January 15, 2009

The Five Paragraph Essay--Don't Take it Too Seriously

If you've been through the American public school system, you've probably been taught the Five Paragraph Essay. It has a thesis statement, is exactly five paragraphs long, and each paragraph has a specific function. That's why it's so popular--it's easy to teach and easy to grade. Holt, the textbook company, even has an online essay scoring system that grades a five paragraph essay without a teacher. And some high schools are requiring proficiency at this format before graduation.

But in my opinion, using the Five Paragraph Essay to teach writing is like using a coloring book to teach Art.

Here's the format of a Five Paragraph Essay:

The Introductory Paragraph starts with general statements that lead to the “point” of the essay--the thesis statement. With your thesis statement, include a “map” or preview of the next three paragraphs, then stick to it. The thesis statement is the point of your essay and ends the introductory paragraph.

Body Paragraph #1 shows how an opposing opinion to the thesis statement is wrong. “Opponents say...but...”

Body Paragraph #2 shows how the thesis statement is right. “The thesis statement is true. For example...”

Body Paragraph #3 shows another reason why the thesis statement is true.

The last paragraph is The Conclusion. Restate your thesis statement at the beginning, recap, then pull out to a general statement that puts your “point” in the big scheme of things.

Each paragraph should be at least five sentences long.

My life since first grade has been saturated with topic sentences, supporting sentences and thesis statements lined up in five-sentence paragraphs organized into five-paragraph essays. I have an Elementary Education degree with a Language Arts specialization and I taught writing to international college students. I also coached my son on the SAT essay format and watched him take a freshman composition class at our local community college--five paragraph essays all the way.

But the real question is, Who writes this way? Only school kids and test-takers. When was the last time you saw a newspaper article written as a five paragraph essay? or a magazine article or a blog post? How about those Pulitzer Prize winning authors? Any five paragraph essays among them? No.

The Five Paragraph Essay is an excellent tool to practice staying on topic, but that's about it. Why is it so over-taught and hailed as THE model of good writing? What happens when a child has to write outside the artificial confines of the classroom? One of my friends explains, "[learning to write this way] made writing a burden for a perfectionist like me. I have always hated writing because it was taught as a puzzle--each sentence in a paragraph has a single purpose, each word has a single purpose, must write without any fluff or "to be" verbs...I had to write short papers for an English class in college and yes, it took me days to write a perfect five paragraph essay. It was so stressful that I did poorly in physics because I always had an exam the day after my essay was due and hadn't time to study for it. I would actually spend hours--yes hours--writing and rewriting the same sentence in order to perfect it! Insane, but that's what happens when you tell a perfectionist that a paper has to be written with perfectly chosen words. Anyway, when I went to seminary I had to write papers constantly. I remember just looking at my PC screen and crying when it came time to write my first paper. I couldn't do it. I just didn't turn one in because I was frozen!"

In our attempt to teach children organized writing and clear communication, we've choked their voice and deadened their wonder. We've made writing robotic, predictable, and at worse, traumatic. Here's my advice: Teach your children the Five Paragraph Essay format about three months before they take the SAT or ACT. Let them practice a few, then leave it alone. Let the bulk of their writing instruction be full of reading the masters and experimenting themselves.

The five paragraph essay is like the training wheels of a bicyclist or the coloring book of a future painter. It's a first step, but not the goal.



Catherine said...

Great post! I like the 5 paragraph essay for myself because I'm so structured. My daughter, though, is something of an artist, so she doesn't like to be as constrained with her writing as I do. I'm working to help her become more concise without strangling the natural beauty of her writing. We'll do the 5-paragraph essay right before standardized tests, like you recommend.

Anonymous said...

I'll never forget the first time I was out of college and doing some freelance writing and I began a sentence with the word "And". Now I had been taught for 15+ years not to begin a sentence this way. It caused actual anxiety as I sent the article into my editor, wondering what she would say. Surprisingly she never even blinked over my fear-inducing "And". And I've been starting sentences with "And" ever since. The confines of writing instruction are just so darn STIFLING sometimes!!!

Unknown said...

I remember high school being torture when it came to writing. I really enjoyed learning about new topics but hated how it all had to be put into a specific format and if it wasn't, points were taken off. I love writing now that I can play around with it and go outside of the lines!

Anonymous said...

I love this. I love the idea that some things DO need to be learned for success on certain tests, etc. But, they don't need to be taught/drilled/practiced for years and years!

Heather said...

I was blessed that I never learned the "five paragraph" thing. I didn't learn much in school--most of the time my mom retaught me at home, including how to write.

Anonymous said...

Well, thank you for that! This type of mandatory format idea has always driven me batty. What if you have more or less to say on a topic? What if it all doesn't fall neatly into the three body paragraphs? It holds a fair bit of silliness, in my opinion. Yes, Padawan Learner will learn the "test" version of writing but he will also learn to write what is in his head and in his heart, regardless of format.

Anonymous said...

I always said that learning the five-paragraph essay was the best preparation for college I ever got, but, as you write, it's a foundation, not the finished product. I introduced my child to the five-paragraph essay when she had to write something for a class she took. I'm glad that her life doesn't include writing such essays all the time! Thanks for the post.

Monique said...

Jena, just read this post...even though it was wriiten some time ago...I love it! Thank you. I am going to read this to Ellie when she gets home from lunch with friends. This helps us both out! Big Time!

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