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".

Po Bronson (NY Magazine) writes a lengthy article titled "How Not to Talk to your Kids:The Inverse Power of Praise", which looks primarily Carol Dweck's research on motivation showing that praising children for their intelligence causes them to underperform. The article begins:

What do we make of a boy like Thomas?

Thomas (his middle name) is a fifth-grader at the highly competitive P.S. 334, the Anderson School on West 84th. Slim as they get, Thomas recently had his long sandy-blond hair cut short to look like the new James Bond (he took a photo of Daniel Craig to the barber). Unlike Bond, he prefers a uniform of cargo pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of one of his heroes: Frank Zappa. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are “the smart kids.” Thomas’s one of them, and he likes belonging.

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

For instance, in the early grades, Thomas wasn’t very good at spelling, so he simply demurred from spelling out loud. When Thomas took his first look at fractions, he balked. The biggest hurdle came in third grade. He was supposed to learn cursive penmanship, but he wouldn’t even try for weeks. By then, his teacher was demanding homework be completed in cursive. Rather than play catch-up on his penmanship, Thomas refused outright. Thomas’s father tried to reason with him. “Look, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t have to put out some effort.” (Eventually, he mastered cursive, but not without a lot of cajoling from his father.)

Why does this child, who is measurably at the very top of the charts, lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges?

Thomas is not alone. For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

In brief, praise that is directed towards one's self-esteem not only doesn't improve students' performance, it can even cause performance to deteriorate by causing students

  1. to avoid risk
  2. to give up on a task instead of exerting more effort and
  3. to believe that they are not autonomous.

For praise to be effective,

  1. It must be specific to the task being performed.
  2. It must be sincere.
  3. It must be intermittent.
  4. It should be given during the process not at the end of a task.

On #3, if praise is given too often, then effort becomes tied to the reward of praise, and when praise is removed, so is one's effort. It needs to be tied to effort. And for the same line of reasoning, on #4, praise needs to focus on the process not the product of "success." So, praise is important, but it must be given timely and wisely.

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.