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Reading & Literacy

Is the Five-Paragraph Essay History?

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 20, 2016 5 min read
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Has the five-paragraph essay, long a staple in school writing curricula, outlived its usefulness?

The venerable writing tool has largely fallen out of favor among influential English/language arts researchers and professional associations. “Rigid” and “constraining” are the two words critics often use to describe the format.

There’s no denying that a five-paragraph essay—comprising an introduction with a thesis, three paragraphs each with a topic sentence and supporting details, and a conclusion—is highly structured, even artificial, in format. Yet many teachers still rely on it at least to some degree. Supporters of the method argue that, used judiciously, it can be a helpful step on the road to better writing for emerging writers.

“You can’t break the rules until you know the rules. That’s why for me, we definitely teach it and we teach it pretty strongly,” said Mark Anderson, a teacher at the Jonas Bronck Academy in New York City, who recently helped devise a framework for grading student writing based on the five-paragraph form.

Classical Origins

Long before “graphic organizers” and other writing tools entered teachers’ toolkits, students whittled away at five-paragraph essays.

Just where the form originated seems to be something of a mystery, with some scholars pointing to origins as far back as classical rhetoric. Today, the debate about the form is intertwined with broader arguments about literacy instruction: Should it be based on a formally taught set of skills and strategies? Should it be based on a somewhat looser approach, as in free-writing “workshop” models, which are sometimes oriented around student choice of topics and less around matters of grammar and form?

Surprisingly, not much research on writing instruction compares the five-paragraph essay with other tools for teaching writing, said Steve Graham, a professor of educational leadership and innovation at Arizona State University, who has studied writing instruction for more than 30 years.

Instead, meta-analyses seem to point out general features of effective writing instruction. Among other things, they include supportive classroom environments in which students can work together as they learn how to draft, revise, and edit their work; some specific teaching of skills, such as learning to combine sentences; and finally, connecting reading and content acquisition to writing, he said.

As a result, the five-paragraph essay remains a point of passionate debate.

A quick Google search turns up hundreds of articles, both academic and personal, pro and con, with titles like “If You Teach or Write the 5-Paragraph Essay—Stop It!” duking it out with “In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay.”

Structure or Straitjacket?

One basic reason why the form lives on is that writing instruction does not appear to be widely or systematically taught in teacher-preparation programs, Graham said, citing surveys of writing teachers he’s conducted.

“It’s used a lot because it provides a structure teachers are familiar with,” he said. “They were introduced to it as students and they didn’t get a lot of preparation on how to teach writing.”

The advent of standardized accountability assessments also seems to have contributed, as teachers sought ways of helping students respond to time-limited prompts, said Catherine Snow, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“It simplified the tasks in the classroom and it gives you structures across students that are comparable and gradable, because you have real expectations for structure,” she said.

It’s not clear whether the Common Core State Standards’ new emphases in writing expectations have impacted the five-paragraph essay’s popularity one way or another.

“I don’t connect the two in my mind,” Anderson said. “There is more informational writing and analytical writing, but I haven’t got a sense that the five paragraph format is necessarily the best way to teach it.”

Still, Anderson argues that structure matters a great deal when teaching writing, and the five-paragraph essay has that in spades.

At a prior school, Anderson found that a more free-form workshop model in use tended to fall short for students with disabilities and those who came without a strong foundation in spelling and grammar. The format of a five-paragraph essay provided them with useful scaffolds.

“The structure guides them to organizing their ideas in a way that is very clear, and even if they’re very much at a literal level, they’re at least clearly stating what their ideas are,” he said. “Yes, it is very formulaic. But that’s not to say you can’t have a really good question, with really rich text, and engage students in that question.”

On the other hand, scholars who harbor reservations about the five-paragraph essay argue that it can quickly morph from support to straitjacket. The five-paragraph essay lends itself to persuasive or argumentative writing, but many other types of writing aren’t well served by it, Snow pointed out. You would not use a five-paragraph essay to structure a book review or a work memorandum.

“To teach it extensively I think undermines the whole point of writing,” she said. “You write to communicate something, and that means you have to adapt the form to the function.”

A Balanced Approach

Melissa Mazzaferro, a middle school writing teacher in East Hartford, Conn., tries to draw from the potential strengths of the five-paragraph essay when she teaches writing, without adhering slavishly to it.

A former high school teacher, Mazzaferro heard a lot of complaints from her peers about the weak writing skills of entering high school students and ultimately moved to middle school to look into the problem herself.

Her take on the debate: It’s worth walking students through some of the classic five-paragraph-essay strategies—compare and contrast, cause and effect—but not worth insisting that students limit themselves to three points, if they can extend an idea through multiple scenarios.

“Middle school especially is where they start to learn those building blocks: how you come up with a controlling idea for a writing piece and how you support it with details and examples,” she said. “You want to draw your reader in, to have supportive details, whether it’s five paragraphs or 20. That is where it’s a great starting point.”

But, she adds, it shouldn’t be an ending point. By the time students enter 9th grade, Mazzaferro says that students should be developing more sophisticated arguments.

“I used to help a lot of kids write their college essays, and whenever I saw a five-paragraph essay, I’d make them throw it out and start over,” she said. “At that point, you should be able to break the rules.”

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