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Should We Teach the Five-Paragraph Essay?

Headline: As Children's Freedom Has Declined, So Has Their Creativity. Biggest decline? Creative elaboration--expanding on ideas in novel and creative ways. Have we done this to children, with "eminently gradable" assignments? Josh Boldt, who teaches writing at the University of Georgia in Athens, shares his thoughts:


College writing teachers hate the five-paragraph essay. According to Writing Analytically, the writing guide used by my first year composition department, a faculty survey conducted prior to publication indicated a consensus among college writing professors that "students are coming [to college] prepared to do five-paragraph themes and arguments but [are] radically unprepared in thinking analytically."

The writing guide takes a sharp stance against the five-paragraph essay, claiming that its "rigid, arbitrary, and mechanical organizational scheme values structure over just about everything else, especially in-depth thinking" (7). The text completely dismisses the form, arguing that any value it holds as a helpful learning strategy is negated by its damaging long-term effects on creative thought. The writers, David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephens, argue that the format "handicaps" young writers by teaching them a method that "runs counter to virtually all of the values and attitudes that they need in order to grow as writers and thinkers--such as respect for complexity, tolerance of JBoldt Sept2012.JPGuncertainty, and the willingness to test and complicate rather than just assert ideas" (8). Of all the writing handbooks I've read and taught, Writing Analytically is unquestionably the most excoriative of the five-paragraph form. Is its critique too harsh?

My practical observations of freshman comp pedagogy confirm the assertions of Rosenwasser and Stephens. I often hear college writing teachers bemoaning the five-paragraph essay for its tendency to restrict creativity and to encourage a tunnel vision approach to essay writing. Many of my colleagues make it a personal mission to "unteach" the habits students bring to the classroom during their first year of college.

Personally, I don't consider my role to be quite so extreme. But, I have seen the negative effects of the form firsthand. I've had students ask which points should be cut in order to trim the body paragraphs down to the requisite three. I've also seen many page-long paragraphs jammed full of topics, a clear sign that the student is trying to force the information into the proper formulaic structure. When students think the five-paragraph form is the only acceptable way to write an essay, it can be paralyzing and creatively-stifling, which leads me to my primary concern with the form.

The worst offense of the five-paragraph essay is its ignorance of the fact that good writing must also be interesting. Professional writers shirk the format in favor of a looser and more creative style that engages readers rather than lecturing to them, as the five-paragraph form often does. On this point, I agree with the Writing Analytically denouncement. Creativity and voice take a backseat to structure. I want to see a voice in my students' writing, and the structural limitations of the five-paragraph form inhibit the development of a unique writing process.

The antipathy ultimately comes down to our encounters with students who have become imprisoned by the method and have lost the ability to write and think creatively (or maybe never developed it). Nobody wants that. What began as a good thing becomes a crutch that students are reluctant to give up for fear of falling. I believe this is a big part of why the format is so widely criticized in freshman writing courses.

The five-paragraph essay isn't all bad. The value lies in its usefulness as a teaching tool and as an entry-level organizational strategy for young writers. It works great as a foundation upon which students can later build. Incorporating outside research, crafting topic sentences, and using transitions are all strengths of the format. Thomas E. Nunnally has also explored the merits of the form even as he critiques them in his essay "Breaking the Five-Paragraph Theme Barrier." As Nunnally notes "students learn to do one thing at a time, such as form a thesis statement, before putting all the parts together, and their progress can be monitored and evaluated piecemeal," which makes the form "practical to teach and eminently gradable" (68). When composition pedagogy isolates these independent steps and teaches them as a function of the writing process, the structure of the five-paragraph essay can be immensely valuable.

Bottom line: the five-paragraph essay's inherent prioritization of structure over style can have long-term damaging effects on students who never learn to move beyond it, but teaching the form provides a foundation upon which students can scaffold their writing as they grow intellectually. It allows teachers to emphasize the role of research and support, and it also provides a convenient framework for teaching basic writing skills like the use of transitions and topic sentences. College writing teachers and handbooks pick on the form and, to a certain extent, the criticism is deserved. Despite the controversy though, the five-paragraph essay isn't all bad--as long as teachers remember that it works best as a method of teaching other skills rather than as a system of writing in and of itself.

What are your thoughts on the five-paragraph essay?

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