Teaching the Five Paragraph Essay: Hazards and Benefits


Working at public schools and a community college in a low-income community allowed me to understand how the vast majority of my students were not reading... anything...nothing...not a book, a leaflet, the back of the cereal box... zip. I half-way expected this in my work as a middle school teacher, but when I entered the higher-education realm, I believed that I would encounter a different group, but I didn't. The same students who were not reading in my middle school classes were sitting in my Comp I, II and even Literature classes, still not reading regularly outside their textbooks for school. A student who does not have a regular reading life has many problems in the writing classroom, but here are the main 5 I have noticed:

 1. They are not exposed to quality, creative writing-- writing that is purposeful, organized, developed and artistic.
 2. They are not exposed to vocabulary they will need to produce their own quality writing.
 3. They are not exposed to inventive, varying or purposeful sentence structures to produce their own quality writing.
4. They are not exposed to new ideas through the written word.
5. The discipline of engaging with writing (time, focus, reflection) is never practiced.

 You may be thinking, isn't this a blog post about the 5 paragraph essay? And my answer is an emphatic, "Yes!" I have heard criticism of the 5 paragraph essay, but I believe that it is useful for students such as those described above. Students, who do not read regularly, often do not know how to write. They are ill-equipped to begin putting their thoughts together on paper. The inspiration of language may not be there because they have not walked in the garden of language enough to desire to plant a few seeds of their own. For these students, I heartily recommend the 5 paragraph essay, because they are able to plug in the main ingredients of an essay and focus on the big picture without the "how do I start?" pressure (the 5 paragraph essay is typically: 1) an introduction with a thesis as the last sentence, 2) three body paragraphs with topic sentences, and 3) a conclusion that should do more than summarize the essay or re-state the thesis.).

 I think instructors who are afraid of this "formula" (oh, is that a dirty word in a writing class? woops!) are really afraid of having their students inhibited by a structure that would lock them in to predictability. To them, I ask, "what is really evil about having a formula?" A student is still able to be as creative as they can with diction and sentence structure, which I think are the real powerhouses of an engaging paper. On his blog, "The White Rhino: A Chicago Latino English Teacher", Ray Salazar criticizes the use of formulaic writing in a post titled, "If You Teach or Write 5-Paragraph Essays--Stop It!" Salazar describes his disdain for it in this way: "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". I disagree. It is a fallacy of over-generalization that a student who uses this type of writing is not utilizing "thoughtful persuasion" or even critical thinking. The proof of those impactful components shows itself in the revision process which is absolutely necessary in a writing class like Comp I. For example, students should collaborate and ask the hard questions, like: "is my conclusion only summarizing the essay? Or is my conclusion exhibiting the relevance of my topic?" It is the instructor's responsibility to create a revision process that demands critical thinking, despite the "structure" that is in use.

So, yes, there is a great hazard of using this formula if the writing instructor does not insist on ideas which show reflection and critical thought. Additionally, a writing class should incorporate "style and tone" focused units which challenge students to jump off the "subject predicate" sentence pattern and experiment with parts of speech to make their writing more pleasantly surprising. Without making this part of the essay writing experience in revisions and edits, students will produce dry, monotone predictable summaries. But students who engage in critical thinking already through a lively reading life are able to draw from their experience with good writing; they are a few steps ahead everyone in the class.

Back to my above list. In my most recent Comp I classes, I decided to have my students read something every Friday and blog about it on their portfolio. These readings ranged from op-ed essays, contemporary short fiction or even classics, like "The Allegory of the Cave". The goal was to increase the amount of quality reading to which my students were exposed and reflect on the ideas they encountered. Over time, and unfortunately, more time than a semester allows, a student who reads reflectively will produce better quality writing. Why? Because both involve the art of "making meaning". I think the real solution to dynamic student writing is not avoiding a formula, but incorporating some dynamic readings in the writing classroom.

 Note: Here is an interesting article which addresses this issue in depth.