My Anti-Five-Paragraph-Essay Five-Paragraph Essay

This post is written by NCTE member Kim Zarins. 

KimZarins[Disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in composition studies. My PhD is in English with a focus on medieval literature. Besides teaching college literature courses, I write creatively, and my debut young adult novel comes out in September. I am joining the debate on the five-paragraph essay in response to Kathleen Rowlands’ smart “Slay the Monster” journal article, because I think high school and college teachers can work together and set up our students for success—and the five-paragraph essay is setting them up for a really tough time in college. Students don’t find their voices this way and come to college hating how they sound in writing, particularly in the essay form.

As a high-school survivor of this form and now a teacher occasionally receiving it from students trying their best, I have to say I hate this abomination. I hate it so much, I decided to be naughty and condemn the five-paragraph essay in a five-paragraph essay. Here you go. Enjoy. Or not.]

From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of the modern high school, the five-paragraph essay has been utilized in high school classrooms. Despite this long tradition, the five-paragraph essay is fatally flawed. It cheapens a student’s thesis, essay flow and structure, and voice.

First, the five-paragraph essay constricts an argument beyond usefulness or interest. In principle it reminds one of a three-partitioned dinner plate. The primary virtue of such dinner plates is that they are conveniently discarded after only one use, much like the essays themselves. The secondary virtue is to keep different foods from touching each other, like the three-body paragraphs. However, when eating from a partitioned plate, a diner might have a bite of burger, then a spoonful of baked beans, then back to the burger, and then the macaroni salad. The palate satisfies its complex needs for texture, taste, choice, and proportion. Not so for the consumers of the five-paragraph essay, who must move through Point 1, then Point 2, and then Point 3. No exceptions. It is arbitrary force-feeding to the point of indigestion. After the body paragraphs, and if readers have not already expired, they may read the Conclusion, which is actually a summary of the Introduction. There is no sense of building one’s argument or of proportion.

Second, critical thinking skills and the organization of the essay’s flow are impaired when a form must be plugged and filled with rows of stunted seeds that will never germinate. If we return to the partitioned-plate analogy, foods are separated, but in food, there is a play in blending flavors, pairing them so that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Also, there is typically dessert. Most people like dessert and anticipate it eagerly. In the five-paragraph essay there is no anticipation, only homogeneity, tedium, and death. Each bite is not food for thought but another dose of the same. It is like Miss Trunchbull in the Roald Dahl novel,  forcing the little boy to eat chocolate cake until he bursts—with the exception that no one on this planet would mistake the five-paragraph essay for chocolate cake. I only reference the scene’s reluctant, miserable consumption past all joy or desire.

Third, the five-paragraph form flattens a writer’s voice more than a bully’s fist flattens an otherwise perky, loveable face. Even the most gifted writer cannot sound witty in a five-paragraph essay, which makes one wonder why experts assign novice writers this task. High school students suffer to learn this form, only to be sternly reprimanded by college professors who insist that writers actually say something. Confidence is shattered, and students can’t articulate a position, having only the training of the five-paragraph essay dulling their critical reasoning skills. Moreover, unlike Midas whose touch turns everything to gold, everything the five-paragraph essay touches turns to lead. A five-paragraph essay is like a string of beads with no differentiation, such as a factory, rather than an individual, might produce.  No matter how wondrous the material, the writer of a five-paragraph essay will sound reductive, dry, and unimaginative. Reading over their own work, these writers will wonder why they ever bothered with the written word to begin with, when they sound so inhuman. A human’s voice is not slotted into bins of seven to eleven sentences apiece. A human voice meanders—but meaning guides the meandering. Voice leans and wends and backtracks. It does not scoop blobs of foodstuff in endless rows. If Oliver Twist were confronted with such blobs of written porridge, he would not ask for more.

In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay is an effective way to remove all color and joy from this earth. It would be better to eat a flavorless dinner from a partitioned plate than to read or write a five-paragraph essay. It would be better to cut one’s toenails, because at least the repetitive task of clipping toenails results in feet more comfortably suited to sneakers, allowing for greater movement in this world. The five-paragraph essay, by contrast, cuts all mirth and merit and motion from ideas until there is nothing to stand upon at all, leaving reader and writer alike flat on their faces. Such an essay form is the very three-partitioned tombstone of human reason and imagination.

KimZarinsCoverKim Zarins is a medievalist and an Associate Professor of English at the California State University at Sacramento. Her debut young adult novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, pub date Sept 6), retells Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with modern American teens traveling to Washington D.C. Find her on Twitter @KimZarins.

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

30 thoughts on “My Anti-Five-Paragraph-Essay Five-Paragraph Essay

      1. I posted references to my 2010 article in CCC, “My Five-Paragraph Theme Theme” and its reprint in Sullivan, et al. “What Is College-Level Writing?” vol. 2, 2014, with commentary, earlier, but it seems to have disappeared. I’m sorry you missed this earlier satire in two NCTE publications. –Edward M. White

        1. Prof White, I still use your article in my freshman composition classes. It’s a really good barometer for me to discover what my students learned in high school and who “gets” it. Thank you!

  1. An artful attempt, but this does not ‘decimate’ the five paragraph essay. It only misses the point and context of it. I’ve seen many essays displaying creativity and cognitive organization which have laid the groundwork for more advanced writing. A myopic view of the form is more than likely to yield limited results.

  2. It was so frustrating in grade twelve in Canada dealing with a contrast/comparison topic, walking around talking to students about what tack they were taking, and hearing, “I can’t make this work with five paragraphs.”
    Diploma exams were the tail that wagged the dog. The topics on essay exams could be logically developed in five paragraphs. They tended to be designed to analyse what a character was like, what transformative event happened, and how the character changed as a result. They didn’t tend to ask to contrast or compare two characters in some way that would fit, let’s say, a four or six paragraph format, or perhaps a format with an undesignated number of paragraphs. *gasp* As a result, the truly creative writing happened in the non-academic classes, and less time was spent on creative assignments in the academic classes.
    One of the best things that happened in my later years teaching English was the emphasis on a curricular requirement of digital/visual presentation. The results from very competent young adults freed from essay constrictions were so very spectacularly rewarding. We would have fun, work hard, and together or individually create works that I was eager to view and they were excited to present.
    And then the spectre of the upcoming diploma exam rentered the class and we returned to safe essay format.
    I admire your essay in its premise and its delicious wording. But as long as we have limited class hours to play in, too many curriculum demands to fit in to those hours, and student performance being judged by how well students can cope with a particular type of diploma exam essay question, that old five paragraph essay workhorse will trudge on. Just as that sentence did.)

    Final comment: I went to a very rural school where the five paragraph essay was never thought. The textbook chapters were of unity, coherence, and emphasis, without any discussion of what kind of scaffold to build those concepts on. As a result, my freestyle university papers sparkled with personality and I suspect the markers enjoyed them more than most. I know decades later, I’m impressed with both my past writing and my marks. But I didn’t have a magic formula to teach this to others.
    We used to have fun in class. I think we produced some decent writing. Then the diploma exams arrived and we all had to learn to hack the exam. Fear that one’s students would show poorly on the results that we got back was powerful pressure for everyone in the department to conform, and for each teacher to teach a recipe that would be a safety net for the weakest students (and a straight jacket for the strongest.) Hence the ubiquitous five paragraph essay.
    It’s too late for me. I’m old and gone. But we’re in a different age of communication now. Standard usage and formats are in a state of extreme flux. I hope you find yourself at the middle of a very powerful, wide-spread educational crusade to move past the constrictions of the five paragraph essay.

    1. I am wondering the same thing for my 6th graders. I’ve asked several college professors before. They complain about the 5 paragraph essay, but offer no implementable solutions.

  3. Kudos for defending the form by demonstrating how effective it can be, and for modeling the transferable skill of functioning creatively within a prescribed structure.

  4. I’m stunned to learn that so many English teachers regard the five-paragraph essay as a rigid, creativity-killing monster designed only to make writing as dull as possible. I learned (and have taught) the five-paragraph model as a guide, something that tells students, “This generally goes here, but you can put it somewhere else if you have a better way.”

    As a teacher of adult learners who have been out of school for decades and some learners who, for whatever reason, never processed what they were supposed to learn in high school, I’ve found the five-paragraph model useful for showing students where readers expect to find certain elements of a paper (e.g., they look for your thesis at the end of the introduction). Some students need simple “rules” upon which to hang their ideas, rather like wading into a whirlpool and knowing the guide rail is within arm’s reach. More advanced students should be encouraged to play around with the format, to let go of the guide rail and swim.

    The operative philosophy in writing should always be “use what works.” If something doesn’t work, discard it and use something else. Many students are not quite ready to know what works for them and what doesn’t, and so a model such as the five-paragraph essay can provide them assurance that they won’t drown in their writing. However, students should be made aware that the model is just that, a model. It can be used in many ways–for example, discussing how particular writers used or didn’t use the format and the choices they made.

    1. As a high school English teacher with struggling writers, I agree with Greg here.

      This is exactly what I do. The 5-paragraph essay is not a recipe or model; it should serve as a guide. Often we’ll start with a basic organizational concept of four or five paragraphs for our essays. Naturally from there, most of my students will notice when their paragraphs are getting rather long and venturing off into new content. That brings up great discussion about paragraphing and throwing out the original 5-paragraph estimate.

      My primary goal using the 5-paragraph structure is for students to organize their writing before they begin. They then can adapt their form as they grow as writers.

      Rarely do I advise students to use the most rudimentary transitional phrases–first, second, in conclusion–like McNabb used (however tongue in cheek!) unless a student is at a basic level with learning this skill.

      I do think that teachers are using this form as a reaction to testing, just as many others have already commented here. Another issue could be teacher education programs. Mine gave me almost no training whatsoever on how to teach writing. Regardless, it is important that we push students past the basics and prepare them for more than these state writing tests.

  5. UGH! I get sick of this sort of thing. If you don’t like the 5 paragraph format. . . fine. . . but instead of kvetching about it, offer a solution. Just saying something is bad is fairly pointless.

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