The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)

The five-paragraph essay: Is it limiting? Or a useful stepping stone in learning to write?

Of course, if used inappropriately any approach can be limiting. It's easy to imagine how the five-paragraph essay can be used as a cookie-cutter formula that excludes revision, critical thinking, and other genres. It's also understandable that many teachers, especially public school teachers, may not have much of a choice when they must prepare students to take exams based on the five-paragraph essay, who have 4-5 classes with each one having 25+ students, and who have responsibility for teaching students more than just how to write. Nevertheless, some aspects of the five-paragraph essay have value in teaching students how to write.

Of course, some will argue that writing is a process and that it takes place across a variety of genres. Definitely! However, writing requires structure, too. If we want to submit an article to a newspaper, magazine, journal, or book publisher, we have to consider our audience. They are not interested in the process of how we write; they have structural expectations that our products fit a specific genre with specific rhetorical conventions.

In fact, the process of revision is multi-faceted: we revise our ideas, our presentation, and our structure. I'm not quite sure why many denigrate the structures of topic sentences and thesis statements, but I find them helpful for my own writing with respect to keeping focused. And they help students to

  • focus more narrowly on an issue,
  • develop their ideas in more depth, and
  • avoid stringing together a "list" of ideas, some related and some not so related.

Just like any other type of writing, revision and critical thinking can be present in a five-paragraph essay, too. Let's look at the example posted (with some irony) on the TESL-L email discussion list by David Kees, a teacher in China:

There has been a lot of discussion about the Five-Paragraph Essay. Although widely taught in the USA it is also severely criticized.

The Five-Paragraph Essay is a hamburger. It is the literary equivalent of two all-beef patties with lettuce, tomato, mayo and American cheese squashed between a sesame bun. Parke Muth, Director of International Admissions at the University of Virginia, calls them "McEssay". He says reading them is as predictable as eating a Big Mac. You know all the regular ingredients will be there. You know what it will taste like before you begin.

The formulaic style of the Five-Paragraph Essay is not enough for college. A student in Texas learned the Five-Paragraph Essay and with other formulaic training passed the Texas high school exam with flying colors. She qualified as a "Texas Scholar". At the University of Houston, when asked to write an essay she couldn't do it. Dr. Les Perelman, director of undergraduate writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that professors spend the first year of college unteaching the Five-Paragraph Essay.

Yet many American high school teachers feel compelled to teach the Five-Paragraph Essay even though they know it kills creativity. Teachers recognize good writing is good thinking. But even though the Five-Paragraph Essay forces students into a boring uncreative style teachers must teach it. If the students can manage the essay well they will score better on state mandated exams.

The Five-Paragraph Essay generates predictable useless uncreative writing. Although teachers hate it they know they must teach it.

Quite a few teachers in public schools would likely be more than satisfied with this essay. It has metaphor, credible sources, coherence, and so on. Even so, if we wished, we could provide feedback on each paragraph, prompting the student to revise and think more critically.

For the introduction, we could ask for more background on the various perspectives that are in conflict.

For the body paragraphs, we could ask that the author's assumptions be examined. For instance, on comparing the five-paragraph essay to a Big Mac, we could ask whether it is the structure that provides the "taste" or the content. Does a particular syle make the writing "boring" and "uncreative"? Only four building blocks of DNA are responsible for they myriads of species in the world. With respect to writing, it is the interaction of the claims, evidence, and reasoning that makes writing interesting, not necessarily the particular structure.

We could challenge the appropriateness of the metaphor. After all, there are many types of sandwiches in the world, even many that use lettuce, tomato, mayo, and cheese. But a turkey sandwich doesn't taste like a hamburger, which doesn't taste like a bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich. How is it that these sandwiches taste different although having the same structure?

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

We could have students question the evidence. Is the "Texas scholar" typical of most students with "formulaic" training. Was that the only type of writing that the student had done in high school? Does the five-paragraph essay only create "predictable useless uncreative writing"?

And so on.

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