Is the Five-Paragraph Essay Dead?

Language Arts

Is the Five-Paragraph Essay Dead?

By Tina Nazerian     Oct 18, 2017

Is the Five-Paragraph Essay Dead?

This article is part of the collection: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

Dennis Allen doesn’t think the five-paragraph essay is dead.

In the years before his retirement in May from West Virginia University, the Professor Emeritus did not assign “strict” five-paragraph essays. He contends that the five-paragraph essay may be dead in the literal sense because instructors of college composition classes don’t assign it, but he believes its structure is still around.

“I think a dissertation chapter is just a substantially more elaborate version of this,” Allen, who taught at West Virginia University for 35 years, explains. “In other words, the first five pages are the introduction with a thesis near the end, and you have two to five points, and it just expands out.”

The five-paragraph essay is a topic long debated by educators, and strong opinions abound. Ray Salazar called the five-paragraph essay an “outdated writing tradition” that “must end” in a 2012 post for his blog White Rhino. And in a 2016 blog post for the National Council of Teachers of English, Sacramento State associate professor Kim Zarins used the five-paragraph essay structure to show why she’s against teaching it. She called herself a high school “survivor of this form.” Despite its “long tradition, the five-paragraph essay is fatally flawed,” she wrote. “It cheapens a student’s thesis, essay flow and structure, and voice.”

A year later, her stance hasn’t budged.

“When I see five-paragraph essays come into the stack of papers, they invariably have this structural problem where the ceiling is so low, they don’t have time to develop a real thesis and a truly satisfying or convincing argument,” she says.

Five-paragraph essays are not the majority of what Zarins sees, but she points out that she teaches medieval literature, not composition. Regardless, she thinks high school teachers should steer clear of this approach, and instead encourage “students to give their essays the right shape for the thought that each student has.”

Kristy Olin teaches English to seniors at Robert E. Lee High School in Baytown, Texas. She says sometimes educators have structures that don’t allow for ideas, content or development to be flexible, and instead of focusing on what’s actually being said, they become more about “the formula.”

“It seems very archaic, and in some ways it doesn’t really exemplify a natural flow,” Olin says about the five-paragraph essay. “It doesn’t exemplify how we talk, how we write or how most essays you read are actually structured.”

Consider paragraphs. They should be about one subject and then naturally shift when that subject changes, Olin explains. But because the five-paragraph essay structure dictates that there be three body paragraphs, students might try to “push everything” to those body paragraphs.

Olin does think, however, that the five-paragraph essay format is useful for elementary students, adding that fourth grade is when the state of Texas starts assessing students’ writing in standardized tests. But once students get into sixth, seventh and eighth grade, teachers need to break away from that five-paragraph essay format and say “‘this is where we started, and this is where we need to head.’”

Hogan Hayes, who teaches first year composition at Sacramento State, is the second author of an upcoming book chapter about the “myth” that the five-paragraph essay will help students in the future.” There’s a perception that if students get good at the five-paragraph essay format, they’ll hone those skills and will be good writers in other classes and writing situations, he says. But there’s “overwhelming evidence to suggest that’s not the case.”

He doesn’t think that first first year composition teachers should be spending time “hating the five-paragraph essay.” Instead, they should recognize it as knowledge students are bringing with them to the classroom, and then “reconfigure it to new contexts” and use it ways that are more college-appropriate.

Hayes says college writing instructors need to get students to understand that the reason their K-12 teachers kept assigning five-paragraph essays was because they were working with “100, 120, 150 students,” and a standardized writing assignment “that works the same way every time” is easier to read, assess and grade. In regards to students who leave K-12 with a “strong ability to write the five-paragraph essay,” he says, ““I don’t want to snap them out of it because I don’t want to dismiss that knowledge.”

Take McKenzie Spehar, a Writing and Rhetoric Studies major at the University of Utah. She says she learned the five-paragraph essay early on, and except in an AP English class she took in the 12th grade, the structure was pushed heavily on her at school. She can’t say she’s ever written a five-paragraph essay for college. Her papers have all needed to be longer, though she does note that they do tend to stick to a five-paragraph type format—an introduction, a body and a conclusion.

“In general, the consensus is you need more space than a five-paragraph essay gives you,” she says, adding that it’s a good place to start when learning how to write academically. She explains that later on, however, students need a looser structure that flows more with the way they’re thinking, especially if they go into the humanities.

Kimberly Campbell, an Associate Professor and Chair of Teacher Education at the Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, is strongly opposed to the five-paragraph essay structure. She thinks it stifles creativity and “takes away the thinking process that is key for good writing.” And she says she’s not the only one worried that the structure doesn’t help students develop their writing. In Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay, a book she wrote with Kristi Latimer (who teaches English Language Arts at Tigard High School in Oregon), Campbell cites research studies that critique the approach of teaching the five-paragraph essay.

“Studies show that students who learn this formula do not develop the thinking skills needed to develop their own organizational choices as writers,” she says. “In fact, it is often used with students who have been labeled as struggling. Rather than supporting these students, or younger students, it does the opposite.”

For his part, Hayes thinks the five-paragraph essay makes it easy to not be creative, not that it necessarily stifles creativity. He believes creative students can work their imagination into any structure.

Allen, the retired English professor, stresses that even if writing isn’t argumentative, it always needs some structure. It can’t be simply uncontrolled, because the reader’s not going to get the point if it’s all over the map.”

Rita Platt is currently a teacher librarian with classes fromPre-K to fourth grade at St. Croix Falls Elementary School in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. She still stands by a piece she wrote in 2014; in it she said she was “being really brave” by stating she believes in teaching elementary school students “the good old fashioned” five-paragraph essay format.

She thinks the five-paragraph essay format has room for creativity, such as through word choice, topic and progression of thought. Kids can use the five-paragraph essay model to organize their thoughts, she says, and once they’re really comfortable, they can play around with it.

“Kids need something to start with,” says Platt, who has 22 years of teaching experience across different grade levels.

Campbell’s recommendation, which she says research backs, is to focus on reading good essay examples and give students in-class support while they write. She wants students to read a variety of essays, and pay close attention to structure. The students can then develop ideas in a writing workshop. As they develop their content, they consider how to structure those ideas.

“Students can explore a variety of organizational structures to determine what best supports the message of their essay,” Campbell says.

Platt tells EdSurge that she thinks there’s a movement in writing that says to “just let kids write from the heart.” But that means the kids who aren’t natural writers are left “in the dust.” What’s more, this approach doesn’t honor the constraints of teachers’ jobs, such as how much time they have to teach. And not all teachers love writing or write themselves, she says. Many elementary school teachers, she claims, never write, and not everyone has the skills of, say, Lucy Calkins or Nancy Atwell.

Campbell’s not a fan of asking kids to “‘just write from the heart.’” She wants kids to write about topics they care about, but at the same time, recognizes that instructors do need to teach writing. She says her mentor text method described above “is a lot of work,” but it was effective when she taught middle school and high school.

“In my work with graduate students who are learning to be English Language Arts teachers, I am also seeing this approach work,” she explains. She adds that her method would be easier if class sizes were smaller and teachers weren’t trying to “meet the needs of 150-200 students in a year.”

Most people aren’t going to become professional writers, Platt continues, noting that she’s not saying most people couldn’t, or that schools shouldn’t encourage people to think that way. She says there’s a sense of elitism in education that she gets a little tired of, along with some teacher bashing that makes her feel like she has to defend her colleagues who aren’t themselves natural writers yet are tasked with teaching kids to be “serviceable writers.”

“It bothers me in education—particularly in my field, language arts—where everybody says, ‘everybody should love reading and writing,’” she says. “Well, you know, you hope everybody loves reading and writing. You model that passion, you share that passion with your students but truth be told, our job is to make sure everybody reads and writes very well.”

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