The Five Paragraph Essay: Love It or Hate It

There’s been a bit of a debate lately online on the five paragraph essay. It started with this post: Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay: Long Live Authentic Writing by Brian Sztabnik. Mr. Sztabnik made some good points that I have talked about on this blog before: the 5-Paragraph essay doesn’t really exist outside of the classroom and teaching such a inflexible structure and format to our students does not teach them how to write well. However, Mr. Sztabnik did seem to imply that teaching any kind of structure would be detrimental to our students, which I thought was taking the argument a bit too far.

Robert Sheppard then wrote In Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay on the TESOL Blog, arguing many good points, but not quite convincing everyone. I wrote a response on my facebook page, which I reproduce below:

This is an interesting post in defense of the five paragraph essay. But it demonstrates the exact reason I dislike the five paragraph essay: the assumption that this structure is the basis of any writing at all outside of the classroom.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching the 5-paragraph essay. It’s a great testing or evaluative tool as Sheppard points out. It also might make for a nice brainstorm or pre-writing before creating a finished text.

I also agree with Sheppard that structure or format is not confining. Writing does need to be structured and organized. Authentic writing is always structured and organized. The problem is that the five paragraph essay is structure invented for a writing test. It’s a very teacher-centered structure that makes it easy to grade a particular set of writing skills. However it is not the structure from which other genres and structures vary. A novel is not a variation of a five paragraph essay and neither is an annotated bibliography or a literature review or a diary entry. It is a great teaching and evaluation tool as Sheppard points out and no doubt uses to the benefit of his students.

It’s really not a useful structure for a book review, lab report, business case study, personal letter, reflection paper, business memo, grant proposal, application essay, or any text I can think of except perhaps a speech or sermon, since oral genres tend to require strict organization and repetition to help listeners comprehend the point.

When I discovered the genre approach to writing, promoted in the US by Nigel Caplan and John Swales and Ken Hyland, I saw how to teach students clear organized and beautiful writing by teaching them all the wonderful ways writing is put to use in authentic texts.

And recently when Mr. Sheppard’s post was shared on TESOL’s Second Language Writing IS mailing list, I discovered Nigel Caplan and Luciana C. de Oliveira’s answer to Mr. Shepperd’s post: Why We Still Won’t Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay.

I thought this paragraph:

Contrary to common myths (as Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock demonstrate), the five-paragraph essay does not work as a crutch that students will later discard, it does not teach skills that transfer to “real” academic genres, and it does not even guarantee success on standardized writing tests.

Was particularly interesting. I hadn’t seen any research to that effect but I find unconvincing in many situations the idea that we teach students a very complicated “crutch” or “scaffold” and then expect them to throw it away. I’ll have to add that Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock workbook to my teaching library.

What do you think of the 5-Paragraph Essay?

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