Friday, January 12, 2018

Die, Five Paragraph Essay!

It's January, and I am still confronting the junk left in the wake of the dreaded Five Paragraph Essay.

Mind you, I have danced with the Five Paragraph Essay on more than few occasions. Early in my career there were few teachers I my building teaching composition at all, and it seemed like a good place to start. And the Fiver is still an improvement for those students whose preferred format is the Uniblob-- a mass of untethered words and sentences that spreads out across the page with no regard for order or sense.

To my students, I compare the FPE to training wheels-- they may be useful when you're starting out, but leave them on too long and they become a hindrance rather than a help.

The problem with the Fiver is that it leads a student to approach writing exactly backward. Instead of asking "What do I have to say and what's the best way to say it," the student says, "Okay, I have these five paragraph-shaped blanks to fill up-- what can I fill them up with." And that backwardness infects the entire process. As I slogged through my students' last paper (about symbolism and theme in The Awakening), I can see plainly that they did not ask "Have I made my point and buttressed it with solid support and evidence." Instead they have asked, "Does that paragraph look full enough yet? It does. Okay, then on to the next one."

Structure in writing needs to flow from the function. Start talking about an idea, a part of an idea, a step in setting up the discussion of an idea, and then when you're completed that task, start a new paragraph. It's simple.

But for all my decades of teaching, I have had to keep answering versions of the question "How long does this have to be?" (which is itself a version of the question "What's the least I can get away with doing on this assignment?"). The only answer is "Long enough to get the job done."

You don't measure a nutritional value of a meal by measuring how many minutes you spent eating it.You don't turn to your romantic partner and ask, "How many minutes do I have to talk to you in order for this thing to work?" And you don't determine the quality of a piece of writing based on how many pages you filled up with words.

You cannot put structure ahead of function-- unless, of course, the only thing you feel comfortable evaluating is structure. In which case you are not teaching writing at all-- you're teaching Making Marks on Paper. And you are contributing to the students' sense that school is some sort of Kafkaesque exercise in following odd instructions that are unrelated to life on planet Earth. Oh-- and you're also preparing students to do well on the Big Standardized Test, which also does not know how to evaluate good writing. So I guess there's that.

So, die, five paragraph essay. Die painfully or quietly, with a bang or with a whimper, but just die. And let's fill the space left behind with the goal of saying something clearly, effectively, and vigorously, according to the structure that best suits what we have to say.


  1. As a writing teacher for many years, the FPE was a form that I introduced (because I had to), then quickly discarded. You are absolutely correct in your conclusion that students look to bulk, not content, to complete most writing assignments.

    What I did to encourage thoughtful engagement was to exact a word count, rather than a paragraph count. At the start of this, students would do repetitions to fill in the words to get to the 150+ words I would assign. But I found that once I trained them that word count was more important in developing ideas, I would often get essays that stretched well beyond the minimum, and actually explored topics and ideas, rather than just filling up space. Every assignment I gave, from the smallest to the largest, contained a required word count. I would often write along with students on journal type topics so they could see how DETAIL was actually developed (most kids don't understand what that word means, so actually showing them what it is, helps a lot). I, in fact, enjoyed the chance to bang out 300-400 words at the beginning of the class on the chosen topic of the day, with all my words stretched out on the overhead. Students were fascinated that their writing teacher could actually produce, and they would mention how I would explore not only ideas, but feelings, as I wrote about stuff. I never realized in college, when I took creative writing, and the only weekly assignment was 10 pages of work, how important that just writing is in becoming more adept at it.

    The FPE is one of the more ridiculous structures to survive writing instruction. That it is still a standard in many school systems shows just how little most "writing" teachers understand about the process.

  2. Thank you for this. I teach in higher education while I do not deal with the FPE I do have the dreaded "word count" to explain to my students. I take a very simple approach to writing at this level, straight out of Alice in Wonderland:

    "Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
    No one has time to read endless pointless filler.

  3. I teach high school ESL to teenagers from all over the world who've been here three years or less, usually far less. These students must pass the NYS English Regents Exam (and four others) in order to graduate.

    I like your training wheels analogy, david, becasue in our case the five paragraph essay is a useful entree for students who often are used to entirely different forms of academic structure, or none at all. For these young people, it - along with God forbid, a template for each paragraph - is an irreplaceable stepping stone to passing a gate-keeping exam (an outrage for another post - and beginning to get a handle on organizing their thoughts and information.

    As for the inevitable "How long does it have to be?" my stock response is "Long enough to say everything that needs to be said." They chuckle, and then (most of) them give me essays that range from emerging fluency and brilliance, to word and thought salad.

    Anyway, not to disagree in any fundamental way, but some students do benefit from the limited, imposed structure, presented in digestable segments and sequence.

    1. But we keep STOPPING at this "limited, imposed structure," instead of encouraging or even often ALLOWING students to evolve beyond it. My sophomore was writing chapter books in 3rd grade and just now, this year, in a Creative Writing class, is beginning to seriously write for fun again after having the joy sucked out of it from grades 3-9. Now she purposely writes SIX-paragraph essays - just because. :-) (Yeah, that apple fell right under the tree. LOL)

      Two friends who teach college-level writing classes know they'll have bad habits to un-do for most of the first semester with their students because FPE. :-(

  4. I agree with Michael that all of this depends on where your students are, academically. God knows I wish mine could write better - or think more clearly, to put it more exactly - but in lieu of that, a structured template is the first step past word salad.

  5. Decades ago, when I spent my time warming the wooden seat of the typical student desk, we were not taught the five paragraph essay. We were taught to make an outline and to write from our outline. The outline showed us the paragraph organization and the rest gave us the details to put in.

  6. I no longer require a literal five paragraphs, but - and I know this won't be popular - I refer to it and use it as a rough outline for very basic beginning history essays. Students who've been taught to fill space and throw in as much glittering nonsense as possible are told instead to tell me what you're asserting, give me an idea of how you'll back that up (often w/ three categories), then elaborate with evidence. Conclusions are pointless in this sort of writing - if you've already made your point, there's nothing more to say. If you haven't, repeating your intro won't accomplish anything.

    I agree, however, about the frustrations of "plug'n'play" writing and "what's the bare minimum we can do?" Even when I reference 5Ps, I feel... dirty. But sometimes students desperately need fences, lines in which to color while they learn how to substance. Sometimes fences set us free ;-)

  7. As a science teacher, I'm happy with a good 10 word sentence.
    I have one rule that has significantly improved the very weak writing skills I see in my 8th graders: NO pronouns!

    After teaching them what a pronoun is, by example, I no longer get responses like, "It affected them."

    I also teach my students to avoid what I call "science pronouns": changed, affected, a lot, a little, different

  8. We have state writing rubrics in TN. I go over these frequently, and just tell my middle kids to write after they have come up with a plan that includes a thesis statement. I have found essays are better when they don't follow 5 paragraph formula.