The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing

In an earlier post, I wrote,

It is not the structure of the five-paragraph essay that is limiting: It is a lack of critical reflection on one's ideas.

Many apparently disagree with that assertion, at least about the part on structure being limiting. I'm not sure why they do. Perhaps it's because many do use the five-paragraph essay in limiting ways. Perhaps it comes from a notion of learning as a creative endeavor, and perhaps the notion of "creative" for many suggests that learning occurs by intuitive leaps and bounds, which structure unduly restrains. However, without structure, no creativity can take place. Language itself requires structure to communicate meaning. In English, for example, stress can differentiate between adjectives and compound nouns, as in the difference between a "blue bird" (a bird that is blue in color) and a "bluebird" (a particular type of bird).

learning never occurs de novo.

Similarly, structure is crucial for learning. After all, learning never occurs de novo. Rather,

  • Learning always builds upon that which came before, and
  • Learning almost always involves a remixing of known building blocks.

My favorite example of these two principles is the many species that have evolved from the remixing of only four building blocks of DNA.

In looking at the five-paragraph essay, we can see at least four potential building blocks of writing:

  • introduction
  • "main idea" (thesis statement and topic sentence)
  • evidence
  • explanation (explanation of evidence and conclusion)

Let's look at how these four building blocks are used across three different situations: (1) framing a quotation, (2) the five-paragraph essay, and (3) introducing an academic journal article.

When introducing a quotation, as Graff and Birkenstein note in their book "They Say / I Say", it is typically framed. First, one introduces the source/author of the quotation and the author's main claim, then the quotation (evidence), and next one explains the quotation in light of the author's claim. Then, one uses the framed quotation to introduce one's own position (claim), thus starting another cycle of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation.

In the five-paragraph essay, of course, one introduces the main claim (thesis statement), provides evidence for that claim in the form of subclaims (topic sentences), explains the subclaims with more evidence and explanations (logic or reasoning), and finally re-explains the main claim in the conclusion.

In introductions to academic journal articles, John Swales has shown that regardless of discipline they always include four rhetorical moves: introduce the topic, review the literature on that topic (explain the topic and the evidence surrounding it), indicate a gap in the literature (explain how something is missing or wrong in the literature, a claim accompanied by evidence and explanation), and then explain what one will do to remedy that gap (another claim with the evidence and further explanation forthcoming in the rest of the article).

The building blocks naturally take different forms in each context and build upon one another as the context becomes more complex. The power of such an approach is its interlocking strength of basic concepts across contexts, thus facilitating learning and transfer via student use and practice of building block concepts across different writing landscapes.

Thus, again, although one can use structure in limiting ways, when used appropriately, structure supports learning. For those who use the five-paragraph essay, then, rather than treat the structure as a formula, it would be more fruitful to familiarize students with its building blocks across contexts (including the five-paragraph essay), rearranging the building blocks in different orders and combinations to consider their rhetorical effect.

To acquaint students with these building blocks, consider beginning by building upon their own experiences with conversation. For example,

  1. First, have students write a conversation they might have with friends trying to persuade them to see a certain movie, play a particular game, or do some other activity, keeping in focus that their friends want to see a different movie or play a different game.
  2. Next, have them analyze their conversations, asking questions such as:
    • Are the building blocks of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation there?
    • Are there other building blocks?
    • Are they consistently in a particular sequence?
    • Does the order of building blocks change?
    • Is a particular sequence of building blocks more effective?
    • When?
    • Why?
    • How do the sequences and uses of building blocks in conversations compare/contrast to those in the five-paragraph essay?

Of course, you can extend this process of analysis to other genres, such as blogs and editorials in newspapers, and to other media, such as podcasts and videos.

contradictions ... are the driving force of learning.

Whether learning new languages or new dialects, such as academese and blogese, this process of analyzing concepts across contexts can bring into focus contradictions between the rhetorical conventions of different dialects, languages, disciplines, and media. And it is contradictions that are the driving force of learning.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
The Five-Paragraph Essay
Click on building blocks and contradictions under Topics.
See also my article in Complicity: "Building Blocks and Learning".