This post was written by NCTE member Anastasia Gustafson.
During my first year of college, I was sitting in my ENG 122 class when I ran into a problem.
“Mrs. P,” I began, “If I follow these revision suggestions, I will probably go over five paragraphs. Is that okay?” My professor gave me a funny look and told me that of course that was okay. Her expression seemed to ask, Why would that not be okay? I sat there equally confused by her reaction and awkwardly got back to my revision work. And then, for the first time in my collegiate and professional writing career, I crafted a literary argument that extended beyond five paragraphs. This was also the first time I started to realize that something might be wrong in the way I conceptualized collegiate and professional writing.
Ask any high school student in the United States and you will probably find that they have a pretty solid (and grim) understanding of “formal” writing. They know it as “the five-paragraph essay.” And they will certainly be able to tell you all sorts of things about it. They can tell you that it has an intro, a thesis, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. They will most likely know that it does not have contractions, and that students are forbidden from using I, me, or we statements. High schoolers might also note that this kind of writing does not allow for paragraphs under three sentences. In short, a proper five-paragraph essay comes packing a myriad of rules, regulations, and restrictions.
It might then come as a surprise to some to hear an argument that, on its own, the five-paragraph essay is not inherently bad. In fact, it might be a good place to start emerging writers. However, what becomes a problem is that the idea has somehow become ingrained in our students that the five-paragraph essay is the only way to write—not only in high school and college but also in professional writing careers. Instead of teaching the five-paragraph essay as an option within the world of formal writing, we teach it as the standard, or worse, as the only option.
With all this in mind, there is still room to discuss the positive aspects of the five-paragraph essay. In defense of the format, this essay type can function as a strong foundation for emerging writers. According to a Writing Center resource page from the Jackson State Community College, “when it comes to writing essays in college, we all need a place to start. Think of the five-paragraph essay as just that. . . . Five-paragraph essays are incredibly useful in two situations—when writers are just starting out and when a writing assignment is timed.”
The methods used to compose a five-paragraph essay are formulaic, reliable, and easy to remember. This means that this format can help students who need to write quickly or can support students beginning the process of learning how to write well. Further, author Zachary M. Schrag explains in this Inside Higher Ed op-ed that “short essays—800 to 1,200 words—are essential tools of communication. Whether they take the form of op-eds, blog posts, executive summaries, or business pitches, they are just long enough to provide some evidence for one’s claims while still attracting busy readers.”
There are real-world applications for the five-paragraph essay, and therefore, it might be beneficial for students to learn how to wield it.
The Five-Paragraph Format as the Only Way
As a format, the five-paragraph essay is not inherently a bad thing for students to learn. What becomes problematic, however, is the way that we teach it.
In the minds of current and recently graduated high school writers, the five-paragraph essay is often seen as the only way to approach collegiate and professional writing. In a Get It Write article, professional writing consultant Nancy Tuten writes about the “pernicious myth . . . that writers should always employ the five-paragraph essay template,” and how this ideology often restricts writers from taking their ideas and producing high-quality content.
A majority of students believe that when they are asked to write in any English class, the five-paragraph essay is “what the teacher is looking for” rather than the format that will help them best communicate their ideas. And this problematic context did not happen without cause. Author John Warner, in his book Why They Can’t Write: Killing The Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, argues that “the ubiquity of the five-paragraph essay is a primary sign of bad incentives and dysfunctional practices. . . . [A]t its inception, the five-paragraph essay was a tool of convenience and standardization.”
There is a problematic focus in the American education system to put an incredible amount of pressure on students and teachers to score well on standardized exams and assessments as a means to measure not only the quality of the education received, but to measure the academic achievement of the students themselves. Rather than using the five-paragraph essay as simply one of many methods to write, the five-paragraph essay has been pigeon-holed into the only way students are expected to write because it fits within the tidy and streamlined narrative of a standardized education.
These motivations have led to some pretty severe consequences in regard to the quality of student writing. In Writing Rhetorically: Fostering Responsive Thinkers and Communicators, author Jennifer Fletcher argues,
The actual writing that goes on in typical classrooms across the United States remains dominated by tasks in which the reader does all the composing, and the students are left only to fill in missing information, whether copying directly from a teacher’s presentation, completing worksheets and chapter summaries, replicating highly formulaic essay structures, . . . or writing to “show they know” the particular information the teacher is seeking.
The circumstances surrounding why students write in school facilitate a kind of writing that is not conducive to fostering passionate, authentic, or meaningful work. This often means that the writing itself is not very good. According to Warner in Why They Can’t Write, “much of the writing students are asked to do in school is not writing so much as it is an imitation of writing, creating an artifact resembling writing which is not, in fact, the product of a robust, flexible writing process.”
If students are told that writing is a space that exists only for them to “fill in the blanks” of already curated knowledge, if students think that they need to rely on the teacher to understand exactly what to say and what to do, and if they also believe that writing is not is a creative endeavor where new ideas are forged, then how could anyone expect student writing to be any good at all?
When the education system standardizes writing, it also negates the thinking processes that are responsible for producing original, passionate, and high-quality writing. In the NCTE blog post “If Not the Five-Paragraph Essay, Then What,” David Slomp keenly explains that, “over the long term, teaching kids how to master particular structures doesn’t help them.” To borrow from an old adage, he says, “Give students a structure and you enable them for a day; teach students to analyze and you enable them for a lifetime.”
If teachers want to begin the process of fostering stronger writers in our classrooms, we have to first foster stronger thinkers. No kind of template, format, rubric, or standard can ever generate writing as good as the writing that comes from robust, collaborative, and generative thinking. This, as teachers, is what we should be striving to cultivate.
Giving Students More Agency
So, if teachers know what they must do, they must also figure out how to do it. Luckily, many educators and scholars have been working out a viable solution. Writer and professor of education, P. L. Thomas, argues in his Radical Eyes For Equity blog post that,
Instead of templates and prompts, I invite students to investigate and interrogate a wide variety of texts, to read like writers. With each text, we try to determine the type of writing, developing genre awareness and building a toolbox of names for types of writing. Next, we identify the conventions that define that type of writing before asking how the writer both conforms to and also writes against those conventions. We stress that writing is about purposeful decisions—not rules, or templates. We also begin to highlight what modes (narration, description, exposition, persuasion) the writer incorporates, where and why. We also identify the focus of the piece (I do not use “thesis”) and explore how the writer’s craft accomplishes that. Instead of introduction, body, and conclusion, we analyze openings and closings as well as claims, evidence, elaboration (explanation, synthesis/connection, transition). And again, we are building the students’ writer’s toolbox—but I do not do the writer’s work for the student in the reductive ways the five-paragraph essay does.
Thomas offers some very constructive methods for how teachers might invite students into the world of writing. Instead of seeing a linear, formulaic path to the creation of writing, Thomas suggests that teachers broaden the scaffolds of the writing process and that we give students more agency in how they craft their work.
Further, as outlined in this Edutopia article by Brian Sztabnik, teachers might consider supplementing the traditional five-paragraph essay with other, more authentic writing-based artifacts such as, “blogs, multigenre research papers, infographics, debates, or parodies/satire,” in order to broaden the scope of how students view professional and collegiate writing. There are a multitude of ways to teach writing in a way that offers the praxis dignity and depth. By moving beyond the five-paragraph essay within the English language arts classrooms, teachers acknowledge that students need to know a variety of writing methods and that there are multiple valid ways to write that diverge from the status quo. It is imperative that ELA teachers move away from the current ubiquitous five-paragraph essay methodology so that our students may begin to conceptualize in a way that is both broad and helpful to them in their journeys as writers.
The Teaching of Writing as Synonymous with the Teaching of Thinking
It is far past time to address the mythical methodology surrounding the five-paragraph essay in English classrooms across America. Overwhelmingly, students all over the country struggle to write—and it’s not their fault. As it stands, standardized writing instruction is more inhibitive of producing high-quality writers than it is successful at facilitating student growth. To begin to dismantle these harmful educational structures, we need to start thinking about the teaching of writing as synonymous with the teaching of thinking; then, we need to broaden the ways we invite students to think and write.
If English language arts teachers begin to address these problematic pedagogical approaches, students may soon begin to improve not only their opinions on writing as a subject, but may also find themselves growing as writers.
Anastasia Gustafson is a senior preservice teacher at Illinois State University. She will graduate in the spring of 2022 with triple teaching endorsements in High School English, Middle School English, and K–12 Visual Arts. She writes for the school paper, The Vidette, as a news reporter and blogger. In her free time, she writes and illustrates for the graphic novel, Apricity. Find her at https://anastasiagustafson.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/AnastasiaGusta9.
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