If You Teach or Write 5-Paragraph Essays--Stop It!

If You Teach or Write 5-Paragraph Essays--Stop It!

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  With the Common Core Standards designed to shift the way we teach students to think, read, and write, this outdated writing tradition must end.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?

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  • fb_avatar

    I couldn't agree more—we need to actively teach students out of using the five-paragraph essay, which is little more than an organizational framework. To that end, I have created a framework that encourages original thinking, close reading, and connecting core texts to the contemporary world.

    It's called the CON-Text Multimodal essay approach (CONsider, CONnect, CONtrast, CONclude) and you can see many examples of it on our platform devoted to empowering teachers to share Core-aligned best practice materials, http://corestand.com.

    The CON-Text Approach is covered in our free downloadable e-book on our home page entitled Becoming a Core Ninja: Mastering the Common Core Standards.

    Feel free to reach out if you're interested in learning more.

    Best,

    Rich Clark
    Co-founder
    corestand.com

  • In reply to Rich Clark:

    Thanks for sharing this, Rich. I will check it out.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Rich Clark:

    Becoming a Core Ninja is AWESOME! I am former classroom teacher and now a curriculum developer for a large education company and I want to thank you for sharing this great resource!

  • I have been teaching the art of good writing to students since 1972 and outside of class I help students create successful college and scholarship essays. I first saw the five-paragraph format when I arrived in CPS in 1993. My first observation was "Well. it's...functional." After a few years in CPS I understood why the format was used. We have a huge amount of students who can barely write a coherent paragraph, let alone a complete essay. These students need to start with the easiest essay format to understand, remember and use.

    I have no problem with the five-paragraph essay, as long as students are exposed to the idea that this format is only the beginning of good writing; it is functional but mediocre. If one wants to improve his writing he must add/subtract whatever is necessary to accomplish the writer's goal (persuade, expound, etc.). Liberace was once asked how he had become such an outstanding pianist. His reply was that he learned to play "by the rules" and once he had mastered the basics, added embellishments that represented him and his personality.

    From my perspective, a student can start from any format with which he feels comfortable. My rules, in additional to this basic format, are simple - that one should: create a "hook" with the first or second sentence that reels the reader into the essay; defend or give personal explanations of every statement made; and end the essay with a short, *memorable* sentence that more or less sums up the main idea of the essay. Also, when appropriate, one should give opposing viewpoints and explain why they are incorrect.

    Any format can create uninteresting and ineffective essays. At each step of the writing process we have to ask our students if we're involving the reader in some way. Why begin an expository essay with a boring "My parents brought me to this country when I was five years old" when one could engage the reader's interest with a tantalizing "I was too young to understand what was hapenning, but my grandmother's tears told me that my life was about to change forever."

    My personal opinion: worry less about the format and more about the finished product. There are many ways to skin a cat...or to write an interesting and effective essay, for that matter.

  • In reply to hubbardtj:

    Thanks for posting. I started in '95 and I remember sitting watching a long-time veteran casually walking me through some binder (he was a leader behind the 5-paragraph movement) and I thought, "Who the hell writes likes this?!"

    The rules Liberace followed were guidelines that lead to success. The 5-paragraph essay is some strange hybrid that resulted from poor writing-instruction training + a deficit-based view of students. Yes, we have students who struggle to write. But we have lots of students who don't. At my neighborhood Southwest Side high school, we just raised the average English ACT score by 2 points in one year--all because we truly believed students could learn and because we targeted our instruction on real writing skills. The 5-paragraph essay traps students; it does not liberate them like Liberace's piano-playing exercises.

    While agree that any format can be engaging or unengaging, I know that students will succeed if they are taught the importance of audience. They need "hooks" that fuction in the professional world outside of the classroom. Too often, students are told, "Begin with a question." They really need to be told, "Begin with an engaging question that will capture your audience's attention." My default audiences are either our high-school community (adults and teens) or a someone who disagrees with the writer or someone outside of our class. If students learn to keep real people in mind (besides the teacher as audience), they will develop into engaging writers capable of making effective rhetorical decisions.

    Finally, I cannot agree that we should focus less on format. I see too many times how students are given a good prompt but no guidelines. This leaves them wasting lots of time fishing for the "right answer." Content and format (or form) go hand in hand for good writers.

    I'm interested in how you help students make effective, independent decisions as they write their college essays? Are there strategies you can suggest to readers here?

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    !st - a clarification of a badly worded statement in my last post. I meant to say that we should worry less about the type of format used and more on the end product achieving its goal.

    I guess we will have to agree to diasgree about the 5-paragraph essay format for CPS students. However, I can see where teachers who only have one or two decades of experience may not have developed the skill set necessary to see the value in or to deal effectively with a variety of formats. As a starting point, the F-PF works as well for my students as any other format. It's what they do later that makes the difference.

    What strategies do I use? They vary according to the type of essay, etc. Here are a few. And I need to stress this point: these are strategies that work for me - others' mileage may vary. :)

    If there is a prompt, I have the student break the prompt into its various parts and put each part at the top of a separate page. After dealing with each part of the prompt, they can join the various sections. This way they are assured they addressed the entire prompt.

    I teach them to overwrite, expecially in the beginning. They ask me how much more. My response is always the same: "Until my eyes bleed and I beg God to make you stop."
    Why? Because my students tend to hide what I call their "gems" well into their writing. When I find the "gem" I show them how this small piece of what they've written is what's going to turn a hum-drum essay into something that stands above the crowd.

    I teach them that any statement they make needs to be defended logically/with proofs, or explained by personal example (depending on the type of essay). If they can't defend it, kill it. It's worthless.

    I tell them to have as many eyes as possible read what they've written - it's amazing the number of good ideas/improvements that can be generated by 3rd parties.

    At later stages we look at flow and some obvious items that shouldn't exist in formal writing, e.g., any form of the verb "to get", and two-word verbs (verb + preposition). And of course we look at just about every word to see if it adds value to the writing or simply occupies space.

    All the writing done in my classes is done with a specific purpose, so writing to that audience is a given. I teach Spanish for Spanish Speakers classes and right now we are doing cover letters/resumes for SSS1 and cover letters/academic resumes/personal statements and college application essays for SSS2. I show them every step of the way exactly how the reader will react to what they've done. I explain that they have to sell themselves to the reader - to show in no uncertain terms that they are the best people for the job/place at the university in everything they write, Even the resume can be used to sell themselves. They shouldn't just write that they babysit children; they should list the various skills needed to babysit well (organize activities, prepare healthy meals, deal with minor crises, etc.). They should never assume that the reader will assume they have those skills.

    As I said, my SSS 1 & 2 classes are in the process of applying for jobs at one of my ficitious enterprises or applying for a spot at my very selective university. I am hiring accepting only five people from each level and those people with earn an automatic bonus: a 100% on their final exam. Believe me, they're writing with a purpose! ;)

    tj
    NBCT - WLOE (Spanish)

  • In reply to hubbardtj:

    I agree that we need to be able to use a simple format to help students learn organization. In elementary school they have graphic organizers that look like hamburgers glued together to represent paragraphs. I have used Oreo cookies and other foods to help drive the point that paragraphs are fully of meaty information. This year I incorporated materials produced at Mississippi State to help my seventh graders with a catch phrase "Bing, Bang, Bongo." Teaching is all about engagement, connections and practice. This simplification of Aristotle's rhetorical device for thesis statements can become another tool for developing young writers.

  • In reply to listening:

    Thanks for posting your comment, Listening.

  • fb_avatar

    When I first started teaching 16 years ago, I was told that I had to teach the five paragraph essay format because it was part of the curriculum at my school. I didn't think it was particularly useful and had some other ideas, but I was smart enough to see that this format was really being pushed at my school and that it would be politically unwise for me to speak out against it. Instead of pointing out its flaws, I marveled at its sparkling as my superiors held it up to the light as a key tool in a successful teacher's repertoire.
    Now, the buzz is that the five paragraph essay is "out", and my superiors at school (none of whom were around in the old days) have begun to repeat the buzz they, too, have been hearing about how awful the five paragraph essay is. I can see that it is most advantageous for me politically to join in their chorus, and so I have. Down with the five paragraph essay!
    Until the flow shifts again, anyway.

  • In reply to Ron Poirier:

    Thanks for posting. The advantage that we now have as experienced, tenured teachers is that we can and should speak up when our school leaders make unwise decisions. We can do this without ruining our relationship with our bosses as long as we ground our feedback and resistance in professional judgement that benefits students, not in petty temper tantrums or personal attacks. As experienced, tenured educators we must fulfull our responsibility to our students and our profession. That's why tenure was established--to allow teachers to speak as professionals, not to sit back and wait for things to come and go.

    We need to rememeber that, as teachers, we have more control over instruction than we think we do.

    I hope you don't join the chorus because it's convenient; instead, I hope you speak out in the best interests of students. Things are going to change. The medical profession advances; lawyers enact new policies; my tax guy adapts to new rules each year. I wouldn't fill out my taxes with someone who kept complaining about how much things change. It's his job to keep up with new tax laws. It's our job to keep up with new instructional strategies and to push for those that are best for students.

    Which colleagues or leaders are you following? Are there other colleagues who would agree that the 5-paragraph essay is ineffective? If not, how can you lead this change in perspective?

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Ray Salazar:

    Well said!
    Nevertheless, it is difficult to speak out when you know they are looking for younger teachers to take your place each day.

    Ok I agree that this old format is now what is best for students, however, no one has spoken of the process for another. yes you have said SOAP, but no specifics about how to teach students. Is there a website or book I can read?

  • The reason the 5-paragraph essay made its return was because teachers needed in-depth education and ongoing support in how to teach writing well. Without serious training in the art of writing, students' growth as writers is not likely. Writing is thinking and even the most innovative approaches to writing will fail if our teaching of writing is built on anything other than the belief that writing begins with a thought -- a deep thought that has pluses, minuses, and interesting implications. Also, the true craft of writing reflects what readers know -- how to use words and conjure images to make one's writing readable. Again, if the teacher cannot make this thinking visible, we will make no progress in an area where improvement is sorely needed.

  • In reply to jparkermastin:

    This is perfectly stated. Thank you for commenting. It sounds like you have a strong writing background. How did you develop this and what suggestions do you have for others to do the same?

    I would like to see a writing endorsement available. We have all kinds of other endorsements, but we need one in writing. This will push more people to see writing as a complex field instead of something we just do on paper in 46 minutes--or less.

  • A question that has come up a lot is how to use this with English-Language Learners. We must remember that they can and should be given opportunities to think critically even though they don't speak English fluently. One option is to have students use key terms or vocabulary in English (e.g. freedom of speech in schools) and explain their viewpoing or reasoning in their native language. This, of course, only works if it's a bilingual classroom.

    Another option, especially for ESL students, is to use sentence stems to get their ideas going (after an appropriate brainstorming exercise).

    I've used stems with even my AP students when we take on a new type of writing. The vision is to then take away the stems. Most of the time we can. Thanks to Response to Intervention, though, we don't have to for the really struggling students. Here's an example I suggested for a friend who teaches 4th grade:

    1. intro to summarize the situation or conflict
    2. debatable argument (____ should be allowed to . . . ) The significance to the audience can be put on hold
    3. evidence (This would be good because . . .)
    4. counterargument (my parent or who ever is in charge is going to say we should not because . . .)
    5. conclusion (If they give me a chance, these good things will happen. . . )

    It's still 5 parts that can be 5 paragraphs. That's OK because it's getting students to think of opposing views and logic.

    The five-paragraph essay does not develop logic or the understanding that writing is about entering a larger conversation. It promotes an isolated, one-sided view.

  • fb_avatar

    Law school turned my writing upside down. I could no longer write simple, five paragraph persuasive essays. Not all legal writing is designed to be persuasive. However, every single brief, motion and petition needs to be beyond persuasive. In fact, it needs to be utterly free of a reasonable counter-argument.

    In law school, I learned the infamous IRAC format (issue, rule, application of the rule, and conclusion). I personally prefer the variation of IRAC known as CREAC (conclusion, rule, explanation of the rule application of the rule, and conclusion again).

  • In reply to Hugo Ortiz:

    Thanks for posting, Hugo, and for emphasizing the importance of form.

  • I love this idea of leaving the five paragraph essay behind us! I would really like to read a sample of one of your student's essays, so I could share it with my colleagues who are stuck in the five paragraph essay mode.

  • In reply to jeannie226:

    Hi Jeannie, thanks for posting. An easy way to get some samples is to check out my journalism students' blog on Chicago Now: "Whatchoo Got to Say?" If you type in Hancock in the search box of the ChicagoNow home page, you'll get to it. Some of the pieces are narrative; some are news stories. However, some good examples of argumentative essays are on Affirmative Action and homeless hotspots. I hope this helps.

  • *five-paragraph :-)

  • fb_avatar

    I agree -- the most valuable writing I learned in college was the conciliatory essay. I think in our diverse, fragmented world, it's important for people to be able to show they understand opposing viewpoints, and then be able to persuade others to see their own. It's a valuable skill in any format from a brief conversation to comprehensive business proposals.

  • In reply to Kristi Garrett:

    There seems to be a fundamental flaw to the argument. The blogger writes, "The problem is this format doesn't encourage thoughtful persuasion. It promotes low-level summary that nobody really cares about."
    Seriously? It's WHO encourages thoughtful persuasion...not WHAT...

  • In reply to GreenMtnTeacher:

    Sorry ! I intended that to be a general comment, not a reply to the poster above...

  • In reply to GreenMtnTeacher:

    Thanks for posting. I wrote it that way because there are times when we evaluate the text's impact. We'll say, "The speech was not convincing."

  • In reply to Kristi Garrett:

    I agree, Kristi. As we teach our students to read, write, and think, we need to also teach them (and remind ourselves) how to listen. Thanks for posting.

  • We've been saying this same thing at National Writing Project as well as the multiple local writing project sites, but it's still a wonderful message to continue to convey. I think teachers are so overworked and battle weary that the 5 paragraph essay is sometimes a mindless, and easy choice. I've observed English teachers in my area who just give up and don't ask the kids to write anything but short answers and journals.
    If there is a writing project site at a university near by, it's a worthy way to spend the summer in professional development. It transformed my teaching and opened up leadership opportunities for me. Thanks Ray (from another endangered species - a native Hawaiian English teacher)

  • In reply to mrs aloha:

    Thanks for commenting, Mrs. Aloha and fellow white rhino. It's an easy trap for teachers. It's tough keeping up with longer essays.

    If you have upcoming info about PD through the National Writing Project, please share. I'm interested.

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    Most NWP-affliated satellite projects (usually tethered to a university) will run multiple week-long Summer Institutes, where teachers write, research and teach as part of teacher-led PD. The NWP website can be easily navigated to find those local projects.

  • In reply to Jerry:

    Whoops..."multiple week-long Summer Institutes," should have read "multiple-week Summer Institutes," becasue each local sattelite project would run only 1 Summer Institute, but it would run for multiple weeks.

    Sorry.

  • fb_avatar

    You present a persuasive argument for the abandonment of the 5-paragraph essay and suggest a new format for presenting an argument... However, you did not provide much information on what is expected to go in between your introduction and conclusion? You suggested this format opens the essay to compare/contrast, cause/effect, analysis, etc... but how do you suggest students structure an essay with these approaches in practice? Any piece of writing needs some structure and main ideas that are then supported with various pieces of evidence (whether you are writing a historical thesis or a persuasive essay)... If you are abandoning a "main idea followed by supporting evidence" format, what do you propose should take its place? Or perhaps my understanding of the 5-paragraph essay you are speaking of is incorrect?

  • In reply to Nicole Eve:

    Thanks for commenting, Nicole. Part 2 after the intro is background: what's the context that will help the audience understand the significance of the argument? What does the audience need to be reminded of?

    Part 3 is the confirmation. This is the evidence that supports the argument. One of these paragraphs may be a straightforward expository paragraph or maybe even a compare / contrast. It's the stuff that supports the writer's view.

    Part 4 is the refutation. This can be any mode that is appropriate.

    I hope this clears it up. If not, please let me know.

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    In reply to Nicole Eve:

    I think you have answered your own question by example: a well-written, persuasive comment. I'd say that about the rest of the comments as well--thanks people!

  • Thank you! Preaching to the choir! You asked in the comments how to teach this to ESL students. Well, that's my job, and the answer for me is to teach genres not modes, which is essentially what you did with the history professor you mentioned. Find good models, deconstruct them to find the stages of meaning, and then scaffold the writing, leading to independent mastery. This answers the question posted above about what goes "in the middle." There's some great research to show that university instructors define assignments like "essay" and "research paper" in all sorts of different ways. Students need the skills to analyze and respond in multiple genres, not the "limited literacy" (Linda Flowers' term) of the 5-paragraph pseudo-genre.
    Nigel Caplan, Delaware
    http://nigelteacher.wordpress.com (for more of the same rants)

  • In reply to nigelteacher:

    Nigel, thanks for commenting. It's good when a choir soloist finds a chorus to join. I'm motivated by all of the comments. It's interesting that this post is getting more comments in favor than against. Very cool.

    I agree. We throw around the word "essay" too much. Thanks for your insightful explanation of genre not mode. I'll check out your blog.

  • fb_avatar

    One of the worst outcomes of the 5 paragraph approach is that it pounds the voice out of the text, even for the better writers. All the essays sound alike, as if the teacher could shuffle them and assign them to random students.
    We must approach writing as a generative process. The first sentence generates the second, which generates the third, in a logical chain. Teaching paragraphing should be delayed. It is easy to teach students to recognize paragraph breaks later on.
    Any classroom teacher who has experimented with quick-writes will recognize the benefit of this approach and the authenticity of the voices heard in each text.
    Check out my blog: commoncore.weebly.com

  • In reply to Jack Farrell:

    Very true, Jack--"writing as a generative process." I like that. Students need to learn that writing can change directions appropriately to engage the audience and themselves in deeper thinking.

  • fb_avatar

    I am a tenth grade student and I completely agree that the 5-paragraph essay limits creativity and originality. I enjoy learning and have been researching the modern writing style.

    I wish I could be taught how to persuade people in writing in the same way that I persuade people with words. In reference to your example of Liberace, I also agree that rules should be learned and then broken.

    What would be your suggestion in approaching my English teacher about this subject?

  • In reply to Stephen Munley:

    Hi Stephen, thanks for speaking up. I'm glad to have some student voice here. If you're good at speaking your ideas, record yourself with your phone. Many of the persuasive ideas will be there.

    If you want to approach your teacher, just ask him/her about persuasion. We like to have real conversations with students--especially about writing. Maybe ask, "How did you learn to convince people with your writing?" If you want to challenge the teacher's instruction, you can do that simply by saying, "May I try something different for this one? Here's what I'm thinking . . . " When students offer different suggestions to me, as long as they make sense for the assignment, I say, "Sure." If there's no way your teacher will accept variations. Then, try the variations on your own. Experiment with writing for you, not for the grade.

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    In reply to Ray Salazar:

    Thank you Ray, I will take your suggestions.

  • Hey Ray, the five paragraph structure teaches you to use evidence to back up your arguments. Something you fail to do in your essay.
    You make a bunch of specious claims and then never support them.
    Instead we get a rambly mess of an argument that doesn't really go anywhere. The biggest bone I have to pick with you is the old saw you repeat that I keep hearing from curriculum faddists- that this structure is never used in "real life."
    This is a bogus argument due to the fact that we do not teach all writing forms to be just used in the work place (this is what you mean by real life- right?) There is a value in learning a writing technique that is used to train good mental habits- such as supporting information with evidence.
    Mostly I hate this real life argument because we do use it out side of school. I used to write for newspapers and magazines and used it (in a mutated form) all of the time. Turn to any newspaper page of any good newspaper and you will see an article written with an introduction/ a body/ and conclusion. This method is used in debates and in writing college acceptance essays to name a few formats.
    To put down the five paragraph work horse is a fad. Don’t eliminate it, just add it to your arsenal of writing. Students need to know how to structure thoughts and this is one very useful method.
    One last point, not teaching this to students sets kids up for failure in college, where - like it or not- they are expected to know this formula.

  • In reply to Ignatz:

    Ignatz, if we're not preparing student for real life, we should just turn off the lights, close the doors, and go home. The five-paragraph essay is useless outside of the classroom. There are so many other ways to teach persuasion--and to persuade.

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    Thanks for not reading what I wrote.

    There are many "real life" applications of the 5 paragraph essay. One is to read carefully for evidence, the others are outlined above.

    Also if we only teach real life writing, I should ditch Haikus etc...?

    I feel sorry for your students if this is the kind of feedback/ support you give them. Think and read before you comment.

  • In reply to Ignatz:

    My students have actually gone on to be successful writers with my feedback.

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    I am sure that they owe it all to you.

    Again, just answer what I wrote rather than being so defensive.

  • In reply to Ignatz:

    No, they don't owe it all to me. I just make sure I fulfill my responsibility of being an good writing teacher. They work to ensure their own success.

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    What you are describing is much like something that has been coined the "enthymeme" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enthymeme

    George Guthridge has done a lot of work developing this method for use with student writing - based on Aristotle http://books.google.com/books/about/Appropriating_Apotomos.html?id=GmHWYgEACAAJ

    Our teachers have used his work with the enthymeme to teach writing http://agsdwriting.wikispaces.com/About+the+AGSD+Writing+System

  • In reply to Tracie Young Weisz:

    Yup, Tracie. Enthymemes are an essential part of rhetoric. Thanks for the links.

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    I start even more simply. There are two kinds of questions, What questions and Why questions. What questions always have objective answers, and can't be made into essays because they have essentially one sentence responses. Why questions are debatable by their nature, which gets to your excellent points about creating a thesis which requires explanation as well as proof in opposition to another position.

  • In reply to David Sauer:

    "What" questions can never be made in to essays? This is incorrect. They cannot be made in to "Why" essays, this is true. And "Why" essays teach a deeper kind of thinking, however it is a mistake to say that "What" essays are valueless and should be done away with.

    Teach them as well, as a scaffold to the "Why".

  • In reply to David Sauer:

    David, this makes sense. Five-paragraph essays usually end up answering "what" questions instead of "why" and people mistake exposition for persuasion. I like this approach. Thanks for the tip.

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    Looks as if notice of the death of the five-paragraph essay has, at least for now, been somewhat exaggerated. Reading these comments, one can safely conclude that: (1) the format is needed for students who are still struggling to write anything coherently; and (2) for those who writing is clearly beyond the format, it's time to move on. Perhaps what is most needed at this point is an assessment tool that instructors can use to tell them, from day one, where student writing skills levels are, then structure writing assignments accordingly. Yes, it means more work, but then whoever said that teaching writing was easy? Moreover, with the increasing numbers of learning disabled students attending college, teaching writing is only going to get even more interesting!

  • In reply to Deborah Dessaso:

    Deborah, if students need a format, they should learn Aristotle's. They don't need to include all of the sections at once. Useful formats can also be found by teaching genre as form. This way, students can mirror the format of successful pieces and come up with something interesting.

    At the beginning of the year, I give students a simple prompt and ask to write for 10-25 minutes. I read through them quickly looking for patterns. That's I start off my writing instruction without making the assessment overwhelming to review.

  • I don’t believe the five-paragraph essay structure is “bad writing.” It’s a useful format that teaches students about essay structure, cohesiveness, and unity – a basic foundation that students need to understand first before they can apply other approaches to writing and before they are able to respond critically and creatively (to other writers’ discourse). Otherwise, the students’ writing can be rather incoherent and disorganized.

    I learned the five-paragraph essay back in school (I graduated from high school 15 years ago) and it didn’t do me any harm. Perhaps it restricted my creativity somewhat, but I used it to my advantage: how can I prove my point and make my paper engaging by only using five paragraphs? I must not have been a terrible writer because I was also in AP English classes, where I was able to write more creatively and didn’t always have to follow the five-paragraph rule. However, with that basic knowledge and understanding, I was able to strengthen my writing skills and incorporate other styles and approaches, while maintaining a cohesive and organized paper.

    My appreciation for writing is why I am now a college English instructor. I teach Composition 101 and use the five-paragraph essay format because I want my students to understand structure and organization first. I don’t explain Aristotle’s approach until the second half of the semester, when my students have a solid grasp of essay structure and can apply Aristotle’s argumentative approach intelligently. However, I still limit their writing to five paragraphs because the question I always get asked by students is: how many paragraphs or how long does this paper have to be? Sadly, the majority of my students don’t want to go above and beyond what is expected and would rather do the bare minimum. At the same time, I don't want them to ramble on and on and would prefer their papers to be succinct and to the point.

    Although the five-paragraph structure can be considered rudimentary, I don’t believe it’s entirely unengaging and useless. A creative writer can always find ways to make his or her writing more appealing and can still apply all the qualities of a good argumentative paper with this restriction. I’m always up for a challenge and change, so I’ll consider teaching the modern writing style this summer to vary my instruction. I’ll gladly inform you if your theory proves me wrong. :)

  • In reply to mebmmg:

    Readers get bored with the five-paragraph essay because after the blank, blank, and blank "thesis" (which is really a statement, not an argument), there's no point in reading. They just gave away the ending.

    Please let me know how Aristotle's form goes. One part that has helped me help students with the background section is to tell them their audience is someone who is not in our class and has not read or viewed the texts we have.

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    Ray do you ever respond to direct criticism?
    Or do you just blow off real arguments that contridict your world view?

    The above writer has presented real arguments, to which you airily dismiss and ignore.

    Why even have comments or respond to them if you are going to ignore the content?

  • In reply to Ignatz:

    Ignatz, we obviously share the same criticisms regarding Ray's article. I always enjoy a good argument as long as the reasons are valid! To say that a teacher's approach--in this case, the five-paragraph essay--is rudimentary, unengaging and useless is blatantly ignorant without offering a fair, opposing view. However, I find this discussion rather enlightening and entertaining.

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    Ray, my students are more advanced than just writing a blank, blank, and blank thesis. They are expected to write an arguable thesis that doesn't involve "listing" their main points. You're making a false assumption that this is how I teach my students.

    To say that "readers get bored with the five-paragraph essay" is another assumption on your part. Perhaps you should rephrase to say that you, as a reader, get bored with it. I actually asked the opinions of high school and college students, as well as English professors, regarding the five-paragraph rule and most prefer it. Both students and teachers agreed that this format provides structure, which is essential for writers who aren't accustomed to essay writing.

    As you can see, your approach doesn't work for everyone, which is fine because we're all entitled to our own opinions, but don't attack the five-paragraph essay. A sound argument, whether it be an essay, article, or blog, would offer both sides and allow the reader to determine an arguable judgment. However, your article is one-sided that is very opinionated and includes false assumptions. Please practice what you preach.

    By the way, Aristotle's approach wouldn't work effectively for an experience or cause-and-effect essay, where refutation isn't applicable.

  • In reply to mebmmg:

    I did include both sides of the argument. The refutation section (part 4) recognizes the skeptics' views. Then, I refute them.

    It's OK for blog posts to be one-sided when they're intended to be argumentative, as this post is.

    Refutation can be used in a cause-and-effect essay. People have disagreements all the time about what does and does not cause something else.

    You're right: Aristotle's approach would not work for an experience essay. I mention that in part 4.

    When students ask, "how long does this have to be?" we should refer them to the SOAP part of the assignment. The default should not be "five paragraphs." The answer should be, "what does the rhetorical context call for?"

    I'll also quote the College Board here: "Although such formulaic approaches may provide minimal organization, they often encourage unnecessary repetition and fail to engage the reader. Students should be encouraged to place their emphasis on content, purpose, and audience and to allow this to focus to guide the organization of their writing."

    The five-paragraph essay over-emphasizes the format. It has to fit into three reasons. That's rudimentary.

    I think my post is really challenging some part of your instruction and that explains the tone in your response and in Ignatz's.

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    "Students should be encouraged to place their emphasis on content, purpose, and audience and to allow this to focus to guide the organization of their writing."

    While I have no problem with the F-PF as a starting point (as I've mentioned before), the above quote from the College Board sums up what I do with the students if they come to me empty handed.

    Of course it's rudimentary. It's a starting point to help students organize their thoughts in a coherent fashion. Starting points by definition are rudimentary. It's what the student does next that makes the difference.

    tj
    NBCT - WLOE (Spanish)

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    No, I am not threatened, I am just disappointed that you cannot respond to my basic questions regarding your bloviating mess of an article.

    Here they are again, although you have blown them off several times now so I don't really know why I am bothering (except maybe that your obvious uncomfortableness with being challenged is entertaining- I know a lot of teachers who have been in the saddle too long who have this disease of being defensive and dismissive of challenges that they are unprepared for.)

    1) The five paragraph essay is a real life technique. See evidence above. And even if it is not, we teach plenty of methods that are not strictly used in the “real world”. When was the last time you used a Haiku in “real life?” Or a Concrete Poem? But these are great things to teach and learn.

    2) The five paragraph essay is a starting point. But should never be a be all, end all.

    3) Students are expected to know this format, once they graduate from our classes. Not teaching it is a disservice, no matter how personally bored you are.

    I dare you to answer these questions, with evidence SVP!

  • In reply to Ignatz:

    All the evidence is there in the post; it's not as obvious as it would be in a five-paragraph essay, though.

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    In reply to Ray Salazar:

    "... after the blank, blank, and blank "thesis" (which is really a statement, not an argument), there's no point in reading..."

    How circular... It's not an argument if you don't make it an argument. "I am better than you at basketball because I'm taller, faster, and stronger" IS an argument, with proof.

  • In reply to Chris Webb:

    Yes, Chris. It's an argument--a rudimentary one. There is really no point in anyone reading the rest of your essay because you just gave away the whole thing. Also, the logic here is off. It's quite easy to measure if someone is taller, and faster, and stronger. That becomes a statement of fact, not one that can be debated. My intention here is to get teachers and students to think of thesis statements in more sophisticated ways.

  • Hi Ray,

    Why such an emphasis on teaching students argumentative writing? So many students are already so good at arguing and manipulating. Most forms of expository writing require structure. I think what you're arguing is valid for Rogerian argumentative modes, but I would never advocate throwing away the five paragraph essay. Even the Toulmin model of argument benefits from the five paragraph structure. The idea may be edgy, but it's destructive to what I do on the college level.

    I am horrified when high school English teachers tell me they unteach five paragraph essays, which kids often learn in middle school. I am disturbed because the students arrive to my college English course with no sense of structure or organization and I have to reteach all of these basic skills. Maybe this philosophy is one of the reasons why so many students arrive to college with deficient writing skills.

    Five paragraph essays are the starting point for every college paper students will ever write. If they can't follow this simple recipe they're doomed. Many college papers are informational or analytical, but not necessarily argumentative. To analyze, organize points, integrate sources, and report objectively are the real challenges they need to learn for formal academic writing. But rhetorical mode is irrelevant to this necessary structural process of writing. If you're teaching creative writing, fiction or non-fiction, then that's another story. Short, choppy fragmented one or two sentence paragraphs are great for the creative writer/reader. Composition 101 is not about creative writing though. Most college students are not in Comp 101 to write fiction or news articles, and most people in general aren't doing that type of writing in school or the workplace.

    What your argument equates to is turning every writing assignment into free writes, journals, rants and blogs. These are appropriate exercises to build off of, but that's all they are. Your refutation also assumes the five paragraph essay stops at five paragraphs, when it is really just the starting point for everything else. And I am confused when you argue "The five paragraph essay limits students into about 1 1/2 pages"; most are really about 3-4 pages of three transparent, well developed body paragraphs that define, present evidence, and explain with examples. All the emphasis on common core, Aristotle, and argument seem like red herrings in this argument about the five paragraph importance. If you are a high school teacher who wants to truly prepare your student for college or work, then you SHOULD be teaching students to use the five paragraph as a starting point of construction. You'll be doing them a big favor.

  • In reply to BIll L:

    Students can argue but they need to persuade and present evidence, not manipulate.

    You're completely misreading my post. This is not about freewrites, journals, rants, and blogs. It's about using those brainstorming techniques to produce viable, thoughtful argumentative writing in a classic form.

    In the fall, I'm teaching a first-year writing class at my high school for seniors through the City Colleges of Chicago. To earn college credit, students must take an exit exam and submit a portfolio of their writing. The guidelines explicitly say to NOT include five-paragraph essays in the portfolio. That will not earn them college credit. This goes against your theory.

    Students fail in college with five-paragraph essays.

  • As we reflect on our teaching of writing it might be a good idea to review the main points from Aristotle's approach, which I believe everyone who has written on this blog seems to agree with:

    Introduction: The writer should present a direct statement of the case (the proposition to be proved or defended--thesis), with an outline of how the writer will present the evidence.
    Body: Confirmation of case by presenting evidence in its favor (includes one or more of the following):
    1. facts
    2. reasons
    3. statistics
    The Body is also the place for acknowledging merit of and then refuting opposing views.
    Conclusion: Recapitulation and summary of argument: to repeat is to reinforce and make certain readers have not misunderstood.
    2. Peroration: A final, heightened appeal for support.
    3. Propose a solution.

    I follow this process to teach my students to write argumentative essays, and close reading of this method reveals that the form of it is also consistent with the traditional 5 paragraph essay format. (Narrative writing of course requires an entirely different format, which I teach using Freytag's pyramid model.)

    So maybe you need to take another look at the Aristotelian method, and realize that teachers have many ways to teach writing that can be successful. I find it very interesting that in the end you feel you have to justify casting off the 5 paragraph method by bringing up the College Board's current counsel on the subject. Although you are quoting them as the authority on the subject, it has actually been my experience that they do not reject well written entrance essays based on numbers of paragraphs.

    Please realize that I've taught for many years and have seen a great many methods come and go, but the Aristotelian model still provides the most effective scaffold for both expository and argumentative writing, and it does not exclude the 5 paragraph essay model.

    I'm glad that argumentative writing is at the forefront of the Common Core standards, and I am now seeing far more ELA teachers in general involved in the discussion about teaching kids to write. I hope that this new generation of students who seem to think that if it can't be texted it doesn't need to be written, will now be taught to write through a variety of methods. So I salute you for putting forward your blog and will continue to look in on it from time to time.

  • In reply to Karson:

    For the last few months, this post has been averaging 100 views a day. THANK YOU!

    The comments section on Chicago Now transitioned over to Facebook recently. This is why it says that "comments are closed."

    However, if you would like to comment, hit "reply" and see if you can log in with your Facebook account to share your ideas.

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    In reply to Ray Salazar:

    What's your opinion on methods for teaching essay writing to high school students with specific learning disabilities whose literacy levels are around the 4th grade level or below? Like a few posters before me, I find that abstraction and what many would consider more "creative" writing structures leave these students frustrated and unwilling to participate. Understand that I am referring to High School Juniors who have difficulty writing in complete paragraphs.

  • In reply to Aaron Gerwer:

    Thanks for continuing the conversation, Aaron. If you email me (see contact Ray link above), I'll send you can example of how I support these struggling learners. Their literacy levels may be low but many, many times, their ability to think is high. Struggling students usually have some powerful life experiences and are forced to make difficult decisions every day. We can create structures to help them. I'll keep an eye out for the email and we can continue the conversation.

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    As a student with dyslexia and an auditory processing disorder the five paragraph essay gave me access. I needed a way to hold my thinking and organize my thoughts and the five paragraph essay framework was perfect. Today I teach it to every one of my students and truly believe I am doing them a service. I would be glad to teach additional frameworks in addition to the paragraph essay but I am unwilling to sacrifice it. For me it is an equity issue and I hold to a belief that all students deserve a chance.

  • In reply to sehogan:

    Thanks for continuing the conversation. The traditional five-paragraph essay can be an entry point, a starting point. But, too often, it becomes the goal. As long as students are using this traditional form for expository writing, it'll be OK. This does not develop higher levels of argument. All students deserve a chance to think at higher levels. If you email me (see contact Ray in header), I can share some of the ways I support special-needs students so they do move into deeper thinking.

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