Five Paragraph Essay vs. The World

Five Paragraph Essay vs. The World

Every few years or so, educators around the country find themselves up in arms about an issue that is said to hinder thousands of English classrooms every day: the five-paragraph essay. On these occasions, this writing curriculum staple goes under attack with scathing blog posts and national news articles. Educators of all kinds come out of the woodwork to claim their stance, for or against the demonized essay. We should make t-shirts next time. #Team5ParagraphEssay!

Critics of the standardized essay form become upset that it supposedly stifles student-writers, creates underdeveloped arguments, and doesn’t prepare students for the “real world”/college. School districts frantically look to the Aristotelian forms of writing and argumentation, while English teachers groan at the thought of reworking their tried and true curriculum. But somehow, when the dust settles, and critics put away their favorite team’s jersey (really, we should make t-shirts), nothing seems to have ever changed. 

Why is that?

First, let’s address the culprit. The five-paragraph essay consists of--you guessed it--five paragraphs. There is an introduction that includes a thesis statement, three body paragraphs that form arguments outlined by the aforementioned thesis statement, and a summarizing conclusion that offers a solution or call to action. 

The problem with teaching writing in schools is not the five-paragraph essay. At my school this format is traditionally taught from 7th through 12th grade, yet students still struggle to write cohesive essays. It is my firm opinion that to teach most students multiple formats of essays or to just switch over to an alternate form entirely would not benefit the students. If most students  can’t master one pattern of organization in five years, why would we offer multiple essays to master? They would continue to struggle with organization and argumentation. To blame the five-paragraph essay is to blame the crutch that students and teachers overly rely on. The issues we see currently would be the same if we used any style of essays structures, because they are crutches for good writing. You can’t blame the crutch because people are using it and expect improvement. Likewise, you can’t just break the crutch and be surprised when everyone falls. You’ve got to teach people how to be strong without a crutch and to excel in all writing scenarios. 

The issue to focus on is not the format of the essay, it is the rationale behind the argument. This can be achieved successfully in the format of the five-paragraph essay (or any other format of essay). Let’s work through some of the most complaints of this abused essay format. 

Teachers impose this structure because it is “easy” to grade.

The five-paragraph essay structure can be very simple to grade, but only if you are grading it incorrectly. Teachers across the nation (myself included) are guilty of grading solely for the organization of the essay, rather than looking at what they should be grading for: the argument. Elizabeth Rorschach, an affiliate of the New York City Writing Project, says it best in her article "Five Paragraph Theme Redux" when she states: “Standardized writing [...] encourages teachers to focus on format and correctness, with little concern for content.” Teachers, we must be wary of our human nature to take the easy way out and just check off a list of required statements. In addition to keeping an eye on the organization of an essay, we need to be able to actively comprehend the essay. Does their argument make sense? Does one statement explain the other, or is the writer assuming the reader’s knowledge? Is there are a natural flow to their persuasion? These are the questions that must be answered in order to comment and grade essays effectively. More than this, these are the questions we must push when we are teaching the writing curriculum. Splitting time between discussion of the organization of the five-paragraph essay and its literal argumentation could drastically benefit a writing classroom. We should be teaching the five-paragraph essay as a tool to convey an argument. If they master that tool, they can move on to other formats or styles of argument. 

The content becomes oversimplified and dull.

Anything in the world written poorly falls into one of these two categories: oversimplified or dull. Good writing is born of explaining ideas well and using differentiating manners to do so. The five-paragraph essay teaches students to understand the nuances of their arguments, versus making large generalizations about their position. When you have an entire paragraph dedicated to explain your reasoning for one argument, you have to critically analyze the complexities of that argument deeply. This is something my ninth graders struggle with constantly. My penned question “Why?” appears frequently on their turned in essays, which often throws them into a tizzy. They frantically claim they couldn’t possibly know “why.” It’s my job to teach them to figure it out and communicate it effectively via their writing. This is what students struggle with, creating fluid and comprehensive analytics about their arguments; not the five-paragraph essay. 

It is not preparing students for college.

One of the major tenets of writing that is often skipped in English class is that a good writer is an adaptable writer. You have to write to cater to the occasion and the audience. The way you write a commercial is different from an academic journal, which is also different from a movie script. We are teaching students one format of writing through the five-paragraph essay, but in no way do teachers claim this is the only format of writing you will ever need. This is a tool used to accomplish the basics. If a student can write a strong, engaging, and thoughtful five paragraph essay, they improve the same skills they need to write a strong, engaging, and thoughtful letter, commercial, play, or television show. 

In Kerri Smith’s iconic article, "In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay," she explains that: 

“[M]any professors would like nothing more than to help students build on this foundational form. As a professor of first-year composition, I would be thrilled if, every September, more students could put their ideas together in the coherent fashion demanded by this underappreciated form because, almost without exception, students who know the five-paragraph essay intimately are more prepared to take on the challenge of college-level writing. ”

And, it shouldn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway: Strong writers aren’t necessarily college-bound writers. 

The five paragraph essay has the capability to be a flexible stepping stone for student writers. Problems arise when teachers don’t teach the five paragraph essay effectively. This is not to ignore the fact that it is simply hard to teach writing effectively. 

Before children run, they walk. Before a chef makes Cordon Bleu, they have to toast a PopTart. Before a student can write an innovative essay, they have to write a strong five-paragraph essay. This is the natural order of the world. It is simple, beautiful, and effective. Gaining knowledge and applying it occurs through a matter of steps. Nobody starts at the most difficult level of mastery and succeeds. Hundreds of teaching books are based in the pedagogical idea that you must teach a person to walk before they can run. And yet, we criticize the five-paragraph essay for doing exactly that. I will continue to wear my metaphorical #Team5ParagraphEssay t-shirt proudly. Who's with me on this? I'll set up a Kickstarter.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at andreamarshbank@gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter at @msmarshbank, Instagram at @amarshybank, and Linked In at Andrea Marshbank

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