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Language arts

(Not so) secret formula improves writing

Posted on June 5, 2014 by Alan Haskvitz

student writingAfter 40 years in the classroom, I have seen a lot of methods come and go. What they have in common is placing an emphasis on the structure of the writing, which is fine for individuals who need organization to outline their ideas. What I have found works better is teaching students to write to grade level using the Fry Formula. Here are the five steps my class and I complete while using the formula:

  1. My students write a one-page story or essay about a favorite vacation or one they‘d like to take. After they complete this task, I hand them a copy of the Fry Formula.
  2. I tell my students to count 100 words in the essay, excluding any proper nouns, such as the Grand Canyon, and place a vertical line after that word. Then, they exchange papers and their partner counts to make sure their count is accurate. After the paper is returned, the student counts the number of sentences in those 100 words. So if the count is 5 ½ sentences, it is okay. It need not be a whole number and seldom will be.
  3. Then the student must count the number of syllables in those 100 words. (The teacher may have to review what a syllable is and provide some examples before the student starts counting.)
  4. Next, the student counts the syllables and places that number by the number of sentences on their paper. Again, the students exchange papers to double check the number. This step may require some help from the teacher. Once the number has been certified, the student takes the number of syllables and the number of sentences and sees where they intersect on the Fry Formula. This step reveals the grade level of their writing. I never ask the student for that information, although walking around the room and helping them find the intersection point is most revealing.
  5. At that point, I tell them to keep the Fry Formula in their notebooks.  All future essays must be done at that grade level and include the number of sentences and syllables for the first 100 words, as well as the grade level.


Most students feel comfortable with words they have known for years, so they seldom push themselves to use more accurate terms.  They're especially prone to using pronouns and vague one-syllable words. “I wanted to go see the parade,“ is an acceptable sentence using other writing programs. Using my system, the student might write, “I traveled to witness the procession.” The result is an essay that reflects their mastery of writing.


It does not take them long to want to write at a more sophisticated level. Having a thesaurus in the room or easily accessible on a PC is handy as they search for alternative words.


Perhaps, best of all, this technique does not require any additional time from the teacher. The students quickly learn to search for words, and the results are essays that sparkle. Indeed, my students have won a multitude of contests at the local, state, and national level using this method and a few secret twists I teach them.


I’ve found the following sites offer some valuable basic lessons:


Alan Haskvitz teaches at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, California, and makes staff development presentations nationwide. He serves as an educational consultant, curriculum developer and author.


Monday, June 09, 2014 10:58 AM
Great article and good ideas. We could use more like this.
Richard Bell
Friday, December 02, 2016 5:20 AM
There are dfferent methods which come and go, still used and being forgotten. Mostly, it's going with a time and now writing is more relevant to a period we are in. Writing papers in different styles either MLA or APA, it is what most students are struggling with. If it is difficult for you to make your paper appropriate to the standards, here is a service you can use:

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