In Defense of My Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay

I posted last month on what I see to be the value of the five-paragraph essay. Though I was responding to another author’s post, I thought I was making a fairly innocuous and common-sense point: basically, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A paradigm shift doesn’t mean we should toss out all that was done before and sneer smugly back at the previous generation. The post generated some enthusiastic responses from other teachers, mostly echoing my argument that there is some utility to be found in the five paragraph essay (hereinafter, the 5-PE) before moving on to more complex and authentic formats.

When I heard that there was a rebuttal to my post, and, at that, one written by Nigel Caplan and Luciana de Oliveira, whose names I know and whose work I greatly respect, I was both honored and a bit intimidated. Needless to say, as I read their words, my feelings turned to dismay as I found my ideas so misconstrued. As I revisited my first post, I can see that in the process of editing down from my 2,300-word first draft down to the 1,000 published, some sections were lost and my ideas were a little muddled. Still, I read Caplan and de Oliveira’s response with distress and confusion, seeing my ideas so misunderstood.

Much as I respect the scholarship and authority of Mr. Caplan and Dr. de Oliveira, I feel a responsibility to respond. In this post, I will respond to their argument, clarifying that the 5-PE is entirely compatible with the teaching of genre.

Before I proceed, a bit of detail on the context: It was a post entitled Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay by Brian Sztabnik over at Talks With Teachers that impelled me to write my first post on the topic, “In Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay.” And then the rebuttal to that post was Caplan and de Oliveira’s “Why We Still Won’t Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay,” to which this post is a direct response.

Quote? Unquote.

In Caplan and de Oliveira’s post, they debunk a host of absolute statements: “the exclusive teaching” of the 5-PE, the 5-PE as “the main pedagogical response” to unstructured writing, the “assumption that everything is an essay,” that the 5-PE is a “one-size-fits-all quick fix” for teaching cohesion and coherence. Interspersed among all this I find my own name, leaving the implication these are my strong words and extreme ideas. Yet I have made no such claims. I have not, do not, and would not argue that the 5-PE be taught exclusively, that it is the main or one-size-fits-all response to anything, that everything is an essay. Is anyone anywhere arguing any of those things? I’m not that straw man.

Caplan and de Oliveira argue that it’s “incorrect…to say that rejecting the five-paragraph essay means eschewing all structure.” Elsewhere the point is reiterated, using my (decontextualized) words: they say, “throwing out the ageneric…five-paragraph essay is by no means giving students free reign to write ‘an incoherent mess of free associations and stream-of-consciousness.’” This is a deceptive quotation, my words having been stripped of essential context. The implication is that I have presented readers with an absurdly false dichotomy: Choose the 5-PE or be left with sheer compositional mayhem.

But in the original context it is utterly clear that I am responding to the words of Brian Sztabnik and his rejection of the teaching of format: “Formats confine. They box you in. They limit where you can go.” I was not suggesting that the 5-PE is the only thing between us and the “incoherent mess”; I was suggesting that the entirely unstructured approach Sztabnik seems to advocate can lead to that incoherent mess.

The Value of Contrivance

It seems to be a pet argument among critics of the 5-PE that little published writing actually takes the form of a 5-PE. Sztabnik makes this point, and Caplan and de Oliveira observe that my post is not in 5-PE form. Cute though this may be, it has little bearing on whether to teach the 5-PE. Is anyone arguing that the 5-PE is a form in wide use among professional writers? Who on earth is perpetuating the alleged “fallacy” that “everything is an essay”? Certainly not I.

When Caplan and de Oliveira describe the 5-PE as “contrived,” there is certainly a pejorative ring to the word. But as I said in my original post, the value of the 5-PE resides precisely in its contrivance; it is valuable precisely because, as Caplan and de Oliveira themselves observe, authentic writing is “more complex” and “messy.” Indeed, it is. So complex, in fact, that many learners are unable to discern the structures and patterns that underlie authentic writing. It is a standard and uncontroversial technique in a teacher’s arsenal to simplify for the sake of explanation and awareness-building before exposing students to increasingly complex and authentic language.

Before we teach complex sentences convoluted with embedded clauses, indirect objects, nested prepositional phrases, and pleonastic pronouns, we start with simply, largely contrived, simple present S-V-O sentences. She likes oranges. We have candy. Subject verb object. When we want to help students to see that there are indeed some basic patterns that underlie the convoluted and intimidating relationship between spelling and pronunciation in English, we don’t dive right into throughout, colonel, and entrepreneur; we temporarily set aside authenticity for contrivance, and teach cat, get, hit, not, and gut. Note that none of the sentences in this post are pure, three-word S-V-Os, and only 50 of the 1,600 words follow the C-V-C pattern.

Composition is no different, and the 5-PE is nothing but a starting point for teaching the rudiments of composition above the paragraph level. There are forms to paragraphs and arrangements of paragraphs. There are more and less effective ways to arrange them and to structure writing. In order to effectively participate in written discourse, students must develop a sense for these arrangements. The simple, formulaic, and yes, contrived, 5-PE is a great way to initially introduce some of the types of paragraphs we write and the most basic ways that they can interact with one another. This paragraph introduces a main thesis. These paragraphs support that thesis. These are some words we can use to transition from this kind of paragraph to that kind of paragraph. And cetera.

But let me be entirely, unmisquotably clear: My endorsement of the 5-PE as a device to introduce students to the structure of text is in no way a rejection of any other pedagogical strategies. My argument that contrivance has value in ELT is in no way a rejection of authenticity in ELT. Authenticity is wonderful. The teaching of genre is highly advisable. There is no either/or here. We should teach the both/and. I do and will continue to.

I should hope this goes without saying, but I am also not arguing that the 5-PE should be taught as an end in itself: the outcome of the writing process. It is a stepping stone on the path to well-organized, authentic writing. If anyone out there is suggesting that the 5-PE is any more than that, I will take this opportunity to distance myself from that stance.

Tilting at Monoliths?

Yet Caplan and de Oliveira describe the 5-PE as “monolithic,” and over at his personal blog, Caplan recounts his frustration at students’ attempts to “shoehorn” an authentic assignment into a “pseudo five-paragraph essay.” Here we may have found the source of our divergence. I quite simply have never encountered students who over-rely on the 5-PE in this way. Quite the contrary: the most common issue I encounter is students who are unable to organize and focus their ideas. Teaching context may be quite important here. Caplan and de Oliveira both seem to be teaching in university settings, whereas my experience has been primarily in independent IEPs and adult education. Teachers respond to the needs of our students as we perceive them, and I would surely be singing a different tune if I were repeatedly encountering writing that seemed to evidence the detrimental effects of the 5-PE.

However, before rushing to judgment, I would consider whether the problem is rooted in the 5-PE itself or how it is being taught. I have a hard time believing that the cursory treatment that I give the 5-PE leaves my students with the impression that it is a major authentic format to be used at all costs. Then again, perhaps the 5-PE is monolithicker than I had realized, and perhaps there are those out there teaching it in a drastically different manner than I assumed.

A Genuine Challenge to the 5-PE

There is one point, briefly touched upon by Caplan and de Oliveira, that I was disappointed they did not discuss further. They argue that “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.” If true, this is the only genuine challenge to the 5-PE I can find in their post. The use of contrivance in ELT assumes that the skills practiced during the contrived exercises transfer into authentic situations. I have so far been unable to access the sources (Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock) that they cite in support of this assertion. But if there is indeed research showing that the skills practiced in 5-PE exercises do not transfer to authentic writing; if there is in fact evidence that the 5-PE, even when used in the limited way I describe above, limits rather than expands students’ writing repertory; if research shows these things, then I will have to reconsider, and we may have to discard the 5-PE.

Common sense tells me that these skills are transferable, and in my own experience as a student, this transfer has occurred. I remember learning the 5-PE and increasingly complex variations thereupon, and as I outline these very blog posts, I still utilize those transferred skills. But research trumps common sense and personal anecdotes, so I will need to do some more reading.

5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE

At this point, I have now spent more time writing and reading about the 5-PE than I have actually spent teaching it! My hope is that this debate is instructional and provokes reflection. Please share your own experience and beliefs on the 5-PE in the comments!


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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5 Responses to In Defense of My Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay

  1. At this point, I would like to say that context really informs practice.

  2. Anyone who has been teaching students of an EFL background, especially those at the lower intermediate level, would know that the 5-paragraph strategy is very useful in providing students the necessary scaffold so that they can develop confidence in writing English as an additional language. But as their writing proficiency develops, it will become more important for them to know that presenting the “substance” is crucial to advancing their arguments logically.

  3. Terry Pruett-Said says:

    As someone who has been teaching ESL writing in IEPs, community colleges, and other venues for the last 25 years I’d like to support Robert in his support of the 5-paragraph essay as I feel the opposite of Nigel. That is it seems to me that there is a lot of pressure not to teach the 5-paragraph essay or any other type of structured writing coming from the pedagogy of composition studies. A few years ago I saw a presentation by Nigel on not teaching the 5-paragraph essay. It was a good presentation, but my first thought as he was presenting was that his students must have a higher level of English skills and education than mine. At the time I was working in a community college ESL program where many of my students are resident ESL students, not international students. I still work there. Many of my students have had interrupted schooling in their own language. These are not students trying to take ideas and squeeze them into format that may not be appropriate. These are students who have had very limited experience writing in their own language, let alone English. Nevertheless, at the community college they are already taking college classes where they must write papers, summaries, and answer test questions. They are already working in the community where they may need to write cover letters, emails, memos, and reports. Giving them a basic organizational format helps them formulate ideas, not the opposite. When I introduce the 5-paragraph essay, I introduce it as a basic formula much like we must know formulas in math. It is a starting point, but a useful one in my opinion. I do think it can transfer. When students have to answer questions on tests, the 5-paragraph format can help to organize the answer so that a teacher reading 50 or 60 test answers can quickly understand. The undergraduate history or psychology teacher is not interested in creative writing on the test, but only if the student can put forth the ideas being requested. Another area where I have found the 5-paragraph essay useful is on licensing tests. I’ve worked with students who have not been able pass the writing part of licensing tests. Nearly always the issue has been organization. When they make use of the 5-paragraph essay, they have then passed the writing test. In fact, when I took my last licensing test I also depended on the 5-paragraph essay and passed with a perfect score. It wasn’t particularly interesting or creative, but it wasn’t meant to be. As teachers, it is our responsibility to teach our students what they need to be successful. Depending on the context, that may or may not be the 5-paragraph essay. As good teachers, we may decide that a certain approach is not useful in our students’ situation, but I don’t think we should dismiss any approach including the 5-paragraph essay just because it hasn’t been useful yet. As someone who hires teachers, I want my teachers to be open to and thoughtful about all tools and approaches so that they can make sound decisions about what will work best with their students.

  4. Nigel Caplan says:

    I appreciate your response, Rob. It’s good to know that you also do not see the 5-p essay as the only form to teach but if you look at most ESL/EFL writing textbooks, that’s very much the impression: all forms of writing are collapsed into “the essay.” I also agree with much of your criticism of Sztabnik’s blog post — his is not the position we take, either. Genre awareness means choosing the right type of text for the rhetorical situation.
    I don’t wish to prolong the debate here, but so that your readers are fully informed, I’d like to point out a couple of things. First, our affiliations are misleading. I teach in a large IEP; our students range from beginners to high advanced and come for academic, business, and personal reasons. Luciana’s research throughout her career has been with elementary school ELLs. We both also teach graduate courses, but that wasn’t the population we had in mind in our post. Genre-based pedagogy has been studied with populations from first grade through graduate school and just about every age and stage in between.
    Second, I would just point out that we have 30+ years of research on the effectiveness of genre-based writing instruction in preparing students for the complexities of navigating multiple writing contexts. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of your belief that teaching the 5-p essay transfers to higher-level writing skills, opinions and anecdotes do not amount to empirical support. I refer readers to chapter 4 of Ferris and Hedgcock’s book “Teaching L2 Composition”, as well as to the other sources we cited in our blog for a more thorough explanation than we could provide in a 500-word post (and yes, we ran over the word limit anyway!). Practical examples of genre-based writing instruction can be found in Luciana’s books for TESOL and my “Inside Writing” series from Oxford, and elsewhere.
    I don’t expect to change anyone’s opinion, but I do ask writing teachers to ask what is beyond the five-paragraph essay and how using genre as an organizing principle can benefit their practices.
    Thanks for a lively discussion!

  5. Dana Ferris says:

    My co-authored book mentioned here is a teacher-training text, not a primary research source, but here’s part of what the Caplan/de Oliveira cite might have been getting at: There IS quite a bit of research on transfer in composition instruction, and basically it all debunks the notion that skills taught in writing courses will naturally transfer to other “authentic” situations (I.e., other school or workplace writing). When transfer does occur, it can typically be traced to two specific things students have learned in their writing classes: (1) specific terminology about rhetoric, such as purpose, exigence, genre, audience, and so forth–those concepts are explicitly taught, practiced, and reinforced. (2) reflection, leading to metacognition about writing (the process and the variety of products). Those two approaches, taken together, do appear to provide students with tools they can apply to a wide variety of writing situations in the future.

    Now, I take your point about differences in contexts and student populations reflected in this discussion, but the bottom line is that there’s no evidence that students can or will transfer “contrivances,” whether they be a set essay form or sentence-combining activities or whatever, to authentic writing situations (any more than I can transfer the dialogues I memorized in my high school German class to actually getting around Germany). But they can and do transfer concepts, processes, and strategies that they gain from teaching-for-transfer paradigms (see work by Anne Beaufort and Kathleen Yancey for starters).

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