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.