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- Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with Book Talks - September 26, 2018
- 180 Days: Writing and Reading Maps and Mentors for A Year in ELA - September 16, 2018
- Teaching Immigration Empathy: Why Refugee by Alan Gratz Should Be Added To Your Curriculum - July 8, 2018
- Coaching the Coaches: the Benefits of Instructional Coaches - January 28, 2018
- Six-Word Memoirs as an Introduction to Narrative Writing - September 24, 2017
When I taught high school English, I worked hard to help my students avoid and move beyond the five-paragraph essay. In fact, I almost went crazy trying to pull better-than-five-paragraphs-essays out of my seniors. I was apt to tell students, “you are stuck in a five-paragraph box! GET OUT OF THE BOX!”
I swore I would never, ever teach the five-paragraph essay again.
You know what happens when you speak in absolutes, right?
I am now in my second year of teaching eighth grade English–a whole different world from the near-decade of teaching upperclassmen–and I am finding myself every-so-slowly slipping into the teaching of the five-paragraph format. I actually lose sleep over this conundrum. I know it’s not the best paper style, yet these students have no sense of how to organize a paper.
Like any Type-A, over-organized ELA teacher, I made a list of what I hate…and sort of love…about using the five-paragraph essay.
Why The Five-Paragraph Essay Stinks
1.The writing is formulaic. Most essays I read in this format sound like they were written by robots, not individual students. Every essay is the same: Intro with three-point thesis, three body paragraphs that have a topic sentence, support, and examples, and a conclusion that restates the thesis. It feels like grading organization rather than thinking…because that is exactly what it is.
2.There is very little deep-analytical thinking. Students focus so much on having three points with evidence, that they don’t dig deeper into their own thoughts or considerations. They don’t do any abstract thinking because it doesn’t fit easily into the box-like format. They list the points in the thesis and give support and move on without any higher-level thinking skills. They are simply plugging information into a mold and hitting “print”.
3.It stifles creativity. Students settle on a systematic three-point thesis statement that more or less eliminates the opportunity to delve into their own inquiries and wonderings. There is no place to play with words or break grammar rules for effect. Five-paragraph essays do not give space to adding graphics or photos. My most boisterous, opinionated student can sound like a boring, automated response when forced to use a stock writing model.
4.The writing is unremarkable. To put it more bluntly, the essays are boring. I dread reading 150 essays that are all the same because it is excruciatingly dull. In fact, when up against a deadline–like report cards being due–I find myself skimming because I am not invested at all in what my students are saying. It is not their voice, after all, it’s a humdrum, robotic drone of the five-paragraph monster.
Why I’ve Gone Back to Teaching It
1.My students need a starting point. When I taught upperclassmen, they all knew the template; my job was to help them bust free of it. I lead a revolt in writer’s workshop form that helped them get messy while writing. My eighth graders, on the other hand, look at me and blink those big, innocent doe eyes when I tell them we are writing a paper. Even with my modeling and writing with them, students were still turning in essays that were one long paragraph of mess. Teaching them introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions help them to begin to visualize what an essay should look like.
2.It’s a basic framework. Part of my learning curve becoming a middle school ELA teacher from a high school teacher was that I realized my new students didn’t know how to organize their thoughts. At all. They had no concept of essay structure. I can’t ask them to build a house without the knowledge of how to lay a foundation. The five-paragraph essay is a basic template for the framework of an essay. It’s like showing them how to build a basic house. It’s not fancy and it doesn’t have any extra features, but it works.
3.It’s a tool rather than an absolute. As the year wore on, my 8th graders have come to know that the five-paragraph essay is a tool to organization the same way dialogue is a tool to characterization. It’s not appropriate in every situation. It is simply one way to organize a paper. For some of my lowest students who couldn’t organize a sentence much less an entire essay, this will be a tool they hold onto longer than eighth grade. For others it will be one they leave behind before the year is over.
What it really comes down to is that I need to meet my students where they are. If they need the training wheels of the five-paragraph essay, I am going to teach it to them. But great cyclists don’t win races with training wheels on, and great writers don’t write five-paragraph essays.