by over-reliance on it. The limitations documented in the literature suggest that students whose performance is limited by the PEE framework tend to use it long after they have overcome the sorts of difficulties it is supposed to remedy. If the scaffold should exist at the edge of a students capabilities — as Pedagogy God, Lev Vygotsky, says it should — then as soon as students have mastered the logic of stating a claim, providing evidence for it, and explaining in full depth what it means in context, they are ready to shed the PEE model, like a snake that has outgrown its skin.

But, of course, we are presented with a whole new set of questions: Is there any merit in ditching a model that is guaranteed to secure points in an exam? Why take scaffolding away from students who are writing to a mark scheme that does not anyway reward fluid analysis? Difficult questions of this sort are probably discouraging us from transcending the PEE model. But as I look forward to potentially teaching A Level in the next year or so, I wonder whether KS5 students in whom the PEE model is now very deeply ingrained will struggle to adjust to life without it.



3 thoughts on “To PEE or not to PEE? (That is, the paragraph model.)

  1. Really interesting thoughts, a helpful summary of the limitations of PEE paragraphs. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when referring to instances when it is and is not helpful. A student who is incoherently throwing words on the page, steering them towards this kind of structure is probably helpful. Once a paragraph structure has been established and these ingredients are all present, we’re probably looking for a more sophisticated model of writing. Two questions I’m currently thinking of, relating to this:
    1. How far are teachers constrained by a lack of understanding of what more sophisticated writing might look like?
    2. Is ‘better’ writing radically different from a PEE paragraph? There does need to be a coherent direction to a piece of writing, there should be some evidence in there, and some broader explanation to lead us towards the overarching point. Familiarising students with further devices that secure these aims are profitable and worthwhile, but they probably need to be built on the basics – perhaps PEE remains a valuable starting point?

    Your explicit reference to KS5 is interesting. My current crop are excellent at really discursive writing surrounding sources. Damn few sharply directed ‘points’ in their writing though, and they are the poorer for it.


  2. Better analytical writing is not so different from the PEE structure. PEE is a helpful starting point and should be used as such, then as a quick check list when writing has gone beyond the basic format). What lies at the heart of achieving good analytical writing is the modelling of good analytical writing. Longer checklists seem to add complication and restrict free flow thinking, perhaps inhibiting rather than supporting more effective responses as students struggle to remember the components alongside including subject terminology, question stems, sophisticated vocabulary…


  3. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 31st March – Friday 7th April – Douglas Wise

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