Why We Still Won’t Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay

A guest post by Nigel A. Caplan and Luciana C. de Oliveira
In this blog, Nigel and Luciana address a recent post by Robert Sheppard, which defended the teaching of the 5-paragraph essay in ELT.

Nigel’s son, a second grader, recently brought home an assignment to write a news report about Alexander Graham Bell for an audience of his day. Nigel’s colleague teaches intermediate-level ESL students descriptive writing through restaurant reviews. And in his pre-matriculation intensive English classes, he teaches business case analyses to future MBA students. Luciana teaches her doctoral students about how to write conference abstracts and qualitative dissertation proposals. As an ESL teacher, she taught responses to readings, arguments, and expository texts.

All these assignments have two things in common: They could not be satisfactorily accomplished with a five-paragraph essay nor would the exclusive teaching of the five-paragraph essay equip writers with the skills to succeed.

In a recent post on this blog, Robert Sheppard defended the five-paragraph essay from an attack by Brian Sztabnik on the Talks with Teachers blog.We agree with Mr. Sheppard that Mr. Sztabnik’s insistence on authenticity, voice, and self-expression do not always translate well to the ESL classroom, but we reject the conclusion that the main pedagogical response is the contrived, monolithic, and decontextualized five-paragraph essay formula.

It is no accident that Mr. Sheppard’s blog post defending the five-paragraph essay does not itself follow the form of a five-paragraph essay. It simply wouldn’t be effective. By the same token, we do not write letters, business proposals, narratives, restaurant reviews, research papers, fundraising emails, discussion board entries, or scientific reports all in the same way. The essential fallacy of the five-paragraph essay is to assume that everything is an essay, or worse, the essay. The reality is more complex—more messy, perhaps—and certainly more important for learners.

However, to say that rejecting the five-paragraph essay means eschewing all structure is incorrect. There is a widely used and studied alternative: Writing seen not purely as self-expression nor as formulaic reproduction but as a repertoire of genres, which it is our responsibility as teachers to expand. Mr. Sheppard is partially correct that “formats do confine and limit where you can go,” but there is no single “format” that is an adequate response to every rhetorical situation. The five-paragraph essay is attractive, of course: It is fairly easy to teach, learn, and assess. But it does not prepare learners—whether they are school-aged children of immigrants, students in foreign language classes, or undergraduates in English-medium programs—for success.

We use the term genre to refer to these different kinds of texts that are written or spoken for specific audiences in specific social contexts and have specific stages–phases that authors go through to achieve their purposes. Jim Martin contends “we cannot not mean genres.” We recognize the genre of all our interactions and written texts, and this allows us to make and understanding meaning. As Martin reminds us, genres constrain, but in doing so they give language users access to and a voice (that word again) in social actions. However, different genres have different constraints, patterns, and conventions. Throwing out the ageneric (to quote Christine Ortmeier-Hooper) five-paragraph essay is by no means giving students free reign to write “an incoherent mess of free associations and stream-of-consciousness.” Quite the contrary: We don’t teach the five-paragraph essay because it does not help students structure their ideas in ways that are acceptable in their target genres. Students not only need, as Mr. Sheppard states, to learn that there is a box, but more importantly that there are many boxes, and that each one is different.

Furthermore, we dispute the assumption that the only difference between struggling and successful writers is their use of rigid organization. Good writing is organized, but cohesion and coherence demand more than a simplistic, one-size-fits-all quick fix. It requires both genre awareness and the linguistic resources with which to develop and connect ideas. These linguistic resources can be taught very effectively in the context of genre-based approaches to writing, as Luciana and many others have shown in their work on elementary school classrooms and across the primary, secondary, and tertiary curricula. The five-paragraph essay with its funnels and previews, first of alls, and in conclusions does not teach anything beyond superficial cohesion. Contrary to common myths (as Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock demonstrate), the five-paragraph essay does not work as a crutch that students will later discard, it does not teach skills that transfer to “real” academic genres, and it does not even guarantee success on standardized writing tests.

Our concern is not to banish the evils of incoherence, nor to promote writing as the free expression of the author’s voice. We have seen over and over that the explicit and thorough teaching of genres is the best way to level the playing field and give marginalized learners of all ages access to the high-stakes ways of knowing, reading, and writing that will open doors in their academic, professional, and social lives.


Nigel CaplanNigel A. Caplan, MSEd (TESOL) is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in Newark, Delaware, USA, where he teaches ESL to international undergraduate and graduate students as well as MA TESL courses. His research interests include genre-based writing pedagogy, collaborative writing, and graduate communication needs. He is the incoming chair-elect of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section.

Luciana de OliveiraLuciana C. de Oliveira, PhD, is interim chair and associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami, Florida, USA. Her work focuses on L2 writing in K–12 classrooms, specifically on genre-based approaches to writing instruction and teacher preparation to address English language learners’ needs. She’s a current member of the TESOL Board of Directors (2013–2016).

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16 Responses to Why We Still Won’t Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay

  1. Charla New says:

    Hello, Nigel and Oliveira!

    In my experience as a past instructor of Developmental Reading and Writing at the college level, I have seen ELLs and native speakers alike struggling with where to even begin writing. For this reason, I introduced students to the 5PE structure. I do believe that with every piece of written material must first make a statement, then support that statement, and lastly wrap up their words in a way that leaves the reader with a specific intended feeling or thought. Simply put, the 5PE provides students with set template in which they may insert, organize and revise their thoughts and ideas in a widely acceptable way in the United States school system.

    At this point, I believe its essential to mention the various writing styles throughout the world. In the American-English essay, students are to write to audiences like they are completely ignorant of everything ever. At the risk of sounding redundant, such is what many composition instructors expect within the college setting. In writing, ELLs bring their own semantic concepts and cultural norms into the English essay, therefore they may struggle with not only the structure of the English essay, but the rhetoric and transparent style the American essay requires.

    In my class, I had Arabic students straying from the main idea to elaborate on tangents, while I had Japanese students continuously making allegories and poetic references rather than bluntly stating a purpose as common in the American-English essay. It hurt me to lead them away from such artistic, unique rhetoric, but it was my job to prepare them for the University level, Composition I and II course level writing.

    After reading above comments about Australian genre writing, it also seems that even within the English language, we have discrepancies. Audience, purpose and genre is obviously key. After reading through both yours and Sheppards article posts arguing for and against the 5PE, I am able to agree with both of you. However, I believe the key point that we must all take away from both articles is that ELLs must be scaffoled into writing in the target language with strategies such as the implementation of the 5PE, but at the same time, they must grow in their personal voice and style, eventually evolving the 5PE into rhetoric of their own. As an old saying says, there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater!

    Charla M. New
    Graduate Assistant
    Arkansas Tech University
    English Language Institute
    https://www.facebook.com/ArkansasTechUniversityELI/

  2. Alejandra Mannarelli says:

    As an EFL teacher I have had to prepare my students for international exams which means 5P essays, and I discovered on the way that for students who are learning a language at a beginner-intermediate level the structure of the 5P essay is a friendly format for the learner. Not too long…not too short…just right. What I did find that called my attention more is that the main difficulty students had was that they did not seem to have ideas in relation to the topic they had to write about……since the topic was not familiar to them. I worked with students who lived in small towns in rural areas in Chile, so I decided to find the connection between the international exam topics and their personal reality and make them reflect. Once they transferred the content to their personal view of the world they could write a 5P essay much more easily and…enjoyed doing so! Some of the comments were: “This teacher teaches us how to write because we organize our own ideas and there is a clear order we can follow”. Looking back, I appreciate having taught them the 5P as I did. They understood and learned much vocabulary and appropriate ways of using English to communicate what they wished to communicate.

  3. Dr CCJones says:

    FYI: I have taught the three to five paragraph compositional language education skills (faculty college/university-18 credits) – just a basic provider for defending this approach would be control of the communicative language & structure – teaching of specific writing areas also defends a solid communicative approach for communicative lingustical development – much is to be said & adhered to relevant to communicative theory & teaching – good luck to all! – DrCCJones

  4. Gary Hewgley says:

    Sorry about this, but you are wrong when you say, “By the same token, we do not write letters, business proposals, narratives, restaurant reviews, research papers, fundraising emails, discussion board entries, or scientific reports all in the same way.” I am working on my doctorate right now. There is an absolute, 100% correct way papers need to be written. Try submitting doctoral work without using APA (or whatever system) formatting and structure. Lots of writing has a specific format. Try telling a journal that you will not follow their structure and that they do not even have structure. Research papers are expected to have a certain structure, try to do it another way and see what the journals tell you. I’m not saying everything has to be structured, nor am I saying that any particular structure (whatever that is) is always good or bad.

    The second point where you both are wrong is your use of absolutes. The original author never ever said that the 5 PE was the only way to write. He did not say that everything must be written in a 5 PE form. He also did not say that no other way of writing that could possibly work. He was trying to say that it is one way that may or may not work for students. It is a tool just like many other strategies are tools. I’m trying to understand why you would want to get rid of a tool that might help some people (emphasis on the words might and some)? I certainly find it very helpful because I’m not a good writer.

    • Nigel Caplan says:

      Gary,

      Thank you for your comment. You make 2 important points that I’d like to respond to:

      1) We are not arguing against structure! Far from it –it is vitally important to understand and follow style guides and author requirements. Genre awareness means precisely analyzing the target genre so as to reveal its linguistic and rhetorical expectations and variations. That prepares all writers for success. Research paper certainly have standard structures — although again there’s variation. We believe that high-stakes genres need to be explicitly taught. Writers who only have one five-paragraph tool in their toolbox will struggle — there’s no empirical evidence for transfer to higher-level writing skills. So rather than teach a form that we don’t think students need, we believe it is important to teach genre awareness, precisely so that students know how to tackle the powerful genres they will encounter.

      2) I am glad that Mr. Sheppard does not believe in the exclusive teaching of the five-paragraph essay (a point he reiterates in his response post today), but many others do, and this is the prevailing attitude in most ESL writing textbooks. Our pedagogy is based on the commitment to provide all learners with the resources they need for academic and professional success — we are not denying anyone writing skills! Instead, we believe in teaching those skills in the contexts of meaningful activities and genres. For examples, I refer you to the sources we cited in the post, as well as Luciana’s research and teacher handbooks, and my textbooks, among other works on genre-based pedagogy.

      I hope this answers some of your concerns. Thanks for taking the time to respond.
      Nigel

      • Gary Hewgley says:

        Sorry again,
        You keep going back to the assumption that 5 PE shouldn’t be used because that is all some people will use and that it does not transfer to higher-level writing. I’m also not sure about your assumption (based on research) that 5 PE does not lead to higher-level writing. I’m sure that 5 PE only learning will not lead to someone become a writer. However, I’ll also bet that if I conduct a study on whether learning your ABC’s and basic sentence structure leads to higher-level writing, I’ll bet there will not be a one-to-one connection. How could someone go from their ABC’s and basic sentence structure to higher level writing in one step? How could someone go from 5 PE essays to higher-level writing in one step? 5 PE’s are a scaffold, not a complete writing system. Could someone misuse them? Yes, but name something that cannot be misused. To think that someone who struggles mightily with writing is going to use any system exclusively to suddenly become a higher-level writer stretches belief – it’s just not that easy.

        To me anyway, the 5 PE essay is a very nice scaffolding tool to have. I would also say that as a teacher and person, I would rather have someone write using these highly-structured “templates” than nothing at all. As someone who has struggled with almost panic attacks when told to write, these structured templates are a lifesaver for me. However, they are only a scaffold and not the one-and-only answer that works in every situation. For people who struggle, we need something that provides the structure that just gets us by sometimes.

        Now if you want to complain, try complaining about 500-word essays (or 1,000) that teachers assign. Now that is something that makes no sense. If something is awesome, 500 words are not enough. If an essay is awful 500 words are 500 words too many.

        • Pauline says:

          Thank you for your responses. I have been teaching for many years and previously have only met this 5PE in people who have studied in North America. Recently, many IELTS students here in Australia, have argued in favour of it. I have been finding that students with less experience (and vocab) have been effectively writing two conclusion paragraphs, repeating information. I have been wondering why. They are mythically building a 5th paragraph!

          And secondly, I do so agree about those pedantic word limits. As an English teacher and a reader, I know that writing succinctly is an art. Waffling isn’t. So asking for a 500 word piece is way more difficult than 1000 words. for a learner.

  5. Gae says:

    I found this article interesting, if slightly confusing. I am an ESL teacher in Australia, and have been for the last 33 years. I had no idea what the 5 paragraph essay was. Reading the article enlightened me somewhat, but left me even more confused. In Australia, our framework for teaching writing is based very much on genre theory, and has been since the mid-80s! What you described is not an issue here any more, and hasn’t been for close to 30 years. I do agree that students need a framework for writing. When we teach writing to second language students, we teach them the genre and the generic features which they need for the genre that they are expected to write in. It is part of the teaching.

  6. english teacher. 56 senior high school,west jakarta Indonesia says:

    Your article is very helpful for me to help my Student in teaching writing and can increase my knowledge dealing with teaching and Learning activities. Tx u

  7. Alysia Krafel says:

    I read all three of the articles in one reading on this discussion. I wish to modify my opinion a bit after a second reading. I do think that there needs to be more than one method for teaching competent writing. You bring out the idea of of genre writing and allude to some forms or structures students can use to mold to different types of writing. I do agree that some writers have difficulty in later years overcoming rigid funnels as you call them. So, on second reading I softened my stance a bit. We do need frames to teach basic writing skill, but I am interested in your genre approach too. I am open to using other structures to assist young writers to expand their tool kit.

    • Nigel Caplan says:

      Thanks for being open to considering our stance. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the 5-paragraph essay must work because it’s in so many books and curricula. But the research doesn’t show evidence of transfer to more sophisticated writing, except perhaps for the strongest students, which makes us concerned for the rest of the class. We have never said that writing should be taught without structure: we do believe, though, that there are many structures, and that choosing the most appropriate one (rhetorical awareness) is a critical skill. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. Alysia Krafel says:

    This argument is interesting not only in the content, but the perspective of the authors. These people teach adults mostly (that includes older teens as well). I have forty years of experience teaching elementary students to write. Try teaching a child or a group of children to write a paragraph in 2nd grade without a frame structure for them to follow. Basic sentence structure and basic non-fiction paragraph structure must be taught directly with many models and frames of how to put it together. It is very hard work. You teach main idea, basic points, details on the points and a conclusion. If you do not teach this structure, students do not learn how to write, period. The 5 paragraph essay is not the frame you use for narrative writing or poetry, so to say it does not work for all forms of writing is forgetting this fact. The 5 paragraph essay is a teaching tool for beginning writers. What grows from the frames through the early grades begins to branch out in the upper grades. The five paragraph essay for expository writing shows up in 5th grade or so. At this level, students are expected to be able to put together an essay that makes sense. At this point is when you start building the expression of voice and color in a writing piece. In middle school, we are still teaching basic writing formats, but with much expanded structures and expectations of individual expression. The 5 paragraph structure has a place, particularly with beginning writers of all ages. To expound on the benefits of more free style writing and not include ages and skill levels, leaves the argument half baked. Articles like these get read by elementary principals who fail to notice that the authors are not teaching children, but young adults, and could impose this on classrooms- get rid of frames, structures, and the 5 paragraph essay and leave young writers with no structure to follow. This does damage.
    This whole argument reminds me of the argument in the 1990’s about “Whole Language” and “Phonics”. People thought it was an either or. Many threw out phonics. The truth is that the kids need both. This is true for writing also.

    • Jeanne says:

      Great point about how these types of articles get read by people who are not in the classroom daily and then make poor decisions that influences classroom practices. There are those who “talk the talk”, and others that “walk the walk”. I have been an educator for 30 years, all levels of schooling and have witnessed too often how decisions are made to get rid of teaching methods based on some article/etc. The whole language debate was an excellent example. I was fortunate to have been trained by true New Zealand educators. It was disappointing how whole language became a “debate” and it was simply because the lack of knowledge. Balance is key!!!!I. I also teach struggling readers and writers at the high school level. Many of my students struggle to write one paragraph. I know some of the English teachers teach the 5P essay format. I can’t imagine teaching students how to write long essays or research papers without some type of format. I hope there is not going to be some debate now on 5P essays. Good teachers know what works best for their students. That’s called being experienced and “walking the walk!!

  9. Nigel and Luciana,
    Thank you for this insightful and compelling post. This really does make the case to veer away from this traditional form. Well done!

  10. Nigel Caplan says:

    I realize now that I slightly misquoted Christine Ortmeier-Hooper in the post, who actually (and wonderfully) described the five-paragraph essay as “arhetorical.” But I rather like “ageneric,” too.

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