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Why the 5 paragraph essay needs to go away

As a high school English teacher I am constantly asked the same question for writing assignments, “how many paragraphs does it need to be?”

I hate this question. I hate that somewhere students were taught that the number paragraphs dictates the quality of the writing. That someone has quantified how many paragraphs make a good essay. I can name names, but for anyone who knows writing instruction and the theories behind it, you know who I am referring to and probably know the disciples of her method. Perhaps you are one of them, preaching the structure of one paragraph for your introduction, complete with hook and thesis. Three paragraphs for your body, full of topic sentences and transitions. Finally the concluding paragraph, I can’t wait to hear you restate your thesis!

My question is a simple one. When do we see this method at work after high school? 

When in a college class would a paragraph essay be sufficient for talking about the effects of over-expansion on the Roman Empire, or how Gatsby’s own selfish desires ultimately lead him to his downfall. How often do essayists only write five paragraphs? When do op-eds written about the difficulties of the Middle East Peace Process only have three body paragraphs? How many of them have hooks at the beginning?

We are dumbing down our instruction of writing in middle school, accepting mediocrity and summary as analysis and critical thinking. We then continue this in high school, scared to change the way that students are writing because, well it's too much work. Writing is rhetoric, regardless of what you are writing about in school, you are proving a point. Teachers come up with all these different “types” of essays, yet they all focus on making an argument and supporting it. I don’t teach types of essays, I teach how to argue. I teach how to win.

Winning is everything. We write essays to prove a point, to convince the person reading it that we are right. A lot has to happen to shape someone’s opinion, and it definitely isn’t happening in 5 paragraphs. I spend the entire year of teaching high school students that paragraphs are just a form of organization, like a sentence. They have no value in the overall argument; it is what is within them that do. 
 
We then go over the basic structure of an argument, which I call (and others do too) claim, evidence, and commentary. I spend 10 months having students write the pieces of it, over and over and over and over. Is this a well written claim? Is this good evidence? Does the commentary explain the relationship between the evidence and the claim? I don't even care about an introduction or conclusion to an essay, I care about the argument. 
 
Of course there are many who will say "we are just trying to teach them some structure first." I get that, but when you teach a student something, and you teach it well, it will stay with them. All they have in their head when they hear the word essay is five paragraphs, that is what they retain. So instead of teaching them a format that they will need to grow out of, why not lay the foundation for the way that they will write in the future?  When I teach freshmen how to write, they go from writing 1-2 page essays at the beginning of the year to 4-8 page essays by the end, all along the way saying to me how much they wish they were taught this way from the beginning. So why aren't we?

The next time you are writing an essay, or teaching writing to a student, ask yourself does this argument convince me? Has it gone into specifics about evidence? Has it fully explained why the evidence that is being cited supports the claim?

Does the argument win?

Comments

Hi John,
 
I totally get you.  It's about content not structure. And I think you are right, the focus should not be on a 5 paragraph essay.  It should be on content and how persuasive the writer is in presenting his/her argument.   What you are talking about is exactly what the Common Core focuses on in its writing anchors for almost all grade levels.  I guess it will take a while for you to see the change come to you, but it is happening in some places. 
 
I do think however structure has its place. As an elementary teacher who has worked with both general and the special needs population, I can tell you in the early years, structure is indeed necessary but writing  need not begin and end with structure, ie: the five paragraph essay.  Quite frankly, I am more concerned with the content my students are writing.  I really do not care if there are five paragraphs or not.  But I do care about structure and flow.  
 
I want my students to be able to introduce, persuade and close the argument with a sense of fluency and logic.  The big issue I see at the elementary level is does my writing make sense?  Do I have the evidence that supports my thesis/argument?  Believe it or not, we are focusing on just those things way down here as early as kindergarten.
 
There are some of us who are getting their students ready for teachers like you.  It's going to take time before you see that. Thanks for validating my own thinking that we are on the right path .
 
 
John--
 
I think "structure" does not capture your point. You mention 5-paragraph essays as evidence of teachers' focus on structure; you mention various "types" of writing as really different iterations of structure.  But what the 5-paragraph essay is (or should be, in my view) is a limitation, a constraint. The challenge for the writer is to make the argument within five paragraphs. Can your students do that?  You say ". . . it definitely isn't happening in 5 paragraphs." One can reasonably conclude that because students chafe at the limitation of five paragraphs, they welcome the chance to write on and on, page after page, to make their arguments.  Is it the students who dislike the 5-paragraph essay and other structural limitations on writing (such as using correct grammar) or is it the teachers?
 
Limitations, in my view, are important in learning to write and they should be viewed as challenges and as something good in a writing class. We should make sure to challenge our students to succeed within limits. 
 
There are examples of discipline and limitation in all disciplines.  Art is an easy one--the painter has to work within the confines of a canvas. Once the canvas is chosen, the artist creates within a set physical space.  That set physical space is a version of the 5-paragraph essay.  To do math one has to operate within the rules (the structure); rules are tedious, but solutions only come by following the rules.  
 
Limits in a writing class go beyond the number of paragraphs. Students can be challenged to write within a time limit. They can be asked to frame their arguments for a particular audience. They can be challenged to write using only present tense. They could write on poster paper on the classroom walls. 
 
I don't abandon limitations on writing until I can see that the students have mastered "structure" and can make their arguments even when faced with constraints. When you can see success within limitations, then set your students free to try to find their own voice in their own writing. I think a teacher can let students know that working within a framework is something to be valued because it can lead to true creativity, which could be described as a student's expression of ideas within a new structure, one created by the student. 
 
I teach international students (in ESL writing classes), so my need for structure is clearly greater than yours.
 
 
 
 
 

$90p/h

John G.

Accomplished High School English Teacher

10+ hours
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