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Five-Paragraph Essay: What IS the big deal?

What do all middle and high schools have in common?
The five-paragraph essay.  Whether
one hates it or loves it, this type of essay has managed to stay within the
educational realm as a means of assessing, arguing or persuading for years on
end.  After reading the articles for this
week’s assignment I was left questioning whether the structure of the essay and
the way it is taught, is actually beneficial or hindering student progress in
school.

My students were recently given an argumentative
essay to re-write.  They had to argue in
five paragraphs if Abraham Lincoln was or was not a moral leader during his
presidency.  In grading the first wave of
the essays, the same common problems appeared again and again.  Either the student did not quote or quote
correctly or their argument was not organized into a set “formula” or their
writing conventions were just off the wall. The area in the essay where students lack the most
efficiency and focus is where they have to pull their thoughts and ideas
together.  As educators, what solutions
are being communicated to students in order to fix the common problems?

Kerry Smith from Fairleigh Dickinson
University in her article “In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay” supports the
teaching of the formulaic essay as “…building block everyone should have.”
(p.17)  We are reminded by this in
Stanley Fish’s article “Opinionator” when he says, “…a writing course that
teaches writing…should be the real core of any curriculum.” (p.4)  So, is teaching a formula, in order to
organize a thesis, facts and quotes, the correct way to teach students about
having a voice and opinions in their writing?

Tracy A. Novick in “Praise for the
Five Paragraph Essay” advocates the formulaic essay but only if it is taught
with creativity.  Novick argues that, “… [teachers]
appear only able to imagine the five paragraph essay being taught in a droning
manner.  They imagine that no imagination
or creativity is possible within such strict guidelines.” (p.12)  In the present day with strict departmental standards
and teacher’s jobs on the line, it is felt that desperate times calls for
desperate measures.  Teachers are seeking
the easy way out and “training” students how to write a well-organized essay in
time for standardized tests.  Wiley and
Rico in their articles both argue the negative effects of formulaic
writing.   “…desperate situations are ripe for teaching writing
as a formula –easy to teach, easy for students to grasp and apply, easy to
produce prompt results in raising test scores.” (p.61)  In essence, their similar argument against formulaic
writing is that it is hindering critical thought and organic writing in
students.  Students are becoming
dependent on a formulaic structure for their writing and not taking risks in
their writing by expressing what they really want to say.  Therefore, these structured essays become tedious
and not motivational for students.

It is agreed with many of the authors in this week’s
articles that formulaic writing is impeding student’s critical thinking progress
and rhetorical writing.  Booth would
agree with Wesley in her essay “The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme”
when she states that this type of essay should be a rhetorical process (p.58).  She argues that the rigid structure of the essay
does not allow student’s thoughts to transition smoothly.  A good question to ask ourselves as educators
and future educators is, “How do I create writing assignments that encourage
risk-taking and mental growth without letting good organizational strategies go
by the wayside?” (p.59)  This is
definitely something to think about and discuss in our class on Monday.

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35 Responses

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  1. Rachel Duso says

    ahh, the five paragraph essay. using the formula for an essay of this sort may not be the best way to teach students how to write an essay but it seems to be effective. You start with an introduction, three body paragraphs and then the closing paragraph. The problem with this formula is that it doesn’t end there. The introduction has a formula of it’s own as well as the closing paragraph; make sure you don’t restate your thesis but “close” it up. The body paragraphs are a little less formulaic in the sense that they don’t require step by step instruction but there should be certain information in the body. Using this “boring” formula becomes so routine and dreadful to students and this is where the lack of creativity comes from.

  2. Guadalupe Bueno says

    These weeks readings focusing on the five-paragraph essay are sure to bring various viewpoints. After reading the essay by Kimberly Smith, I also could not help but think that Stanley Fish would agree with her. However, I prefer to distance myself from such ideas, because although having a set structure this format, like a cookie-cutter, does not prepare students to find and make shape of ideas, but instead crams ideas into a universal pattern. If a teacher is well intentioned he or she would not deny their students the chance to make order, building a structure for the ideas planned. I think that besides only producing a dull writing product with an enormous lack of creativity, the five paragraph essay does not prepare students for college essays.

  3. Christopher Grimm says

    When I first saw this week’s reading assignment on the syllabus, I immediately thought, “of COURSE the five paragraph essay form is passé.” My first impulse was to immediately take the side of those who are against the five paragraph essay, like Wiley, Wesley and Rico. After reading all of this week’s readings, and weighing the evidence, however, I find myself agreeing with Kerry Smith and Tracy Novick; the five paragraph essay is a necessary tool (I’m not going to say necessary evil–yet). Smith writes, “it [the five paragraph essay is] a building block to other, more sophisticated forms”(17). I agree with her on this basic point.

  4. Christopher Grimm says

    Expanding on my colleague Guadalupe’s point: “the five paragraph essay does not prepare students for college essays,” I would have to agree with you on your statement, however, it does provide students with basic framework. Mark Wiley’s “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing(and Why We Need to Resist)” talks about Jane C. Schaffer’s method of teaching writing structure. This is exactly the type of rhetorical foundation which Stanley Fish referred to in his essay from earlier in our term. Students require basic tools to organize their ideas. I agree with our essayists this week who complain about their students who cannot organize ideas; as an SAT teacher, I see both students who cannot organize ideas and those young writers who adhere to form so strictly that their essays are boring and monotone. So, what’s the alternative; Unorganized, sloppy prose is worse to read. I am sure that many of my colleagues established in the field would agree with me.

    We teach students the five paragraph form in my one-on-one SAT class. It is a guaranteed “3” on an essay, out of a possible “6” points. A student’s vocabulary, examples to back up his/her thesis, strength of said thesis and adherence to standard English conventions all augment the essay. A student doesn’t have to follow the standard FPT form, but it’s an established building block; it works!

    Does this five paragraph theme work for all writers? Certainly not. Does reading these formulaic essays get boring. Yeah, it does. Basic rhetorical principles are necessary tools in college, graduate school and professional school. We want students to score highly on standardized tests, so teachers teach this form. Perhaps if we want students to understand short stories or poetry, we should teach students to write their own examples to assist their clarity!

  5. Victoria Fontana says

    Formulaic writing is quick and painless, like Gabrielle Lusser Rico’s description of a “band-aid” but can only foster rudimentary knowledge of a subject. Rote memorization of a few facts about a topic or two can do the job. Supporting this limited use of knowledge omits a crucial creative process that allows a student to intellectually mature. Although I understand how important it is to structure thoughts on paper, this structure shouldn’t be a means to an end. This structures process can be successful if used as a stepping stone that guides a student to “move through untidy stages”, one that is a “natural progression” that does not “short-circuit the process” (Lusser Rico 57).

    • Safaarah Williamson says

      When teaching writing, a major responsibility of the educator should be to encourage students to think critically and produce creative and expressive pieces of writing. We must give our students ample opportunities to produce substantial writing pieces that are not reduced to mere structures plagued by rigidity and monotonous writing cues. I do not believe that it is simply the formulaic structure that produces the tedious qualities that characterize the five paragraph essay; structure does not have to warrant a diminishing of creative thinking or fluidity in writing. Structure can actually create a certain beauty in writing and provide students with a basic template that can serve as the foundations for the writing process. I agree with Victoria when she states, this basic template can be successful if used as a “stepping stone,” especially for writers that struggle with various writing deficiencies. As Wiley and Rico have noted, the desperate situations that have been created by a test- driven educational system cause teachers to use the five paragraph formula as an “easy” to teach, apply, and raise score method (61). However, it does not have to be this way; teachers can still teach with creativity. As Novick suggests, educators have to release the negative connotations that a formula implies, go beyond the limitations of the guidelines. Educators could spend less time “training” students, if more time was being spent trying to inspire them to learn and building an environment where they are comfortable taking risks.

  6. Dana Choit says

    Johanna, you wrote about your students essay assignment on Abraham Lincoln that had be a five paragraph essay- was this a school wide assignment? The thing that really gets me about the five paragraph essay (and I wrote about this in my post) is the fact that it is so dictated to be five paragraphs. I get having the guide of “at least ” 3 examples or points/arguments , as it is a good number to have, but is there something wrong with instead going with six paragraphs?

    Recently, I proctored a practice ELA exam (JHS) and in one of the classes on the essay section a student asked me the questions: how many paragraphs should it be? and how many sentences should be in each paragraph? I then announced to the classroom, who only had two pages of lines to write in anyway that you just need to make sure to fully answer the question based on the directions, and not to worry about the actual number of paragraphs you are writing. (In the test booklet they list points that need to be addressed in the essay)

  7. MichelleC says

    I agree with what Chris said above-the FPT does help students with a basic framework. I also agree with what Mark Wiley states in that Schaffer’s approach to the FPT should be used “primarily in grades nine and ten just to provide students a basic structure for writing expository essays, and that by grade eleven students should move beyond the constraints the method imposes.”

    When I was student teaching, I was placed with ninth graders and so many of them had no idea what they were doing when it came to writing essays. Their ideas were all over the place and many of them did not even understand what a thesis statement was. I had to go back to the basics and teach them the fundamentals of a five paragraph essay and while it was a bit boring, it simply had to be done. Of course that meant that the kids kept close to this formula for the rest of the year, but I just told myself that at least they understood how to create a thesis statement now and back it up with examples. It will be up to their 10th or 11th grade teacher to show them other forms of writing. Isn’t that what moving from grade to grade is anyway? We build on the previous year’s learning? As Wiley states, “for those students who have no idea of what an essay looks like and how to go about putting one together, Schaffer’s curriculum appears to be a godsend.”

    Along with Tracy Novick, I think that for these students who lack focus or who have a difficult time figuring out ideas or structure, the FPT can simply be a tool to help them overcome the obstacle.

  8. trevor11 says

    I think Novick hit it on the head in the quote you provided. Teaching anything as a formula is usually in order to produce an assessment related result. If I want you to learn how to swing a baseball bat I show you how you should stand, then where your arms should be, then how you hold the bat, then how to pivot, etc, etc. All those pieces of the formula are added together in order to see if I can hit the ball. Writing is not quites a linear as baseball in that regard or how school sometimes can make it out to be. Yes there should be some structure but we are teaching our students how to “put together” these 5 paragraph essays that can do x, y, and z in order to yield results for some sort of state assessment. When we rigorously reinforce the idea of certains types of structure it takes away from the ability for the student to take risks at times. I feel like we lock our students into place sometimes, whether its on purpose or by accident, either way teach our students formulaic writing thats “easy to learn, easy to adapt” hinders their ability to be creative freely and by that I mean without us (educators/sponsors) saying “be creative” or “this is a creative writing activity.” I guess it just makes me wonder how do you tell a kid to be creative without saying it out loud.

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