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W(h)ither the five-paragraph essay

I was surprised to learn from my students that many of them are still being taught to write the five-paragraph essay in high school. You know it: an introductory paragraph that begins with a hook and ends in a thesis statement. Three body paragraphs, each with a topic sentence and two or three pieces of supporting evidence or detail. A conclusion that restates the thesis and summarizes the main points. Transitions throughout.

My colleagues in education tell me that many schools hang onto the five-paragraph form because they believe it is an effective starting point which bootstraps weaker writers. Some are also convinced it is expected on standardized assessments and in college. Yet as Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristin Latimer point out in their book Beyond The Five-Paragraph essay, such defenders are engaged in wishful, mythical thinking.

The five-paragraph essay, Campbell and Latimer argue, prioritizes a fixed form over cogent thinking, does little to develop a sense of audience, and is counterproductive in terms of standardized testing and college-level writing. The five-paragraph form is a far cry from the essay as originally conceived—by Montaigne—as a witty, thoughtful exploration of ideas. Instead, it flattens a writer’s voice, dulls reasoning, and engenders habits of formulaic exposition that some never shake.

The five-paragraph form seems to have arisen from the schoolroom practice of writing themes, as essays were once called, and the idea goes back to Greek and Roman rhetorical exercises called progymnasmata. These formal exercises made their way into later English practice, and John Locke complained about them in Some Thoughts Concerning Education.

Instead, it flattens a writer’s voice, dulls reasoning, and engenders habits of formulaic exposition that some never shake.

Theme writing emerged in the early twentieth century as the pedagogical norm. Such writing was, as William Coles, Jr., noted in The Plural I, “not meant to be read but corrected.” It was the expository equivalent of the fill-in the blank exercise. Today, the terminology is different—we talk about writing essays or term papers—but the complaint is still valid.

Perhaps the five-paragraph essay hangs on because of the constraints of class size or the inertia of tradition. But there are other approaches that encourage more attention to audience and depth of thought (techniques that good teachers gravitate to even if the five-paragraph form is forced upon them). One is to allow time for exploration of topics as a group. Discussion and debate before writing inevitably helps writers to consider a wider range of perspectives and connections. As writers talk about what sort of evidence and examples are most relevant to a point, they will probably leave the five-paragraph form behind. So talk first, write later.

Another technique is work from models of real writing. Dissecting models in depth helps writers to think about how different structures and voices enhance exposition. A point can be made as a faux rant or a self-deprecating reflection. It can be made as a narrative, a scolding, or a plea. In his book Draft No. 4, writer John McPhee reminisces about his New Jersey high school teacher, who had students write three essays each week, each accompanied by a structural blueprint. This blueprint, McPhee explained, was the student’s own and “could be anything from Roman numerals I, II, III to a leaping doodle with guiding arrows and stick figures.” The lesson stuck with McPhee, and experimenting with different structures is central to his style. “Readers,” McPhee says, “are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about a visible as someone’s bones.”

The five-paragraph essay, I’m afraid, is all skeleton.

Featured image: Writing. Image by StockSnap. CC0 via Pixabay.


Recent Comments

  1. Bill Lancaste

    That is an excellent article.

    As a High 🏫 dropout I was developing an aspiration for writing.
    At age 65 I haven’t made any notable progress as a writer. However, I’m gaining still in “baby steps”.

    My writing is relegated to social media and not very self satisfying, but that doesn’t hinder me.

    I feel fortunate to have access to these highly educational articles.
    And I thank you for such.

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