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Is the 5-Paragraph Essay Really Dead?

Posted on Monday October 22, 2012 by Michael Keathley

Remember the cinematic angst of little Ralphie’s returned theme in A Christmas Story?

The poor kid believed his writing could change his world. If he wrote eloquently enough about why he wanted a Red Rider BB gun, he would get one for Christmas and be able to defend the neighborhood from criminals. A noble purpose, a motivated student, what went wrong?

Even more disturbing is what many of us who teach at the college level know: Ralphie represents many of our students who years later arrive at college unprepared to write at the appropriate level, disgruntled about the whole requirement to take composition, and perhaps riddled with anxiety about making sure his “themes” meet expectations. The fears of these students are often realized when an assessment during admission places them into developmental courses, and they may even become so discouraged they decide to withdraw from college.

It is with many of these concerns in mind that Josh Boldt, a member of the writing faculty at the University of Georgia, asks the question: “Should We Teach the Five-Paragraph Essay?” in a guest post (“Teacher in a Strange Land,” Education Week Teacher, 1 October, 2012). His piece and the quick discussion that followed in the “comments” area provide a helpful overview of the benefits and disadvantages to guide any faculty member considering its use in the classroom.

Here are the main points with some further elucidation.

Anything that has been around a long time as such a pedagogical foundation stone, certainly has some merit. This is true with the five-paragraph essay. These are the main benefits:

    A formulaic approach that guides students reliably through the process of composing a piece that has a clear main point that is broken down into supporting paragraphs and neatly wrapped up in a conclusion. It is helpful as a “guideline” to how to write (Goya, S. qtd. in “Comments” of Boldt, J. 1 October, 2012).

    Structure that helps students comprehend rhetorical concepts, such as unity, coherence, development, and transitions. As Paul Hoss comments, “The writing concept of foreshadowing, employed in the five paragraph essay, helps students organize their thoughts and lays out a plan for them to convey these thoughts to their reader, usually their teacher. It can be a very helpful first step in the writing process” (qtd. in “Comments” of Boldt, J. 1 October, 2012).

    Common ground for faculty to coach student writers. For example, providing an opportunity to discuss problematic issues including where information from secondary sources is typically inserted, what strengths/weaknesses exist in the writing, and what students could work on next to improve their writing.

    Easier measurement of students’ writing for standardized assessments, so prevalent in our educational culture, and for essays on tests, as Madlon Laster states (qtd. in “Comments” of Boldt, J. 1 October, 2012).

    A product focus, meaning this approach results in better final compositions, though not necessarily more skillful writers.

    Preparation for some “real world” writing scenarios that have restricted lengths. For example, a standard business or application letter usually does not extend beyond one page.

The benefits listed are perhaps most valuable for instructing students through the 10th grade and those who are in need of remediation or developmental level courses.

The disadvantages and criticisms of the five-paragraph essay seem to fall into the larger category of the tendency to neglect the rhetorical concept of invention. Students need to be encouraged to explore possibilities and options with their compositions. This includes but is not limited to: topics, modes, audiences, diction, and even the length of the piece needed for the writer to accomplish his or her goal for readers. As Boldt stated:

    The antipathy [of critics] ultimately comes down to our encounters with students who have become imprisoned by the method and have lost the ability to write and think creatively (or maybe never developed it). Nobody wants that. What began as a good thing becomes a crutch that students are reluctant to give up for fear of falling. I believe this is a big part of why the format is so widely criticized in freshman writing courses. (1 October, 2012)

Although some faculty may spend time discussing prewriting, this is typically done in a formulaic, rigid way. For instance, I remember teachers emphasizing the prefix “pre-” and the alleged “fact” that the “brainstorming must be done prior to drafting.” This legalistic approach to writing does not bode well within the concept of invention.

Furthermore, the Information Age has radically changed the playing field. It has redefined literacy and the power that written communication possesses. The world is no longer as small and innocent as Ralphie’s neighborhood. Simply stated, the traditional five-paragraph essay as an entity does not prepare students for what they may need as composers in the 21st century who need to be competitive in the knowledge economy.

Finally, the largest criticism of the five-paragraph essay is precisely stated by Boldt:

    The worst offense of the five-paragraph essay is its ignorance of the fact that good writing must also be interesting. Professional writers shirk the format in favor of a looser and more creative style that engages readers rather than lecturing to them, as the five-paragraph form often does. (1 October, 2012)

Although writers have always sought to catch the readers’ interest and perhaps motivate them toward involvement in an issue, this becomes even more challenging in the Digital Age. Readers are increasingly connected to content. They have a near endless sea of reading options and methods (e.g., print vs. electronic articles, blogs, social media sites, etc.). Students must be prepared to do more than participate; they must be ready to compete globally.

As Boldt concludes, “Despite the controversy though, the five-paragraph essay isn’t all bad–as long as teachers remember that it works best as a method of teaching other skills rather than as a system of writing in and of itself” (1 October, 2012). Well said.

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