What Should We Do With the Five Paragraph Essay?

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” -Samuel Johnson

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Kids book author Sandra Boynton’s classic sketch of the five-paragraph theme.

As a writing teacher, one of the most common questions I’m asked is how do I handle the five-paragraph essay. If I’m being honest, until relatively recently, I tried my best to avoid this question, as discussion of the five-paragraph essay is the writing instruction equivalent of talking about politics at Thanksgiving. It is the third rail of ELA instruction, with an army of passionate and seemingly intractable supporters on both sides. 

To see an example of the intensity of this debate, I present John Warner from Inside Higher Ed:

There may be no greater enemy to quality writing than the 5-paragraph essay. Let’s just go ahead and kill the 5-paragraph essay at all levels, everywhere. That just about everyone reading this is well-familiar with the 5-paragraph essay is a testament to why it needs to be retired, and by retired, I mean killed dead, double-tap zombie-style, lest it rise again.

And then there is Kim Zarins’ post for NCTE:

It would be better to eat a flavorless dinner from a partitioned plate than to read or write a five-paragraph essay…[It] cuts all mirth and merit and motion from ideas until there is nothing to stand upon at all, leaving reader and writer alike flat on their faces. Such an essay form is the very three-partitioned tombstone of human reason and imagination.

It is not hard to find teachers who feel like Warner and Zarins, and there is good reason for the depth of their emotion. Five-paragraph writing so often does lead to flavorless writing, safe choices, and basic arguments. David Larabee in his essay “The Five Paragraph Fetish,” explains that the reason for this is that when we focus on a prescribed form…

the act of writing turns from moulding a lump of clay into a unique form to filling a set of jars that are already fired. Not only are the jars unyielding to the touch, but even their number and order are fixed. There are five of them, which, according to the recipe, need to be filled in precise order. Don’t stir. Repeat.

I’ve written previously about how students generally focus on whatever we focus on. This means that if most of the instruction heading into an essay is about the five-paragraph form and the rubric assigns the most points to following the form, then the message sent to students is that form is what matters most. Thinking, language usage, and the force of argument are all secondary considerations.


Now, based on this so far, you might not think there is much of a debate going on in my head. Why would I offer any support for something that I just said contributes to flavorless prose and diminished thinking? The rationale is–and I recognize that this is controversial–that there are some very good reasons why teachers teach the five-paragraph essay. One of these is captured by Robert Sheppard in his essay “In Defense of the Five Paragraph Essay,” when he reminds us that…

reading and writing are unnatural, artificial acts…The structures and conventions of writing do not come naturally. They must be learned; they must be taught.

Sheppard is right that writing is not natural. It is a learned skill like playing an instrument, baking, or coding. While occasional savants may learn these skills sans instruction, the rest of us mortals can only reach higher levels of success if someone shows us how.  This is especially true when it comes to argumentative writing, which is   particularly complicated and intimidating for many students. The five paragraph essay is meant to teach these students a clear and tested template for argumentation that can also act as a handrail to guide and guard students as they learn about argumentation.

Further, it also should be mentioned that while the five-paragraph essay is often cast as being “not real world,” similar styles of writing do actually pop up all over the real world. Cover letters, essays for colleges and programs, and letters of recommendation all follow what is essentially a five-paragraph form, and many examples of more sophisticated arguments also follow the hook–>thesis–>evidence–>bigger picture form that five-paragraph essays strive to teach.


So what is a writing teacher to do? There is a reason the five-paragraph form endures but there is also a reason it is so widely criticized. Further, there is a major issue that professor Kathleen Dudden Rowlands lays out in her article “Slay the Monster” from the English Journal: If we do decide to kill the five-paragraph essay, what should go in its place?

Several years ago I had a breakthrough that has since made me unafraid to venture into the five-paragraph wars. My solution is that I don’t banish it or rely on it. Instead, before the first essay my class does a genre study on the five-paragraph essay. 

The idea is that as a high school teacher, I assume that my students have all probably encountered the five-paragraph essay before, so on the first day I put up the following question for each section of the classic five-paragraph essay:

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The students then work in groups, drawing upon every “hamburger” how-to-write-a-five-paragraph-essay lecture they’ve heard since elementary school, to piece together the rules for each part of the essay. So far, it likely seems pretty similar to what they’ve done before, but then I throw a twist at them:

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The students next must starting thinking through the why. Why do most teachers say to start with a hook? Why do a lot of teachers tell students to put a thesis at the end of the introduction? Why do we need topic sentences? Quotes? This begins the inquiry in earnest and gets them thinking about the goals of argumentation. This is pushed further by the next question, which goes…

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Suddenly, the students are asked weird questions like can an essay be clear if a thesis doesn’t go in the introduction (yes) or could starting with a first-person story be an acceptable technique to grab attention in academic pieces (yes as well). This requires students to think about argumentation at the deepest level –the transfer level– and introduces the idea that arguments can come in lots of shapes and sizes.

From there we move on to looking at mentor texts of different ways to approach argumentation. There is a wonderful treasure trove from Moving Writers here, but I often just pull them off of op-ed pages. As we read each, we identify how each writer uses the key elements of argumentation that we discuss early in the unit (things like establishing credibility or thoughtfully using evidence to strengthen your points).

We then end the study by thinking through a variety of hypothetical arguments and discussing how to best structure each to meet the audience and purpose, and this leads directly into the students writing their own essays where the approach and structure are entirely up to them. They can build up to an argument at the end, state the thesis directly in the first line, begin with an anecdote, or even use the five-paragraph form, if they deem it the most effective way to organize the argument.

In the end, this genre study approach might not seem that drastically different than the more traditional teacher-directed five paragraph lesson approach. After all, both are filled with discussion of theses, hooks, quotes, and topic sentences. But underneath the approach is actually quite different. It grants far more autonomy, is inquiry based, and requires students to transfer their knowledge (which Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie argue is the deepest form of learning). And maybe most importantly, it takes the focus off of the form and puts it onto what actually makes argument work: thoughtful choice of evidence, clarity of voice, building credibility, and word choice that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, is lightning and not a lightning bug!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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