People have strong feelings about the five-paragraph essay. For the past several decades, educators have debated the benefits and consequences of teaching the five-paragraph essay. Apparently, it’s not just educators who have opinions about the five-paragraph essay. I recently came across these comments on another website:
In High School, I was “taught” to write five-paragraph essays (and when I say “taught,” I mean “forced.”) The five-paragraph essay was the only form allowed in Sophomore English class.
…my daughter hated it. She would have crying fits each and every time.
I understand when people get emotional over controversial topics—global warming, budget cuts, tax increases—but I was not aware that the five-paragraph essay fell into this category. What exactly is going on here? Let’s find out!
A Personal Five-Paragraph Essay Story
When taking the CBEST test to become a teacher, an experienced middle school science teacher told me, “Just write a five-paragraph essay. Don’t write about anything you care about. Just write an introduction, three paragraphs, and a conclusion—that’s it. Nothing more! You’ll be guaranteed to receive a passing grade.”
I thought that was strange advice, as I had never worried about getting a passing grade on a writing assignment. Looking back, I can only assume that this science teacher had worried.
Did I take the science teacher’s advice? No. But half way into the essay section of the test, those words of advice echoed in my mind, while I sat in frustration. I was lost. I hadn’t planned properly, and I was in over my head. I began to wonder, “What’s my point? Where am I headed? How am I going to finish this? What am I trying to say?”
Well, I got out of that jam, and I’m happy to say I received a high score. That being said, the science teacher’s five-paragraph essay advice stuck in my mind long after the CBEST test was over, and even influenced how I taught writing once I became a teacher. I realized that I had always been a naturally proficient writer, but I didn’t fully understand what I did. Is that what I wanted for my future students?
What I learned from that experience was that students, and all writers, need specific writing skills to fall back on, and by writing skills, I don’t mean just grammar. Real power and real confidence in writing comes from knowing what one is doing and knowing how one is doing it—and not just by being able to do it.
What is a Five Paragraph Essay?
Looking for the most generic definition of a five-paragraph essay I could find, I went to Wikipedia. Wikipedia describes the five-paragraph essay as this:
The five-paragraph essay is a form of written argument. It is a common requisite in assignments in middle school, high school, and university and sometimes elementary school. The format requires an essay to have five paragraphs: one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs with support and development, and one concluding paragraph. Because of this structure, it is also known as a hamburger essay or a three tier essay… The five-paragraph essay format is also applied to speech making, with some college classes teaching the five-paragraph format, along with an organized system of outlining and pre-writing the speech.
Should You Be For or Against the Five Paragraph Essay?
After reading that definition above, do you think people should be upset over the five-paragraph essay? But before you answer that question, please ask yourself these four questions:
1. Are you against paragraph form?
2. Are you against beginnings, middles and endings?
3. Are you against introductions, bodies, and conclusions?
4. Are you in favor of rambling and pointless essays?
Put simply, the five-paragraph essay should not be viewed as an end—because in reality—it is a means to an end. Teaching the five-paragraph essay teaches young students a variety of important skills. And I say young students, because if student master these skills when they are young, they won’t be an issue when they are old. Here are a few facts:
1. Students must write in paragraph form.
2. Students must have a beginning, middle and ending.
3. A beginning, middle and ending is essentially the same thing as an introduction, body, and conclusion.
4. Students must understand that they cannot ramble. Students must be headed in a purposeful direction in their writing—and they must get there.
The five-paragraph essay is the easiest, fastest, and best way to teach all this. It teaches good thinking.
A Foundational Essay for Beginning Writers
The five-paragraph essay is a foundational essay. It’s an essay to be built upon. But a variety of questions remain:
1. When should the five-paragraph essay be taught?
2. How long or how often should students write in five-paragraph essay format?
3. In what way should the five-paragraph essay be taught?
The five-paragraph essay is an essay for beginners. All students past a certain age should be able to write a five-paragraph essay quickly and easily. What is that certain age? Personally, I think the five-paragraph essay should be mastered in elementary school, but only because it CAN be mastered in elementary school. It definitely should not be an issue in high school for any student. Even struggling writers should be able to master the five-paragraph essay before leaving middle school.
I’ve mostly taught beginning writers and struggling writers, and I don’t teach a strict five-paragraph formula. However, I do work with five-paragraphs quite often because five paragraphs just happen to be the very best length to work with. Five paragraphs is the length that best helps students to develop the rhythm of beginning, middle, and ending in paragraphs, along with having a beginning, middle, and ending in the whole composition (two levels of beginning, middle, and ending).
I use the A, B, C Sentence ™ and the Secret A, B, C Sentence ™ to achieve this. It’s the fastest, most effective way to achieve this! It is also the most flexible and natural way to achieve this. Be sure to check out the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay writing curriculum on the homepage. Personally, I don’t think teaching writing should ever be static or dogmatic. For me, teaching the five-paragraph essay is mostly about teaching fantastic paragraph form and logical construction.
Please note, other paragraph lengths are also of value. For instance, four paragraphs is the best length for teaching beginning writers and struggling writers the two-sided thought patterns: cause-effect, compare-contrast, pro-con etc. Always remember, five is just number, and so is four. Different numbers serve different purposes.
A Foundational Essay for Older Writers
Even though the five-paragraph essay is an essay for beginners, it is fine if there is still a strong emphasis put on it in high school and in college. But in high school and in college, it should be the equivalent of knowing one’s multiplication tables. The five-paragraph should be used as a tool that helps students access a variety of different types of essays and a variety of the different organizational patterns found in writing. Put simply, the five-paragraph essay is a tool. It is not an end in itself.
The greatest benefit that comes from being able to write the five-paragraph essay is the awareness of five-paragraph essay thinking. Five-paragraph essay thinking provides value for a lifetime. The same thinking that creates five-paragraph essays can be used to write four paragraphs, seven paragraphs, or fifteen paragraphs.
A word of warning: If teachers will only accept five paragraphs, nothing more or less, always and forever, their students will eventually feel as the people at the top of this page felt. I do not recommend this. The five-paragraph essay is a teaching tool, not an end result.
Revisiting the Science Teacher Who Writes Five-Paragraph Essays
I recently spoke with the science teacher who advised me to write the five-paragraph essay on the CBEST test so many years before. I asked him if he was still such a rabid fan of the five-paragraph essay. He was. He told me he uses it all the time to make the points he wants to make. With social media, everyone is an author. The science teacher posts comments on important issues, and also participates in several forums for several of his hobbies. He enjoys helping others and debating.
He explained that he is not particularly interested in writing, but that he has opinions and enjoys making points. The five-paragraph essay lets him do that quickly and effortlessly. The science teacher says that the five-paragraph essay was not drilled into him, and that he only really discovered its benefits in college. It’s then that he became a fan.
The science teacher showed me a number of his posts, and they would not have jumped out at me as being five-paragraph essays. In fact, he wrote posts that were four, six, and eight paragraphs also. Apparently, the teacher likes five-paragraph thinking as much as he likes the five-paragraph essay. In short, he just likes to make points and provide proof that his points are valid. He considers the five-paragraph essay to be the backbone of his writing. He says that people take his comments and opinions seriously, and that he is even a trusted authority in some places he posts. It seems that his readers focus on the points he makes and not the fact that he is using five-paragraph thinking.
A Final Note
The first step in making a person love to write is to make the person a competent writer. That opens the door and the mind to more possibilities. As teachers our job is not just to teach the students who love to write, but also to teach the students who are afraid to write or who don’t like to write.
The five-paragraph essay is a teaching tool. Most criticism of the five-paragraph essay comes down to its overuse, along with a dogmatic approach to using it in the classroom. Personally, I agree with much of that criticism. The five-paragraph essay is a means to an end, not an end in itself.