DAVIS: Most American students, regardless of where they went to high school, will remember a few shared experiences: gross cafeteria food, Friday night football, and the five paragraph essay.
In case you’re not familiar with American high school, or maybe you somehow escaped the pervasive reach of the five paragraph essay, I’ll catch you up.
The five paragraph essay is a formula, often introduced in early high school, which seeks to help students learn persuasive and argumentative writing. The first paragraph sets up your topic and explains your three-point, single-sentence thesis, the second, third, and fourth paragraphs make arguments about each of those points, respectively, and the fifth paragraph summarizes the same three arguments you made before.
WALTERS: “This was kind of an outgrowth of standardized testing because it’s very easy to grade, it’s very easy to teach, and it’s very easy to learn.”
DAVIS: That’s Dr. Lynne Masel Walters an Associate Professor of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at Texas A&M University. The five paragraph essay first started as a method to teach students to write on a theme, but very quickly became the primary way we try to teach students to write. It’s a pretty good formula—you plug in a few related points into this structure, and out comes an essay which is at least somewhat coherent.
WALTERS: “That’s one of the problems—it’s the easy way out.”
DAVIS: The thing is, the 5 paragraph essay doesn’t end up helping students learn to write. Instead, it just teaches them how to write a five paragraph essay. And while that may be useful in some cases, it just isn’t what anyone is looking for in the majority of writing situations—not in college writing, not in professional writing, and not on standardized tests. Knowing a formula may help achieve a certain structure, but the five paragraph essay fails in teaching students how to best adapt that structure to any given situation.
Dr. Kimberly Campbell at the Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education has seen the five paragraph essay fall flat right in front of her, back when she taught in high schools.
CAMPBELL: “I was writing with a high school writer, a junior, who had mastered the five paragraph formula, came in from another school where that had been the way that you write.”
DAVIS: No matter how many times she tried, this student wasn’t getting the grade she wanted on the SAT’s writing section. The 5 paragraph essay just wasn’t the tool for the job in front of her.
CAMPBELL: “I was saying things like, what if we tried writing three paragraphs, what if we tried—just give me what your arguments are without your thesis statement first.”
“…and her level of angst about trying to let go of that formula was palpable, it was painful. She even said, “please, this is what I know how to do, don’t take this away from me.”
“And just really seeing how for her, that inability to move away from that formula and think about writing in any other way was really difficult.”
“It doesn’t become a springboard it becomes almost chain-like in its control over them as writers.”
DAVIS: Dr. Campbell jumped into the research surrounding the five paragraph essay, and in 2012 she co-authored a book called Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay with Kristi Latimer. She says that, for the five paragraph essay, the evidence for its usefulness just doesn’t add up.
CAMPBELL: “First and foremost there’s no research support for it and there’s a tremendous amount of research support that calls it into question. Problem number two is that doesn’t exist anywhere other than school. It’s a formula designed by and for school. You won’t find (and trust me I’ve looked) five paragraph essays that follow that formula out in the world of real writing and so that concerns me as well.”
DAVIS: When the 5 paragraph essay was first becoming popular, there was an idea that students would get used to argumentative writing through the 5 paragraph essay, and then modify the structure as they grew as writers. The thing is…
CAMPBELL: “It doesn’t really serve as training wheels like we might think it does, it just becomes “this is how you do it,” and if they don’t have that structure in front of them, they don’t know where to go next.”
DAVIS: That’s why it was so hard for Dr. Campbell’s student to do something different on the SAT. Instead of teaching students how to adapt to different writing situations, the five paragraph essay asks students to approach everything with the same formula, and that just doesn’t always work.
CAMPBELL: “So it doesn’t do what we want it to do and it turns out it actually really hinders the developmental process of writing.”
DAVIS: The five paragraph essay might be good for answering a particular type of question in a particular field, but it’s often used as a template for all of the writing that we do. [breath] Here’s Dr. Walters again.
WALTERS: “If you’re teaching writing you have to teach people how to write in lots of different formats… because writing is not the five paragraph essay.”
DAVIS: You wouldn’t try to unlock your front door with the key to your car, so why would you try to answer different writing prompts with the same formula. Here’s the answer: you wouldn’t. So, what’s the solution?
WALTERS: “I think writing across the curriculum, I mean, every discipline writes. So I believe that every class in every discipline should include some type of writing, even math!”
DAVIS: Every discipline has its own set of concerns and methods of addressing those concerns. Instead of the one-formula-fits-all approach of the five paragraph essay, what if students were given a bunch of different approaches to use for the bunch of different writing situations they’ll face?
Dr. Campbell advocates for lots of low-stakes writing assignments, giving students the opportunity to be creative in their approach. She also recommends creating a community of writing in the classroom, letting students compare and work with each other in developing their ideas and their reasons for writing what they’re are writing. That community, she says, helps students realize how inherently unorganized the process can be, and gives them the confidence to break out of the five paragraph formula.
CAMPBELL: “I know when I would bring in my own rough drafts and share them with my students they were at first stunned and maybe even appalled that they were as messy as they were. As one of my student said, “aren’t you supposed to know how to do this better than this?” And I said no! This is what writing is! It’s messy.”
DAVIS: The five paragraph essay tries to remove messiness from the writing process and make it more streamlined and easier to do. Unfortunately, most good writing doesn’t come so easily. In order to move beyond the formulaic and sterile writing that the five paragraph essay gives us, we have to be okay with a little bit of uncertainty. Writing is assembling and synthesizing ideas, it’s a method of thinking that doesn’t really lend itself to one formula or a set order of operations. For me, those facts make writing a super fun process.
CAMPBELL: “So it’s finding ways for kids to connect things that they’re wrestling with in their own life. Helping kids see that writing is something that we use to navigate in the world, to have a voice in the world. So, to the degree that we can do that that’s how I try to invite kids into writing.”
DAVIS: When we remove the idea that our writing is meant only for our instructor and that we only write in schools, we can make writing a part of how we interact with the world, and a part of how we approach the problems that lie in front of us. Just like other methods of problems solving, thinking through a problem with the written word can offer new, exciting, and fresh perspectives. The five paragraph essay stamps that out, it takes away so much of the power that writing has.
So, for thought’s sake, let’s do something different. This episode has me wondering—how do other people understand the writing process? I’d love to hear from everyone: undergrad and grad students, teachers, writing professionals, even high schoolers. How did you survive and move beyond the five paragraph essay? Are you still figuring that out? Let me know! Call the Write Right hotline at 218 382 6892.
This has been an episode of Write Right, a production of the Texas A&M University Writing Center, a service of the Department of Undergraduate Studies. My name is Davis Land and I wrote and produced this episode. I had editorial help from Nancy Vazquez, Flo Davies, and Nick Cenegy. If you’re a Texas A&M Student we offer online and in person consultations about your papers, presentations, and anything else that involves communicating clearly. You can find us online at writingcenter.tamu.edu and on Twitter @tamuwc. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, and let me just say since it’s my favorite thing right now, check out our YouTube channel—M. C. Grammar Punch just dropped a new video.