Stop Teaching 5 Paragraph Essay

Part I: Introduction--What inspired my argumentative response?

For  decades, too many high-school teachers have been instilling persuasive writing skills by teaching students the five-paragraph essay.  You know it:

Introduction with three reasons

Reason #1

Reason #2

Reason #3

A summary of all three reasons

It's bad writing.  It's always been bad writing.  With the Common Core Standards designed to shift the way we teach students to think, read, and write, this outdated writing tradition must end.  If you're teaching it--stop it.  If your son, daughter, niece, or nephew (or a young person you care about) is learning it--prepare to engage with the teacher to end  it.

The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless.

If I were using five paragraphs to convince you, based on the argument above, you wouldn't need to read any farther.  Instead, we should use the original argumentative form Aristotle promoted but that somehow got watered down into the ordinary structure we, unfortunately, were likely taught or may currently teach.

Aristotle became one of the godfathers of rhetoric by creating structures for persuasive writing and speaking that--if taught to young people today--would transform writing instruction and facilitate the implementation of the Common Core, proving that students--when guided appropriately--can succeed with critical thinking in the 21st century.

Part 2: Background--What preceded my argument and / or what needs to be clarified?

Teachers know that, in the 90s, state standards were developed to guide instruction.  Some teachers liked them; some hated them.  Each state, though, had its own.  A few years ago, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers began work on national standards to increase consistency.  These new national standards are challenging--and necessary.

According to the Common Core Web site, the "standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers."

Besides allowing for instructional consistency among states, the states help align instruction vertically so one grade's instruction leads to the next.

The Common Core site also states that "these standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards:

  • are aligned with college and work expectations;
  • are clear, understandable and consistent;
  • include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
  • build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
  • are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
  • are evidence-based."

If high-school students and teachers are to succeed with Common Core Standards, the five-paragraph essay cannot be part of instruction.  Too many times, this ordinary format is the default mode for expressing thinking in English, in history, in science, in P.E., and even in math.  The problem is this format doesn't encourage thoughtful persuasion.  It promotes low-level summary that nobody really cares about.

Aristotle rightfully promoted five parts to effective writing and speaking.  Eventually, because of low expectations, because of poor literacy training, because of convenience or some combination, these five parts became five paragraphs.  And writing became boring and predictable.

Part 3: Confirmation--What supports my argument?

The thesis or argument in the traditional five-paragraph essay doesn't lend itself to debatability or originality.  It's a trap that students can never escape.  A few years ago, I got the chance to be an AP English reader for the College Board.  Over and over, if a student used the rudimentary three-part "argument," there was no way he or she could demonstrate success in the analysis essay--even though we were all supportive readers.  Students were trapped into only writing about three aspects of the text instead of starting at the top, ending at the bottom, and going through the text with a critical eye that revealed an insight to the reader.

In competitions such as history fairs, students cannot compete with the rudimentary three-part argument.  When I started a Writing Center at a selective-enrollment high school a couple of jobs ago, the history teacher came to me and said she needed something to help students succeed.  Over and over, she was getting arguments with blank, blank, and blank.

Together we came up with this structure for arguments, which has served me and students well:

specific topic  + debatable view  +  significance to the audience

  • Example A: The longer school day in Chicago next year does not guarantee that students will be productive in classes, reminding us that young people need to find learning meaningful.
  • Example B: The longer school day in Chicago next year does guarantee more learning opportunities, resulting in increased student success.

If students want to get really fancy, they can use a subordinate phrase at the beginning to de-emphasize common beliefs:

  • Example C:  Despite its widespread use, the traditional five-paragraph essay does not allow students to express ideas engagingly, proving that this structure limits students' writing development.

The image above is the handout I use with students thanks to the conversations with my mentor Robin Bennett, a fondly remembered theater and history teacher.

Another damaging aspect of using five paragraphs is that students find it almost impossible to do anything but write in expository paragraphs.  If we use Aristotle's original form instead, students are able to incorporate compare/contrast, cause/effect, definition, or analysis paragraphs as appropriate.  We'll have more modes to teach; students will have more options.

Aristotle's form, however, is not a one-size-fits-all approach.  This form doesn't work for science lab reports.  For that, we should follow the example of the science tradition.  Lab reports are not argumentative.

This form should also not be the form for a narrative essay.  For that, we should follow the example of NPR This I Believe essays.  While personal essays do carry a subtextual argument, they are not intended to persuade.  They are written so we can experience what we have not or find solidarity through what we have.

Aristotle's form works only for persuasive essays--which need to be part of our educational system more often.  We just need to make sure that we are presenting students with persuasive prompts that have more than one reasonable response.

Part 4: Refutation--What challenges my argument?

I know. I know.  I'm hearing, "But how are students going to learn organization without learning the five-paragraph essay?"  My response: they're not learning an organizational pattern that will help them succeed outside of your own classroom.

Effective cover letters aren't written in five-paragraph essays.  We don't expect a news article to follow a five-paragraph format.  Quite simply, there aren't always three reasons to prove our point.

Students need to write for a specific rhetorical context.  The College Board promotes the SOAP format to help students understand guidelines and expectations:

Subject: Who or what are you writing about?

Occasion: What idea or incident is inspiring this need for  persuasion?  How much time to you have to write this?

Audience: Who will read this?  What do they believe about the subject?  Are they a supportive or skeptical audience?

Purpose: What is the job of this essay?  What specifically do you want the audience to realize?

Students and teachers can use this to deconstruct prompts.  Finally, the SOAP format, when combined with Aristotle's form, can help students write one or ten page essays effectively.  The five paragraph essay limits students into about 1  1/2 pages.

Part 5: Conclusion--What are the benefits of accepting my argument?

Aristotle called the last part of the persuasive event the epilogue.  Unlike the five-paragraph essay that begins with "As you can see . . ." and leaves the reader thinking, "Why are you telling me what you told me a couple minutes ago?  I'm not stupid," Aristotle, in The Rhetoric, tells us a good writer should do this in the conclusion: "make the audience well-disposed towards ourselves and ill-disposed to our opponent."  One way to achieve this is to explain the benefits if the audience accepts our view.  It's a good opportunity for students to make inferences or predictions.

If teachers and students move away from the rudimentary, unengaging, and useless five-paragraph format, students will be able to think for themselves and understand that writing can really challenge people's views.  Students will create persuasive essays that incorporate information in un-identical ways to everyone else.  Furthermore, rhetorical limits won't be obstacles; they'll become guidelines for success.

Finally, students will learn that their persuasive abilities, when used responsibly, will have value outside of the 46 minutes they were given to write.

 

I'm adding  this link to student essays that use Aristotle's form to help readers understand how they work.  These were essays written by two of my students.

Due to the popularity of this post since May, in October I wrote about strategies for effective narrative writing--especially for personal statements--that avoid the traditional five-paragraph form.

What strategies have you used or seen that help students develop writing and critical-thinking skills?

If you liked this essay, please "Like" The White Rhino Blog's Facebook page, as well as follow me @whiterhinoray and on Tumblr.

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Elizabeth Guzik

Basic College Writing Tips

Welcome to College: Say Goodbye to the Five-Paragraph Essay

Many students learned in high school to write what is commonly known as the five paragraph essay.  This handout is designed to help you see the weaknesses of that syle of essay and to help you learn to write something more complex that that formulaic essay.  The Five Paragraph Essay consists of (surprise!) five paragraphs that follow a very structured format.  The first paragraph contains a one sentence (or maybe a two sentence) thesis statement, which is followed by three sentences that briefly describe what will be discussed in the three body paragraphs.  These three sentences are sometimes referred to as the pathway, since they show where the paper will go.  There may then be a transitional sentence to the next paragraph, which discusses the topic of the first pathway sentence.  The next two body paragraphs develop and detail the next two pathway sentences.  The conclusion, the fifth paragraph, restates and summarizes the arguments of the essay, sometimes beginning with the phrase, “In conclusion.”

The strength of the five paragraph essay is that it is highly structured, and fairly easy to teach.  It provides a very formulaic style of writing that many students find helpful.  However, once you reach the college level, the weaknesses outweigh the strengths.  The five paragraph essay encourages students to engage only on the surface level without attaining the level of cogency demanded by college writing.  In its broad, overarching style, it has a tendency to encourage overly general thesis statements that lead to poorly developed and unfocused papers.  And its formulaic nature makes it prone to produce papers with stilted organization.  Not to mention that it is next to impossible to write five pages of one without repeating yourself.  The only time the five paragraph essay may be useful in college is when you are writing answers to brief essay questions on exams.  In timed situations that do not allow you to come up with a complex organization, the five pragraph essay format can be helpful to structure your ideas if you are easily overwhelmed by the number of points you have to make.

So, if you're not allowed to write the kind of essay your high school teachers taught you, what exactly else are you supposed to write?  The easiest thing to remember is that with a few sentence level changes, each pathway sentence from a traditional five paragraph essay would make a great working thesis for the kind of argumentative, thesis-driven paper that you are asked to write in  college.  Here’s an example in answer to the prompt, “What fundamental change would improve high school education ?”.

High school education has several problems which must be solved to prepare America’s youth for the challenges of the 21st century.  Overcrowded classrooms mean that students do not receive the individualized attention that they need to succeed.  Increasing rates of crime are making students afraid to come to school, and preventing students from concentrating while they are there.  In addition, the lack of technological resources like state of the art computers is preventing students from being competitive in the workplace after graduation.  These problems all mean that some students are falling behind.
When students fall behind, they need the attention of an instructor one on one to catch up.  Because classrooms are so crowded, teachers are overworked.  As a result.  .  .

OR

High schools across the country are bulging at the seams.  As increasing numbers of Americans realize that education is necessary to attaining the American dream, our schools grow more crowded.   At the same time, budget cuts have caused schools to cut back on the number of teachers.    As the number of teachers has dropped, and classrooms have become more crowded, the quality of education in our public schools has declined.  With a higher workload, burnout among even the best teachers has increased, and fewer people see teaching as the desirable profession they once did.  Solving the problem of overcrowding by strictly limiting class size to 20 students would allow more students to get the instruction they need to become productive members of society, which is the most important goal of high school education in America today.

Can you see the difference between the two parargraphs?  Let's take a closer look:


 

5  Para EssayCollege Essay
High school education has several problems which  Solving theproblem of overcrowding would allow more
must be solved to prepare America’s youth for the  students toget the instruction they need to become
challenges of the 21st century.productive members of society whichis the most
important goal of high school education in America today.
This thesis states the obvious.  It is so general thatThis statement narrows the topic down to a specific problem:
just about anything you threw into the essay could be used overcrowding. It also states why overcrowding is a problem.
to support it – but you would end up with a very unfocusedThe sentence implies that overcrowding is preventing at least some students
essay.  Also note the use of vague wording – from getting the education they need to
“several problems.”  Finally, a college paper must take a “become productive members of society,” which the thesis
position that a rational person would disagree with.  itself identifies as a primary goal of high school education.
What rational person would not agree with this sentence?There are lots of rational people who would choose another
problem as the worst obstacle facing high school education.
There are also lots of rational people who would argue for a
 different primary goal of high school education.

Many students when transitioning from the 5 paragraph essay to the college essay express concern about what else to put in the introductory paragraph.  Certainly, the five paragraph essay gives you a clear formula for what else to include in the introduction.  However, to excel at college writing, students need to think about the function of the introductory paragraph.  Introductory pararaphs are designed to give readers a preview of the essay topic and introduce the writer's point of view on the subject.  You do not need to have one sentence in the introduction for each paragraph in the paper.  You simply need to give enough of an overview of where you are going to give readers a sense of the overall arc of your argument.  An introduction is kind of like a movie preview--it tells the reader enough that he or she knows what to expect, but it does not give a scene by scene breakdown of the movie.

Even though a more complex essay will not have a one to one correspondance of setences to paragraphs, readers can still make a good guess about what will be included in that kind of essay.  Here is what an outline for the essays that follow each of those thesis statements and introductory pararaphs might look like:
 

5 Para EssayCollege Essay
1.  Overcrowding interferes with instruction.1.The primary goal of a high school education is to make all students, not just a certain select few, 
2.  Increasing crime makes students afraid/unable to work.into productive members of society.
3.  No tech resources means not prepared for work force.2. As jobs become more competitive, more people need and are seeking an education.
4.  Conclusion3. Budget cuts mean fewer teachers in schools, which reduces the quality of classroom instruction.
 4. Teachers get burned out when classes are overcrowded.
 5. In overcrowded classrooms, too many students get lost or slip through the cracks.
6. Conclusion suggesting what the result of solving the problems might be for society.

Obviously, the second essay is going to come out longer and more complex than the first.  This seems counterintuitive to many students at first glance.  You would think that an essay with three main points would be longer than one with one main point.  The difference is that the college essay asks you to ask more probing questions--to examine the hows and whys behind each point and push your analysis further.
 
 

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