Should We Teach The Five Paragraph Essay

Part I: Introduction--What inspired my argumentative response?

For  decades, too many high-school teachers have been instilling persuasive writing skills by teaching students the five-paragraph essay.  You know it:

Introduction with three reasons

Reason #1

Reason #2

Reason #3

A summary of all three reasons

It's bad writing.  It's always been bad writing.  With the Common Core Standards designed to shift the way we teach students to think, read, and write, this outdated writing tradition must end.  If you're teaching it--stop it.  If your son, daughter, niece, or nephew (or a young person you care about) is learning it--prepare to engage with the teacher to end  it.

The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless.

If I were using five paragraphs to convince you, based on the argument above, you wouldn't need to read any farther.  Instead, we should use the original argumentative form Aristotle promoted but that somehow got watered down into the ordinary structure we, unfortunately, were likely taught or may currently teach.

Aristotle became one of the godfathers of rhetoric by creating structures for persuasive writing and speaking that--if taught to young people today--would transform writing instruction and facilitate the implementation of the Common Core, proving that students--when guided appropriately--can succeed with critical thinking in the 21st century.

Part 2: Background--What preceded my argument and / or what needs to be clarified?

Teachers know that, in the 90s, state standards were developed to guide instruction.  Some teachers liked them; some hated them.  Each state, though, had its own.  A few years ago, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers began work on national standards to increase consistency.  These new national standards are challenging--and necessary.

According to the Common Core Web site, the "standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers."

Besides allowing for instructional consistency among states, the states help align instruction vertically so one grade's instruction leads to the next.

The Common Core site also states that "these standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards:

  • are aligned with college and work expectations;
  • are clear, understandable and consistent;
  • include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
  • build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
  • are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
  • are evidence-based."

If high-school students and teachers are to succeed with Common Core Standards, the five-paragraph essay cannot be part of instruction.  Too many times, this ordinary format is the default mode for expressing thinking in English, in history, in science, in P.E., and even in math.  The problem is this format doesn't encourage thoughtful persuasion.  It promotes low-level summary that nobody really cares about.

Aristotle rightfully promoted five parts to effective writing and speaking.  Eventually, because of low expectations, because of poor literacy training, because of convenience or some combination, these five parts became five paragraphs.  And writing became boring and predictable.

Part 3: Confirmation--What supports my argument?

The thesis or argument in the traditional five-paragraph essay doesn't lend itself to debatability or originality.  It's a trap that students can never escape.  A few years ago, I got the chance to be an AP English reader for the College Board.  Over and over, if a student used the rudimentary three-part "argument," there was no way he or she could demonstrate success in the analysis essay--even though we were all supportive readers.  Students were trapped into only writing about three aspects of the text instead of starting at the top, ending at the bottom, and going through the text with a critical eye that revealed an insight to the reader.

In competitions such as history fairs, students cannot compete with the rudimentary three-part argument.  When I started a Writing Center at a selective-enrollment high school a couple of jobs ago, the history teacher came to me and said she needed something to help students succeed.  Over and over, she was getting arguments with blank, blank, and blank.

Together we came up with this structure for arguments, which has served me and students well:

specific topic  + debatable view  +  significance to the audience

  • Example A: The longer school day in Chicago next year does not guarantee that students will be productive in classes, reminding us that young people need to find learning meaningful.
  • Example B: The longer school day in Chicago next year does guarantee more learning opportunities, resulting in increased student success.

If students want to get really fancy, they can use a subordinate phrase at the beginning to de-emphasize common beliefs:

  • Example C:  Despite its widespread use, the traditional five-paragraph essay does not allow students to express ideas engagingly, proving that this structure limits students' writing development.

The image above is the handout I use with students thanks to the conversations with my mentor Robin Bennett, a fondly remembered theater and history teacher.

Another damaging aspect of using five paragraphs is that students find it almost impossible to do anything but write in expository paragraphs.  If we use Aristotle's original form instead, students are able to incorporate compare/contrast, cause/effect, definition, or analysis paragraphs as appropriate.  We'll have more modes to teach; students will have more options.

Aristotle's form, however, is not a one-size-fits-all approach.  This form doesn't work for science lab reports.  For that, we should follow the example of the science tradition.  Lab reports are not argumentative.

This form should also not be the form for a narrative essay.  For that, we should follow the example of NPR This I Believe essays.  While personal essays do carry a subtextual argument, they are not intended to persuade.  They are written so we can experience what we have not or find solidarity through what we have.

Aristotle's form works only for persuasive essays--which need to be part of our educational system more often.  We just need to make sure that we are presenting students with persuasive prompts that have more than one reasonable response.

Part 4: Refutation--What challenges my argument?

I know. I know.  I'm hearing, "But how are students going to learn organization without learning the five-paragraph essay?"  My response: they're not learning an organizational pattern that will help them succeed outside of your own classroom.

Effective cover letters aren't written in five-paragraph essays.  We don't expect a news article to follow a five-paragraph format.  Quite simply, there aren't always three reasons to prove our point.

Students need to write for a specific rhetorical context.  The College Board promotes the SOAP format to help students understand guidelines and expectations:

Subject: Who or what are you writing about?

Occasion: What idea or incident is inspiring this need for  persuasion?  How much time to you have to write this?

Audience: Who will read this?  What do they believe about the subject?  Are they a supportive or skeptical audience?

Purpose: What is the job of this essay?  What specifically do you want the audience to realize?

Students and teachers can use this to deconstruct prompts.  Finally, the SOAP format, when combined with Aristotle's form, can help students write one or ten page essays effectively.  The five paragraph essay limits students into about 1  1/2 pages.

Part 5: Conclusion--What are the benefits of accepting my argument?

Aristotle called the last part of the persuasive event the epilogue.  Unlike the five-paragraph essay that begins with "As you can see . . ." and leaves the reader thinking, "Why are you telling me what you told me a couple minutes ago?  I'm not stupid," Aristotle, in The Rhetoric, tells us a good writer should do this in the conclusion: "make the audience well-disposed towards ourselves and ill-disposed to our opponent."  One way to achieve this is to explain the benefits if the audience accepts our view.  It's a good opportunity for students to make inferences or predictions.

If teachers and students move away from the rudimentary, unengaging, and useless five-paragraph format, students will be able to think for themselves and understand that writing can really challenge people's views.  Students will create persuasive essays that incorporate information in un-identical ways to everyone else.  Furthermore, rhetorical limits won't be obstacles; they'll become guidelines for success.

Finally, students will learn that their persuasive abilities, when used responsibly, will have value outside of the 46 minutes they were given to write.

 

I'm adding  this link to student essays that use Aristotle's form to help readers understand how they work.  These were essays written by two of my students.

Due to the popularity of this post since May, in October I wrote about strategies for effective narrative writing--especially for personal statements--that avoid the traditional five-paragraph form.

What strategies have you used or seen that help students develop writing and critical-thinking skills?

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This post is written by NCTE member Kim Zarins. 

[Disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in composition studies. My PhD is in English with a focus on medieval literature. Besides teaching college literature courses, I write creatively, and my debut young adult novel comes out in September. I am joining the debate on the five-paragraph essay in response to Kathleen Rowlands’ smart “Slay the Monster” journal article, because I think high school and college teachers can work together and set up our students for success—and the five-paragraph essay is setting them up for a really tough time in college. Students don’t find their voices this way and come to college hating how they sound in writing, particularly in the essay form.

As a high-school survivor of this form and now a teacher occasionally receiving it from students trying their best, I have to say I hate this abomination. I hate it so much, I decided to be naughty and condemn the five-paragraph essay in a five-paragraph essay. Here you go. Enjoy. Or not.]

From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of the modern high school, the five-paragraph essay has been utilized in high school classrooms. Despite this long tradition, the five-paragraph essay is fatally flawed. It cheapens a student’s thesis, essay flow and structure, and voice.

First, the five-paragraph essay constricts an argument beyond usefulness or interest. In principle it reminds one of a three-partitioned dinner plate. The primary virtue of such dinner plates is that they are conveniently discarded after only one use, much like the essays themselves. The secondary virtue is to keep different foods from touching each other, like the three-body paragraphs. However, when eating from a partitioned plate, a diner might have a bite of burger, then a spoonful of baked beans, then back to the burger, and then the macaroni salad. The palate satisfies its complex needs for texture, taste, choice, and proportion. Not so for the consumers of the five-paragraph essay, who must move through Point 1, then Point 2, and then Point 3. No exceptions. It is arbitrary force-feeding to the point of indigestion. After the body paragraphs, and if readers have not already expired, they may read the Conclusion, which is actually a summary of the Introduction. There is no sense of building one’s argument or of proportion.

Second, critical thinking skills and the organization of the essay’s flow are impaired when a form must be plugged and filled with rows of stunted seeds that will never germinate. If we return to the partitioned-plate analogy, foods are separated, but in food, there is a play in blending flavors, pairing them so that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Also, there is typically dessert. Most people like dessert and anticipate it eagerly. In the five-paragraph essay there is no anticipation, only homogeneity, tedium, and death. Each bite is not food for thought but another dose of the same. It is like Miss Trunchbull in the Roald Dahl novel,  forcing the little boy to eat chocolate cake until he bursts—with the exception that no one on this planet would mistake the five-paragraph essay for chocolate cake. I only reference the scene’s reluctant, miserable consumption past all joy or desire.

Third, the five-paragraph form flattens a writer’s voice more than a bully’s fist flattens an otherwise perky, loveable face. Even the most gifted writer cannot sound witty in a five-paragraph essay, which makes one wonder why experts assign novice writers this task. High school students suffer to learn this form, only to be sternly reprimanded by college professors who insist that writers actually say something. Confidence is shattered, and students can’t articulate a position, having only the training of the five-paragraph essay dulling their critical reasoning skills. Moreover, unlike Midas whose touch turns everything to gold, everything the five-paragraph essay touches turns to lead. A five-paragraph essay is like a string of beads with no differentiation, such as a factory, rather than an individual, might produce.  No matter how wondrous the material, the writer of a five-paragraph essay will sound reductive, dry, and unimaginative. Reading over their own work, these writers will wonder why they ever bothered with the written word to begin with, when they sound so inhuman. A human’s voice is not slotted into bins of seven to eleven sentences apiece. A human voice meanders—but meaning guides the meandering. Voice leans and wends and backtracks. It does not scoop blobs of foodstuff in endless rows. If Oliver Twist were confronted with such blobs of written porridge, he would not ask for more.

In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay is an effective way to remove all color and joy from this earth. It would be better to eat a flavorless dinner from a partitioned plate than to read or write a five-paragraph essay. It would be better to cut one’s toenails, because at least the repetitive task of clipping toenails results in feet more comfortably suited to sneakers, allowing for greater movement in this world. The five-paragraph essay, by contrast, 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.

Kim Zarins is a medievalist and an Associate Professor of English at the California State University at Sacramento. Her debut young adult novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, pub date Sept 6), retells Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with modern American teens traveling to Washington D.C. Find her on Twitter @KimZarins.

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