The Five-Paragraph Essay: Part 1

Students: have you ever had to write something called a “five-paragraph essay”? Has it ever seemed like a monstrous waste of time?

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I know that feel.

Teachers: have you ever assigned something called a “five-paragraph essay”? Has reading that pile of nearly-identical, BS-filled, content-free papers ever made you want to throw up your hands and quit teaching?

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Don’t turn in your resignation just yet.

A lot of blood ink has been spilled over the five-paragraph essay. Back in 1991 The English Journal published Thomas E. Nunnally’s “Breaking the Five-Paragraph Theme Barrier,” one of many reflective pieces The English Journal would go on to publish by teachers writing about their experience with the FPE. Nunnally argues that the FPE is a mixed bag — the essay-writing equivalent of training wheels. A useful support for beginners, but not something you can keep using if you want to achieve mastery.

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No.

Ten years later, Kimberly Wesley wrote a more vociferous condemnation of the FPE. By emphasizing organization over content, she argues (and I agree), the form has a “tendency to stunt students’ critical thinking abilities.” Even when students are able to squash their ideas into the rigid constraints of the format, the results are less than delightful — “neatly packaged but intellectually vapid.”

Some of you, if you are teachers, may be thinking “oh, it’s not so bad! It’s useful for teaching students how to write introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions!”

You’re not alone. Kerri Smith and Byung-In Seo both wrote op-eds in support of the format in the “Speaking My Mind” section of English Journal, in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and that’s what their arguments boiled down to.

The problem is, that argument puts the cart before the horse by presupposing that because so many writers have organized their ideas into something resembling the structure of the FPE, all that needs to be done to support student writers is to give them the structure, and they’ll fill it up with writerly goodness.

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In the real world, writers structure writing according to the demands of the rhetorical situation, the audience, the purpose, their argument, and probably some other stuff that I’m forgetting because honestly I get a little worked up over this.

You want to teach students how to write useful introductions,  clear thesis statements, compelling body paragraphs, and conclusions that don’t treat the reader as if he has the attention span of a goldfish? Teach them how to write introductions — which means teaching them when to write introductions, i.e. not at the beginning of the writing process, before they have any idea what the hell it is they’re introducing. Teach them to figure out when they need a thesis statement, and how to use the drafting process to figure out what they’re actually going to be saying, so that the thesis statement can make it explicit. Teach them how to make decent arguments that can be shaped into useful, coherent, developed body paragraphs. Teach them how to write decent conclusions (and be honest and tell them that it’s freaking HARD to write good conclusions).

You don’t need the five-paragraph essay format to do any of that. And pretending that by forcing students into a structure we are teaching them how to create structure is a farce — like forcing them into a building and acting as if we’ve somehow taught them to be architects.

Brannon et. al. back me up on this in their E.J. Extra article “The Five Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education.” They passionately argue that Smith and Seo, and others making the same tired “common sense” arguments about the FPE, “serve only to perpetuate the myth of the five-paragraph essay, advance the power of the testing estab- lishment, and make it more difficult for K–12 teachers to enact alternatives that empower students to truly write.”

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In my next post, I’ll explain how I deal with the five-paragraph essay in the first-year writing classroom. It’s gonna get a little meta.

Have you had a bad five-paragraph essay experience as a student or as a teacher? Share your FPE horror stories in the comments!

 

 

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