If Not the Five-Paragraph Essay, Then What? A Response to Kim Zarins’s Anti-FPE FPE

This post is written by member David Slomp. 

david-slompTwenty grade-six students mull around the newly installed benches. Excited. Nervous. Proud. They are waiting for the dignitaries to officially reopen their town’s upgraded dog park.

 Their writing made this day possible. 

 For eight months they had been studying grant writing. They analyzed grant agencies as discourse communities, they dissected the genre of the grant proposal, they studied the rhetorical moves successful grant writers employed. Then they crafted their own proposal.  Finally, they submitted their proposal and waited. Today they got to witness the results of their work.

The students described above participated in the Horizon Writing Project, a research collaboration with eight teachers and their students in grades 6–11. The Horizon Writing Project was my response to the inevitable question that accompanies any denunciation of the five-paragraph essay (FPE). In the comments section following Dr. Zarins’s anti-FPE FPE, Tim Bedly put the question this way, “You’ve convinced me, Kim. So what organizational structure do I teach my 5th graders?”

The simple answer to Tim’s question is that you don’t teach a structure. Over the long term, teaching kids how to master particular structures doesn’t help them. To borrow from an old adage, “Give students a structure and you enable them for a day; teach students to analyze and you enable them for a lifetime.”

Pedagogy built around providing students with structures to follow fosters classrooms of dependence (a critique not limited solely to teachers who rely on the FPE). Applebee and Langer’s (2011) survey of writing instruction in American schools found that in too many cases, “The actual writing that goes on in typical classrooms . . . remains dominated by tasks in which the teacher does all the composing, and students are left only to fill in missing information” (p. 26). In such classrooms dependence is fostered because the teacher breaks down writing tasks, provides explicit instructions and templates, and does the deep thinking for students.

As the students in the Horizon Writing Project were learning to write grant proposals, they were being taught the metacognitive skills they will need to independently analyze and successfully complete other writing tasks they have never seen before. They did this by writing for authentic audiences/discourse communities and by submitting their work to those audiences.

Rather than providing their students with direct instruction on the art of grant proposal writing, the teachers involved in the project taught their students three areas of analysis:

  1. how to analyze audiences/discourse communities to determine what values and expectations they will bring to the text
  2. how to analyze sample texts so that they can
    • determine both the purposes and features of those genres, and so that they can understand how the genre has been designed to reflect the purposes, values, and expectations of the discourse communities that employ them.
    • understand the range of rhetorical moves found within the genre, and to recognize how the values and expectations of the discourse community shapes the rhetorical choices available to authors.
    • identify what subject matter the sample texts include, and to recognize how authors’ approaches to that subject matter are shaped by the discourse community for whom they are writing.
  3. how to execute the insights from the analysis described above in their own writing.

This process of analysis becomes the tool students use to figure out how to write other tasks they’ve never seen before.

If you are interested in concrete examples of how to put this approach into action, come to the half-day workshop—W.15—at the NCTE Annual Convention that will be hosted by our Horizon Writing Project team.

Work Cited

Applebee, Arthur N., and Judith A. Langer. “A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle Schools and High Schools.” English Journal, vol. 100, no. 6, July 2011, pp. 14-27.

David Slomp is the Board of Governors’ Teaching Chair at the University of Lethbridge, where he works as an associate professor in the Faculty of Education.

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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."

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