The Five Paragraph Essay Considered as Kudzu, a Shoebox, a Crutch, and Training Wheels

I expect the last three words of this sentence will bring back horrible memories of school for most of you: five paragraph essay. It’s one of those pedagogical tools that, thanks to its use on standardized tests, has taken root like kudzu, spreading throughout US high schools and resisting attempts to get rid of it. Its formulaic structure lends itself to writing without thinking, and its ease of use means a lot of teachers don’t go any further in teaching writing.

The five paragraph essay is a triumph of organization over, well, everything else. That’s the main reason it’s used in classrooms. When you first start writing, you don’t know how to organize your thoughts, or even that you should. Five paragraph essays make that task easier. Writing wraps your thinking up in a package you can hand to others, and organizing that writing brings the package together. In that sense, the five paragraph essay is a shoebox. It’s tidy, easy to carry, and stacks well, a convenience for teachers with thirty essays to grade. But I wouldn’t pack my clothes inside shoeboxes for a vacation, or store our one thousand books in them. Not all thoughts fit into a five paragraph essay.

Even for those that do, the essay’s structure can be a crutch, discouraging developing those thoughts further. Once you learn the five paragraph formula you can apply it over and over and over again, dutifully composing a thesis sentence, dropping in three supporting paragraphs, and wrapping it up with a concluding paragraph. By the end of high school I could fart a five paragraph essay. I never took an English class in college thanks to the five paragraph essays I wrote for the freshman composition test. At no time, though, did I truly learn to develop those thoughts beyond what was needed for a minimally-competent five paragraph essay. I’m not the only student to have that experience, either.

Yes, class time is limited. Yes, five paragraph essays teaches organization. Yes, five paragraph essays are the easiest form of essay writing. But they’re training wheels. At some point they need to be left behind. Five paragraph essays can be the first step in learning how to compose; they shouldn’t be the last. If only they weren’t used on standardized tests like state achievement exams and my college’s freshman composition test. Teachers have to teach to tests, and that leads to them emphasizing the form to the exclusion of most any other. The result: students who can, if pressed, write in a form that doesn’t exist outside of junior high and high school, but who can’t do any other kind of critical writing.

Five paragraph essays may be the triumph of organization over content, of facile writing over critical thinking, of convenience over skill. Regardless, I have hope that they will not reign forever. The College Board announced that of all essays written for the SAT from March 2005 to January 2006, only 8 percent used a five paragraph structure. If we’re lucky, those students made a conscious choice not to use the five paragraph structure. If not, I know what kind of SAT preparation skills I’ll be marketing.

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16 Comments

  1. on April 18, 2007 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Well-argued, Dr. Granade! I submit that not only is the 5PE a shoebox, it’s a shoebox of lieieieieies.

  2. Pop
    on April 18, 2007 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Ouch! You stepped on your Mom’s toes with this one. With that said, well done my Son.

  3. May
    on April 18, 2007 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    The last comment was actually from me not from your Dad. Sorry, I have had a hard day teaching 5 paragraph essays to junior who don’t want to even learn a 1 paragraph essay.

  4. on April 18, 2007 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    This blog entry gives me an excuse to trot out one of my favorite sentences (favorite in a “reclaimed” sort of way): “Holden Caulfield experiences three types of alienation: from society, from others, and from himself.”

    I agree with you on everything here — the thing is, what do you replace the 5PE with? How do you teach critical thinking/writing/communication to the masses?

  5. on April 18, 2007 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    You do not know how hard it was for me not to use that sentence in the original post.

    I wouldn’t replace it wholesale, because the structure is useful, especially at first. What I’d like is for teachers to be able to move past the 5PE. But as long as organizations like the College Board recommend in their materials that teachers teach the 5PE to the exclusion of all else, and essays are used primarily in a standardized test setting instead of a separate pedagogical tool, students aren’t going to be taught anything else.

  6. on April 19, 2007 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    For another perspective on this, take a look at Alex Halavais’s Mad Libs Argumentative Essay. He’s on the other side of the problem than what I was addressing: his students don’t yet have the tools to structure an argumentative essay on their own.

  7. Pop
    on April 19, 2007 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    The 5PE is merely being replaced by the 3PE; the 5PE taxes the concentration of modern students beyond the breaking point.

  8. Joyous
    on April 20, 2007 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I honestly have come to believe that good writing *can’t* be taught. It can only be learned. Further, it can only be learned under sufficient motivation, and academic grades just don’t cut it.

    It comes of *reading* good writing, and secondly, from writing under peer review: I have learned more about clear writing and backing up one’s opinions with research from, of all things, blogging, than from a thousand hours of classroom instruction.

    The 5PE is a charade designed to give what can’t be taught to those who don’t want to learn. It’s a perfect metaphor for most of what goes on in American public education.

  9. on April 26, 2007 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    I actually wish some of my doctoral students had mastered the 5-paragraph essay format a little better way back when. The organizational ideas of a preliminary framework, supporting material, and a conclusion are important, at a much larger and complex scale, in a dissertation literature review and yet I see so many students forgetting basic writing organization concepts when they work on their own lit reviews. Ugh.

  10. on April 26, 2007 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    That’s interesting, and more than a little disheartening. If you’re going for a doctoral degree and especially if it involves writing, you should be able to structure what you write logically.

  11. Su
    on July 10, 2007 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    I like the fact that you wrote 5 paragraphs. So ingrained.

  12. on July 10, 2007 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Oh, that was quite deliberate. 🙂

  13. on September 13, 2007 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I teach at a high school in Memphis that is said to be one of the strongest academic high schools in the city. I am teaching 10th grade Langauge Arts.

    I have been trying to get my students to come out of the shoe box. Here is an example of what I have gotten so far after two days of intense instruction, negogiation, and frustration……

    student example “One astounding fact is 11 out of 50 seneiors in Memphis City Schools fail to recieve diplomas”(Commercial Appeal, 2007). This is the result of students not doing what they need to in oder to obtain thier high school diplomas and successfully graduate. Avoid failing behaviors that would cause one to fail, iso ne way to guarntee success in school.”

    I thought that it was a pretty good start and showed it to the 11th grade teacher because I am preparing these students for her class. She said it was very poorly written and asked where is the thesis statement that states the three things the student is going to argue.

    Could someone tell me is she right? Have I set my students up for failure?
    Responde smit9693@hotmail.com

  14. on September 13, 2007 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I teach at a high school in Memphis that is said to be one of the strongest academic high schools in the city. I am teaching 10th grade Langauge Arts.

    I have been trying to get my students to come out of the shoe box. Here is an example of what I have gotten so far after two days of intense instruction, negogiation, and frustration……

    student example “One astounding fact is 11 out of 50 seneiors in Memphis City Schools fail to recieve diplomas”(Commercial Appeal, 2007). This is the result of students not doing what they need to in oder to obtain thier high school diplomas and successfully graduate. Avoid failing behaviors that would cause one to fail, iso ne way to guarntee success in school.”

    I thought that it was a pretty good start and showed it to the 11th grade teacher because I am preparing these students for her class. She said it was very poorly written and asked where is the thesis statement that states the three things the student is going to argue.

    Please Could someone tell me is she right? Have I set my students up for failure?
    Responde smit9693@hotmail.com

  15. Joseph
    on September 10, 2008 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    When my son began learning the saxophone he learned the note structure over and over again. He even learned some simple songs that helped him learn those notes. It wasn’t until later that he began to experiment with grace notes and other imbellishments and even later still that he began “thinking” about his music and improvising.

    For me, the five paragraph essay does that. It gives the students a way to organize so that when they do begin thinking, they have a solid place to put those thoughts.

  16. on September 10, 2008 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Yeah, and I’m not for abolishing the 5PE in its entirety. Rather, I hope students can master the skills the 5PE helps teach and then move beyond it, just as I hope any musician I listen to has mastered more than scales and arpeggios.

    That said, the feedback I’ve gotten since I wrote this has made me realize that there are far more people who are stuck on the “I don’t know how to organize my thoughts” side of the divide than I would have hoped. For them, hammering home the basic lessons of the 5PE is helpful.

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