In a recent post over at Talks With Teachers, Brian Sztabnik puts a price on the head of the 5-paragraph essay. Torch it, bury it, at all costs, make it go away. Why this bounty? Well, the gist of the argument is that, of all the great writing we read, virtually none of it is in the form of a 5-paragraph essay. The primary goal of education, says Sztabnik, is “to cultivate young minds to be thoughtful, versatile, and never satiated.” It’s a good post, and even better is the follow-up, which proposes authentic writing as an alternative. In that second post, nine teachers share what authentic writing means to them, along with a favorite authentic writing assignment. There are some fantastic ideas there, and I highly recommend reading both.
But there’s a but, or, rather, a however. You knew it was coming. And here it is:
However, for all the great ideas in these two posts, and despite the immense value of authentic writing, I still teach—and will still teach—the 5-paragraph essay. In this post, at the risk of seeming quaint and conventional, I will present a defense of the 5-paragraph essay, as part of a broader strategy for writing instruction.
A False Dichotomy
In the Talks With Teachers posts, we hear many of the undoubted benefits of authentic writing: cultivating passion, personal expression; writing with purpose, with audience in mind; writing as a means of empowerment; helping students to discover and develop a distinctive voice. All are desirable outcomes, to be sure, and all are likely to result from authentic writing assignments. Furthermore, the writer rightly observes that these desirable outcomes are unlikely to develop directly from lessons focused on the 5-paragraph essay (hereafter, the 5-PE, because nobody wants to read thefiveparagraphessay thefiveparagraphessay thefiveparagraphessay).
But throwing out the 5-PE for not building student voice, proposing authentic writing as an alternative to it, is like replacing your hammer with a sponge, because, hey, has the hammer ever been any help washing the dishes? The two have entirely different functions; they are used at different times and in different ways. The false dilemma upon which the post is posited is evident even from the title: Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay: Long Live Authentic Writing. In a given assignment, we may need to make a choice, but in terms of the instruction of writing broadly, the two are by no means mutually exclusive.
Structure vs. Creativity?
The writer argues that the 5-PE is simply a relic of an age gone by that does little for our students but stifle their creativity. The conclusion is this:
Formats confine. They box you in. They limit where you can go. By discussing style, sharing mentor texts of varying styles, I am encouraging my students to be exist [sic] beyond those limitations and operate on a higher level. Formats may change but style endures.
Well, yes, formats do confine and limit where you can go. That’s precisely their intended purpose. Effective writers must develop the ability to confine and organize their ideas because the human mind does, by its very nature, “exist beyond those limitations and operate on a higher level.” To put that straight to paper will generally yield an incoherent mess of free associations and stream-of-consciousness. If we as writers want to be understood by our readers, we must step back from our ideas, see them as an outsider will see them, and arrange them in a comprehensible way. Reading and writing are unnatural, artificial acts. If we, as readers, can easily follow the thread of ideas from point to point, paragraph to paragraph, it is not because the writer’s mind is neatly organized into coherent, cohesive paragraphs that he has placed en bloc onto the page. It’s because the writer has a deep understanding of how we structure discourse above the paragraph level. It’s because he or she has drafted and redrafted, organized and reorganized his or her thoughts.
The notion that imposing limits on our ideas stifles creativity is a dubious one. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that, in combination with a variety of instructional techniques, including some more authentic ones, teaching students to recognize and manipulate the structure of texts is essential to stimulating creativity in all its many manifestations. Creativity can be exercised at a number of levels: we can coin a new word, we can combine words into a novel turn of phrase, we can compose a beautiful sentence or paragraph, or the structure of the work itself can be an act of creativity.
More importantly, when I get a new group of learners in my writing classes, what they lack is not passion or voice or expressiveness; it is structure and focus in their writing. This is the one area where student writing tends to need the most work. The structures and conventions of writing do not come naturally. They must be learned; they must be taught. Passion and voice and expression are essential to great writing, but they aren’t exactly “taught.” We can and should inspire, challenge, stimulate, motivate our students, guiding them ever toward these traits, but we must also teach them.
How the Five-Paragraph Essay Fits
When we want our students to learn the basics of English sentence construction, we introduce them to the fundamental components, nouns and verbs, and then to the simplest constructions, S-V-O sentences. These sentences are often contrived; in authentic use, few sentences actually fit this neat form. But if we bombard our beginning students with the subordinate clauses and inversions and fragments that make up authentic language, they’ll simply never be able to find their bearings.
From sentences, we move on to paragraphing, and from there onto longer composition. And again, certain contrivances are useful in helping students to orient themselves in the dauntingly convoluted structures of written discourse. The 5-PE is a good place to start. In them we encounter introductions and conclusions, supporting details, even that funny affinity for threes, a great chance to practice our basic transition words and discourse markers.
Teaching students the 5-PE is not teaching them to think or write inside the box; it’s teaching them that there is a box; it’s helping them to recognize the fundamental components of longform writing. We should then be moving on to recognizable variations on this basic format, and soon enough, students will be able to recognize the various functions that paragraphs can serve, and restructure or invent formats that fit the shape of their ideas.
Note: It’s worth pointing out that many of the ideas over at Talks With Teachers are geared toward younger learners, and younger learners may indeed have different needs when it comes to self-expression.