Thursday, December 06, 2012


My Younger Relative called me recently, and asked me to give hir some feedback on a high school writing assignment.  The assignment requires students to write about three characters in a text in terms of one or more characteristics from a list.  The draft YR sent was about nine pages, all in these long, overly long paragraphs.  The paragraphs wandered a bit, but there were ideas there and they addressed the assignment.  I realized after not too long that he'd written a five paragraph essay.  And I was smart enough to realize that the five paragraphs are a requirement.  And indeed, they are.


Here's this high school student who has worked hard to think of and write out his ideas, and instead of teaching him to organize them into meaningful paragraphs, the teacher is teaching him to fit them into a really nasty box.

I recognize that there's good reason to limit page numbers, but a five paragraph essay that is five paragraphs long is just nasty for the teacher, isn't it?

So, help me, dear readers.  Why teach the five paragraph essay?

Do state boards require it?  And why?  No one who studies writing thinks this is a good idea, do they?

So, why?


  1. As an undergrad at the University of Chicago, I took "Little Red Schoolhouse," a course in which we wrote ten five-paragraph / five-page essays in ten weeks. (Taught as a lecture class, with grad students TA's small workshop sessions in addition every week.) It was intensely useful to me, in terms of really understanding effective paper structure, and while I don't require and wouldn't want a five-paragraph structure on a longer essay, for a five-page basic essay, it's a really useful way to teach incoming freshmen the basics of composition. Without it in their toolbox, they tend to just flail about randomly, with their special and exceedingly repetitive thoughts.

  2. Anonymous1:58 AM

    Bardiac, I enjoy reading your blog. I am a high school English teacher is a rural part of Colorado, and I teach the 5 paragraph essay. The majority of my students need this structure to organize their essay writing. Typically, this includes the standard introduction, three supporting points, and a conclusion. Without using this format, it would be very difficult for my students to think through their persuasive and expository writing. However, I also differentiate my instruction and prompts to a few students in each of my classes. These students are not required to put their ideas in a box. It sounds like your young relative would fit into this category. High school teachers must be flexible with designing
    assignments to challenge and meet the needs of their individual students.

  3. I believe the writing part of the SAT and many state tests (I know ours does) require five paragraphs. If it doesn't state it outright, it's understood that that's what graders are looking fior. When I taught freshman writing, I spent a lot if time trying to wean students off the five paragraph essay. Now that I teach HS, I do see students who need that structure, but certainly by senior year, they're encouraged in most of their classes to go beyond that structure. Many papers are 10-12 pages long, and no one expects them to be just five paragraphs.

    I don't actually teac writing now, but I know many of our English teachers start wit the five paragraph essay, but move quickly beyond it.

  4. Anonymous3:49 AM

    I find the five paragraph essay is useful for a couple of reasons. They do need the structure. The overall structure is simple enough for them to think clearly about the relationship between thesis and argument. I also find it isolates paragraphs enough for them to think about effective paragraph structure.

    That being said, we use five paragraph essays as in-class writing assignments. My students will write a five paragraph essay response to a prompt as an exam in a 55 minute class period. To be able to put together a cohesive five paragraph essay and write it in 55 minutes is a great skill, helps them think and organize ideas on their feet and all of that.

    For out of class papers, I never assign a 5PE. Those assignments are for helping them move beyond the simplicity of that structure into a more complex one.

    So it has it's place but it also has limitations.

  5. For those who need intensive writing instruction, I teach the 5PE. For upper level students, I use the 5 section essay. For longer papers, they organized in five sections rather than five paragraphs. This helps them stay organized and even the more advanced academic students will flounder without a paper structure.

  6. I think Anastasia's put it best. I've always thought of the 5PE as training wheels; being given the structure frees you to think more about organization and content.

    The catch is, students don't know that's where it comes from. They learn the form and think that's the point.

  7. I tell my students it's for essay exams -- use it for the SATs and GREs and LSATS, I tells them; and, if appropriate, for taking history exams or whatnot.

    Don't write those items in MY class.

  8. Anonymous11:29 PM

    I never learned it and was not taught to teach it. And only now am I discovering that the three middle paragraphs are supposed to be supporting points. Which I suppose means the introduction makes an assertion that is to be supported ... well, I wouldn't teach that way.

    However, I have discovered that this is good for blog posts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Looks nice on the page, and everything.

    I will now be aware and see if I also use it for things like letters of recommendation. I am betting I do. That would mean the 5 paragraph essay is a natural form of some kind, if I am using it sometimes without having learned it.

  9. The five paragraph essay has been much reviled in every college composition program in which i've taught, precisely for the reasons profacero names: it's hard to get students to recognize it as a primitive, limited, form, and to un-learn it. I'm seeing more and more monster paragraphs, even from college juniors (including ones who write pretty good transition sentences in the middles of those paragraphs, and are very happy when I give them permission to just hit the return key already; they know something's wrong, but they don't know how to solve the problem because they've been so thoroughly trained in "one thought per paragraph" that they're afraid to just start a new paragraph if they're still on the same -- or a closely related -- thought).

    I can see the advantages of the five-paragraph essay in terms of giving students a manageable "container," but even asking them to decide each time whether they need 2, 3, or 4 body paragraphs/main points to support their particular argument in a particular essay would be a tremendous improvement (and would allow for comparison/contrast approaches, which generally tend to generate an even number of body paragraphs). The other key is that they *must* be taught about transitions; all too often, the paragraphs in five-paragraph essays are entities unto themselves, with little relationship to each other. One guideline that I give my comp students is that if they printed out each paragraph of their essays on individual pages, someone should be able to reassemble them in order (without any "first, second, third"-type explicit clues, and without their being a list of points -- as opposed to a sentence which describes logical relationships between key ideas which will be discussed in the body paragraphs in a way that signals the order in which those paragraphs will appear).

    I don't think I was ever explicitly taught the five-paragraph essay, but I think we followed a model somewhat along those lines in elementary and middle school. In my 9th-grade history class, we began receiving training in some forms which require more organic organization: compare and contrast, trace and discuss, etc. That seemed to work well. I went to a high school with fairly well-prepared students, so maybe 9th grade is too soon in some places, but deliberate weaning off the 5-paragraph essay, and exposure to alternate, less formulaic forms, by 11th/12th grades seems like a good idea.