The Two-Edged Sword of the Five-Paragraph Essay

This week I got smacked in the face with the effects of students’ repeated exposure to the five-paragraph essay.

Lots has been written lately about this structure for writing given to students as a way to organize a persuasive essay. Many of us cling to it because “it’s a place to start.” Not all of the chatter about the five-paragraph essay is positive, though. The structure has come to represent the type of writing students need to master for success on standardized tests. In other words, the five-paragraph essay has been demonized, rightfully so.

Kelly Gallagher, in In the Best Interests of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (2015), says this: “An argument is much more than a claim followed by three reasons. Arguments that are shoehorned into five-paragraph structures are actually weakened by the artificiality of the structure itself” (96). There are plenty of examples of how the five-paragraph essay has harmed students’ writing. What I saw the other day was an example of how it has affected their reading.

An honors level junior told me she was having trouble with a writing assignment. She read the biography of a famous American and now had to write a review including the author’s “argument.”

“I looked and looked in the book, but I couldn’t find her argument,” she said.

Her statement gave me pause. It dawned on me suddenly that she was looking for a thesis statement – probably at the end of the first paragraph – and failed because, in the real world of writing, authors seldom showcase their claims. Often claims must be inferred by the reader. The other edge of teaching students the five-paragraph essay structure almost exclusively is the deleterious effect it has on their reading of complex texts – and a sharp edge it is.

As if the cosmos were confirming my thoughts, I came across this passage by John Warner in his new book, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (2018):

Having been conditioned to locate their thesis at the end of the first paragraph, they (students) sometimes assume the same is true of all writing, but in much of the more sophisticated texts they’ll read in a typical first-year writing course, the thesis may be implied rather than explicit.

Some students looking for a thesis to summarize search for a sentence to extract and quote, but not finding it, they settle for something they know isn’t right, believing they should do what they’ve done before anyway.

Other students simply get the argument wrong. They summarize a nonexistent claim. (99-100)

It has been a perfect storm of events that has brought us to this point in writing instruction. Many of us must teach to a test daily. We all must cover a specific body of content each week, month, year. Some of us believe teaching writing belongs squarely in the domain of the English department. So we seize upon the simple structure of the five-paragraph essay because it seems to check all the boxes – and it does – except for the one that really matters.

Writing – the act of it – is expression. Its purpose is communication. As with any art form writing is crafted; choices are made about every word, every move. Painters start with ideas and blank canvasses. They don’t use a paint-by-numbers kit and call it their original work.

“Rules of thumb call for the writer to exercise judgment rather than follow format. Of course, it takes more time and effort to develop writerly judgment than it does to follow the shortcut of the five-paragraph essay. Form is harder than formalism. But the result is a text that does more than just look like a piece of writing; it makes meaning.” (Labaree, 2018)

Probably the biggest travesty of capitulating to “formalism” in writing instruction is the fact that we are depriving our students of the best part of writing as a learning process: discovery.

Reading Specialists know that if a student spends all of her cognitive energy on decoding words, there is little left for making meaning of a text. I submit that this principle goes for writing as well. Students who have to focus their cognitive energy on the formal structure of their work have no room for craft, playfulness, experimentation, or following a thought to its end. They must concentrate on staying in line which is the opposite of what all great innovators do.

That’s a real shame.

References

Gallagher, Kelly. 2015. In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom. Portland, Me: Stenhouse.

Labaree, David. 2018. “The Five-Paragraph Fetish.” aeon, Feburary 15. https://aeon.co/essays/writing-essays-by-formula-teaches-students-how-to-not-think.

Warner, John. 2018. Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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