In Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay

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.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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17 Responses to In Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay

  1. I’m coming late to the game, but thank you very much for this excellent post. My media feeds have been inundated today with writers declaring the use of the five-para essay evidence that one’s classroom is a Gradgrindian hellscape of simplistic conformity. I cracked my knuckles in preparation for writing a fiery rebuttal, but decided to Google a bit and see what the state of the pro-5P field was. I’m now free to grade papers and plan for this week’s classes, because you’ve made the argument far more effectively than I could have done. Kudos and thanks again.

  2. Nancy Overman says:

    Thank you for this post. I will speak about this same issue (from the same viewpoint) at TESOL, so finding this post has been a happy accident. I give my intl freshmen the parallel of a chef who mixes up the expected courses, like ice cream for an appetizer. Only a true master can get away with that. The rest of us should stick to the expected format, at least at first!

  3. Julia MacDonald says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Robert. I will also continue to teach the 5 PE. All beginning writers, whether in a native language or a subsequent one, need to learn the boundaries and rules before these can be successfully broken. I tell my pre-university ESL students that the limits set on an essay (eg. paragraph number or word count) are in themselves a test of a writer’s ability. To be able to express yourself effectively while keeping to a limit is a valuable skill to master and one which they will need once they enter university and have to write academic essays.

  4. Nahida El Assi says:

    I am, too, for the 5-PE. Putting ideas into form does not rule out creativity, motivation, or interest levels, especially that writing is a process. Therefore, the teaching approach makes a whole difference.
    Importantly enough, when students learn how to write an essay, they will gain more practicality and thus able to write a thesis, for example, later on.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Agreed, Nahida. And your point about writing, say, a thesis, is one that I should have emphasized even more: if we think about it, why and when do we need to write? Unless we are aspiring to be professional writers, most of the longform writing that we need to do is to fulfill a finite number of functions, many of which must follow prescribed formats: cover letters, theses, test responses, even blog posts! We NEED to develop the ability to express our ideas in forms that may not naturally fit the shape of our ideas.

  5. Theresa Pruett-Said says:

    I tell my students that the 5-paragraph essay is like learning formulas in math. Before you can explore and make new discoveries in math, you need to be able to do the formulas. Having creative and inspiring ideas is wonderful, but if the student can’t communicate those ideas then it doesn’t matter how good the ideas are. I think a disdain for the 5-paragraph essay comes from Composition studies for native speakers and may work for fine for some ESL students, but many need a basic template.

  6. Gary Hewgley says:

    I think part of the problem is the educational pendulum. We make wild swings back and forth and there is no middle ground. I guess politics is the same way – who knows? There is a time and a place for many instructional strategies and having students writing 5 paragraph essays is just one of the many ways to write. I think it can be a great scaffold for students who need help with focusing their writing. I also think it doesn’t make sense to always write 5 for no particular reason other than just writing 5.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      I agree, Gary, that the pendulum effect is at work here. I honestly don’t have any particular fondness for the 5-PE, and it only makes for a very minor part of my writing courses, but throwing it out altogether seems very hasty to me.

      I would point out, though, that the number five isn’t an altogether arbitrary number. The reason we have five is for an introduction, conclusion, and three supporting details in between. Now, we could certainly argue that the three supporting details is an arbitrary number, but the rule of three is a convention with a whole lot of history to it, and, for me at least, it really does seem to be more effective and punchy than, say, two or four. There seems to be some reason to believe that the appeal of threes is intrinsic rather than arbitrary.

  7. uzma says:

    even creativity is bounded in different genres. so chunks of creativity can be mess which is totally opposite to 5PE.

  8. Rachel says:

    very nice post. i think we can even go so far to tell our students that it is the confinements which set their creativity free. otherwise what they think to be creativity is just pure chaos.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Thanks, Rachel! I completely agree. There is a reason that all forms of creative expression tend to follow set patterns: songs are organized into verses and choruses, poems in to stanzas following some standard rhyme schemes, photographs are generally composed according to the rule of thirds, etc. Can we violate these standard formats? Absolutely. Some of the best art does. But learning these forms helps us to develop as creatives, and breaking from these forms should be an informed decision.

  9. MaryAnn Voveris says:

    Form and Content?
    Content follows Form?

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      I think ultimately form has to follow content, but developing the ability to make that happen involves a mastery of forms, which can benefit seriously from being forced to express your content in various forms. What do you think!? 🙂

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