Stop Teaching 5 Paragraph Essay

On Friday morning at the NCTE Annual Convention, I sat in a session that featured Tom Romano, Mariana Romano, and Linda Rief. My hands failed me that session. I simply could not get all the ideas down in my notebook fast enough. One after another, each teacher spoke to the importance of giving kids the space, time, and agency to write what matters to them.

Write What Matters. Too much of the writing students do in school doesn’t matter to them, at least not in any personally meaningful way. And by that, I mean that the writing doesn’t mean anything to students beyond the immediate, beyond the class they’re taking, beyond the teacher who is evaluating them, beyond the points they’re collecting. It’s because the writing doesn’t matter to them that I’ve seen and heard of students who simply drop their essays into the recycle bin as they walk out of class the moment they’ve gotten their grades. 

Part of the reason writing doesn’t matter to most students is because they know, as we do, that the assignments we give are contrived, and that there is no assignment more contrived than the 5-paragraph essay. I’ve written about the tyranny of the form on Moving Writers here and here. And while I’ve committed myself to freeing myself (and my students) from under the form’s weight, I continue to struggle with the how. 

Classical Arrangement

Students—especially my 9th graders—still need a framework for organizing their ideas. So last year I taught them the Aristotelian structure, which is the classical arrangment of argument. My 9th graders came in from middle school with an understanding of the 5-paragraph essay; my job was to move them beyond it.

In the Aristotelian model, I explained to students, there are five partsversus five paragraphs. I first came across this model in my own rhetoric courses, then again when I began teaching AP Lang & Comp. It wasn’t until last year when I came across Ray Salazar’s provocative post, “If You Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay, Stop It!” that I realized I could use the classical arrangement for literary analysis and response.

So I took Salazar’s advice and stopped teaching the 5-paragraph essay for literary analysis (and in general). Instead, last year, my students wrote three 5-part essays for the following texts: Much Ado About NothingLord of the Flies, and Things Fall Apart. The result? Well, they were about as good as I expected them to be, especially at first—which is to say, they were not very good at all. I could tell that students were confused. I couldn’t blame them, though. After all, it was my first time teaching this new form, and my own inexperience was clearly reflected in their writing.

But then something happened. I started to hear my students tell me things like, “This way make so much more sense to me” and “I could have written my social studies paper this way, too.”

Isn’t that the key? Transfer. Writing that matters is writing that can transfer across task and context. What I also appreciate about the 5-part essay is that the organization is driven by questions:

  1. Introduction: What brought me to this piece of writing? What inspired me to write?
  2. Narration: What needs to be clarified before I continue? What background or context does my reader need to know? What’s the backstory? How did we get here?
  3. Confirmation: What supports my point-of-view? What evidence allowed me to arrive at this argument?
  4. Refutation: What are other ways of seeing these ideas? How are they valid?
  5. Conclusion: All that said, what are the benefits of seeing these ideas from my point-of-view?

Below are a few of the resources I used to help teach the difference between the 5-part, classical arrangement model and the traditional 5-paragraph essay:

By the time my students wrote their third essay in this form, I could, for the first time, actually see their thinking on the page in a literary analysis. The funny thing about the 5-paragraph essay is that it’s actually not set up to be an argument (or, I might argue, for deep thinking). For years, I told students to make sure that their thesis statements were “arguable,” but what did that even mean?

More often, students’ thesis statements were expository in nature, and then students spent three paragraphs telling me how they were right this way, this way, and finally, this way. Making a statement and then explaining in three different ways how that statement is true is somewhat dishonest as far as argument is concerned. What true argument does, and does well, is consider multiple views, weighs and wonders, looks at things by stepping back and zooming in. For me, the most powerful part of my students’ essays was the refutation. Unless students could honestly articulate and explain how other points-of-view were valid, their arguments weren’t really arguments.

Real-World Text Structures

While the classical arrangement worked well last year, I’m so excited to add in real-world text structure models for my students. At another NCTE panel—a tribute to the work of Tom Newkirk—retired teacher and author Gretchen Bernabei shared how she was inspired by Newkirk’s challenge to find “teachable alternatives” to the 5-paragraph essay.

In her books, The Story of My Thinking and Text Structures from the Masters, Gretchen reveals and analyzes the varied, multiple, and rich text structures students can use to organize their own writing. To see the power of using text structures to inspire writing that matters, at her roundtable on Saturday, Gretchen asked us to write one sentence—one sentence about something we have learned about teaching or from our classrooms. Here was mine:

Sometimes students are the best teachers.

Gretchen then asked us to think about how that sentence could lead to an essay. Then she gave us various real-world text structures (she had them cut up on slips of paper) and asked us to choose 1 or 2 that would work for the sentence that we had just written. Here was one that stood out to me:

“Where would your sentence fit?” she asked us. It so happened that my sentence fit most naturally in the third box. Then she asked us to write one sentence that would fill in the other two boxes, or parts, of the text structure. Ultimately, here was mine:

  1. I used to think that teachers had to have all the answers.
  2. But over the years, my experiences with students have shown me time and again how much I don’t know, and that admitting how much I don’t know has been humbling and powerful.
  3. So now I think that there are times that my students are the best teachers.

This is what Gretchen calls a “kernel essay.” It’s small writing, but writing that has so much room to grow and move.

Here are other text structures that might have also worked for my sentence:

I love the ways in which using these text structures can open up students’ writing and thinking. Every NCTE conference, though I come home with many takeaways, there are often one or two key moments that make my jaw drop and think, “Of course. Why didn’t I think about that before?” Learning about these kernel essays was one of those moments.

I can imagine following these steps with my students:

  1. Generate multiple sentences that describe a key observation (claim) they want to make about a topic (or piece of literature)
  2. Narrow down to 1-2 most compelling sentences (the ones that are “itches needing scratching”).
  3. Browse various text structures, with each text structure on a separate slip of paper. Students can play around with the possibilities, deciding where their sentence might best fit.
  4. Fill in the other parts of the text structure. Afterwards, or simultaneously, students then study a real-world mentor text that uses this text structure (Gretchen’s book Text Structures from the Masters includes mentor texts for 50 different text structures).

Since my students are also completing an Article of the Week (a la Kelly Gallagher), I hope to have them go back and then identify (or create) new text structures based upon those readings. Gretchen, herself, shared that her students started to find new text structures the more they read and wrote. (And because Gretchen, like so many teachers I know, is so generous, you can find more about kernel essays and text structures on her website here).

By collecting real-world models for organization, students can start to see the varied and rich ways that their ideas can be expressed—that their writing no longer needs to be tied down to 5 paragraphs. How do you use text structures in your own classroom? How do you get students to move beyond 1 or 2 templates to see the richness of writing in the real world?

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Please stop teaching the five-paragraph essay for analysis. Please, pretty please with a cherry on top! 

Let’s talk for a moment about the purpose of the five-paragraph essay. Many scholars trace its origins centuries back. Its parallel structure was favored over more meandering approaches. Today, teachers and students value the five-paragraph essay because it’s both easy and economical. Write a thesis, support it in three paragraphs, tack on a conclusion, presto!

What really happens, though, is much less magical. There are three major issues with the five-paragraph essay.

Issue #1: The structure dictates a closed thesis, which means static thinking. 

A typical five-paragraph essay has what my school calls an XYZ, or closed, thesis. This means that the topics for each of the three body paragraphs are listed within the thesis (XYZ represents the list). It might go something like this: Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, exposes the impact of prejudice through the characters Buckley, Max, and Bigger. Now each of my paragraphs will be about one of those characters, in that order. My thesis has structured my writing for me. However, I am essentially performing a redundant function with each body paragraph. While my support might change, I’m constantly addressing the same point. My thesis has halted any opportunity for my ideas to build. Students are constantly being told to show “deeper thinking.” Why would we train them to write in a way that, almost by definition, necessitates their superficiality?

Issue#2: The essay is built around five original sentences. 

Okay, there’s nothing wrong with five original sentences…except when that’s the extent of the original thinking for the entire essay. Think about it. A five-paragraph essay revolves around a thesis, three topic sentences, and a concluding sentence. Everything else is just support for those five sentences. If you want your students to summarize for an entire essay, this is great. But to demonstrate critical thinking that is not only sustained but grows over the course of the essay requires more than five sentences of real substance.

Issue #3: The essay turns analysis into a literary scavenger hunt instead of an exploration of purpose and meaning. 

An unfortunate teaching point of the five-paragraph essay is commonly that each paragraph should focus on a different device. Students dive into their close reading armed with lists of devices, eagerly trying to stick labels on as many devices as they can, regardless of whether they understand how the device functions in the text. While students should certainly consider an author’s use of devices to achieve an effect, that shouldn’t be the beginning or end of the thinking they demonstrate in each paragraph. More important is the way the meaning and purpose of the text develop over time, as shown through key quotations which contain devices that contribute to or reveal the author’s intended message or theme. Note that if you teach close reading through Costa’s levels of questioning, students who take this essay approach tend to get stuck and level two.

Beyond the pleasing parallelism, the five-paragraph essay is better as an example of what not to do in good analytical writing. Wondering what to do now? Stick with me for the next blog post, in which I’ll talk about a better strategy for teaching students to structure their analytical writing.

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Published by rhetorstoolbox

I'm a high school English teacher with a passion for teaching AP Language and Composition. I believe in curiosity, passion, collaboration, and critical thinking. View all posts by rhetorstoolbox

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