Posted by: roamingolivia | November 4, 2010

Remember the five-paragraph essay?

A couple weeks ago, I was talking to my boyfriend, who has started tutoring/teaching at a higher-educational institution in the UK. He was bemoaning the state of writing and education in the country, a topic that is close to my heart because (a) I spend like 5 hours a day writing already, (b) I edit things sometimes and I like it more when they are good, and (c) I think writing is a really important skill.

(I use the term “skill” because there are obviously people with a talent for writing, but you can also teach people to communicate effectively in the written form. It may not be artful, but it can make sense and convey thoughts.)

This made me think about the way I was taught to write in school. To prepare for the TAAS test in Texas, we wrote probably 1000 five-paragraph essays, to such a nearly obsessive degree that the main lessons from these essays are burned on my brain. I can remember filling in forms for each paragraph, and turning those into essays. Filling in forms is possibly not the best way to learn to be a creative writer, but I will return to this later.

What were the lessons I learned from the five-paragraph essay? The critics of the format (and these are real critics – they think these essays have “ill effects”) argue that the five-paragraph essay makes all students want to write five paragraph essays all the time, for everything. They also argue that it focuses too much on repeating the thesis, and not enough on supporting it (you are supposed to write 5 paragraphs of 3-5 sentences each). As another website claims:

At a recent National Council of Teachers conference, I attended a seminar about how the same formula I’ve been striving to teach my students so that they can pass state tests actually holds them back when they reach college. Professors from various schools in the Midwest bemoaned their incoming freshmen inability to respond to art, literature, science, and other academic subjects in thoughtful — and lengthy — ways. They said they felt trapped by the five-paragraph format and wished that students would be more organic in their responses. Their freshmen needed to learn to argue, to analyze and to evaluate, not just spit out a canned answer to a complicated question.

Yes, it’s possible that this is what students are learning. But there are really valuable lessons as well. For example: That you need to clearly state a thesis in an argumentative paper (particularly in social sciences and humanities – possibly other disciplines have their own forms), and early on. Or that you need to tell the reader why you think that in an abbreviated way at the beginning of the essay. And that each point you make needs to reinforce your thesis, or it shouldn’t be in the paper. These are really useful things to learn, and they do not require you to be a good writer. They just require you to state ideas clearly. As the woman on that website claims:

I couldn’t help but agree that the five-paragraph format can sound repetitive and elementary, but I also couldn’t deny that I wouldn’t have learned to be an effective writer without it.

So, yes, of course there are limitations, but you need to start somewhere. I also think creative writing is important, and developing one’s inner voice is an important part of the educational system. But you also need to know when your inner voice is less important than, say, writing a really boring memo to your boss.

There’s basically no point to this blog, but I’m interested to know that (a) there is a “great debate” on the five-paragraph essay (according to that website), and also (b) if you learned a different form? Did it ruin or improve your writing?



  1. Hey, I’m teaching this in universities here in Lebanon and i find that the this essay format is by far more useful than its critics ponder. For one, it provides a layout and a structure that everyone can use to cultivate their ideas in. And if you want to encourage analysis you can do so without challenging the format of the essay. Analysis and the skills that come with it go beyond writing.

  2. I can now tell you that it is also important to be able to state a thesis clearly in legal writing as well. FYI.

    I don’t think we learned anything so formal as the five-paragraph essay, but it seems like it would be a good first step. It’s not the endpoint for turning someone into a decent writer, but at least it teaches someone to write sentences that make sense and connect those sentences together in a way that makes sense.

    Teaching kids to think and write critically is something that is supposed to happen in college. Whenever someone bemoans how things used to be, when the students were all so much smarter, I basically think, yeah, back in the days when the only people who were allowed to be educated were white, male, and privileged. So, suck it up. Teach the kids you get, and stop worrying about what used to be, or what might have been, or what never really was.

    (Sorry, that’s a bit brutal, but apparently it’s a pet peeve.)

  3. Definitely had it drilled into me over and over … served me very well in preparation for college. I found it fairly expandable and adjustable to longer formats when necessary, but I can definitely see how people would get stuck to it.

    But I would vote that its positives outweigh negatives.

  4. I remember getting in a massive argument with my 10th-grade English teacher over the five-graf essay, because she graded solely on form, not content. I figured if I could make my point in 4 paragraphs, or needs 6, or used 2 or 6 supporting statements instead of 3-5, who cared? But I do agree it’s important to teach students to distill their words and write clearly. I was just annoyed that she cared more on the number of paragraphs than what those paragraphs said. She also got fired for incompetence a couple of months later.

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