top of page

my thoughts

What Have We Decided About the 5 Paragraph Essay?

For the past couple of months I’ve been following a series of blog postings regarding the use of the 5-paragraph essay (5-PE) in the writing classroom. If this were a court case, the 5-PE has definitely been the one on trial and both the prosecution and defense have made quite convincing cases. On one side some teachers feel that the 5-PE no longer has a place in our evolving classrooms. Teachers on the other side feel that the 5-PE is not overstaying its welcome, but rather that it has withstood the test of time.

Both sides raised valid points and at each given moment I felt myself swayed slightly to either side. As I read the back and forth exchange I couldn’t help thinking about the articles themselves as written products, and in the tradition of writing instruction asked myself: Who is their audience? At first I saw each addition to the discussion as a direct address to the previous author in an attempt to sway them to the ‘right’ path.Yet, as I read on I thought–– what’s the point? Everyone has made up their mind. But then I realized that had wrongly identified their audience.

As egocentric as it may seem, I decided these pieces had been for me––or at least, teachers like me. Some of these writers have had more than a decade of writing instruction experience to draw on in order to defend their stance on the 5-PE, while new teachers like myself are still struggling to decide if we will be swayed either way. For me this discussion has been pedagogic gold. Both parties involved have been quite courteous, professional and well-articulated and at times even suggest that 5-PE is compatible with genre-writing methodologies. However, seeing the value that this discussion has for my own teaching practices, I can’t help feeling like the immature kid on the playground yelling “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

The longer the back and forth becomes, the more I can deeply consider my own teaching strategies and examine aspects of writing instruction that perhaps far too many instructors have taken for granted. All of the nitty gritty considerations have been laid out here on a silver platter; they have already done all the prep work for us. All that’s left to do is decide. And in this, my unsolicited response to the discussion, I intend to review some of the charges brought against the 5-PE, share with you my conclusion, but also to raise a couple of my own questions.

As of late, 5-PE has been most popularly criticized for being contrived, decontextualized, overly-formulaic, and lacking in creative freedom. Furthermore, critics say that the singular structure is not enough to satisfy all of various different writing styles that we encounter in life, therefore students may over rely on this form, and no ‘real’ writing is done in that way. It’s supporters respond that of course not much writing is done in the format of the 5-PE and no one is suggesting that it should be. However the 5-PE has lasted as long as it has because it is a clear, immediate provision of a writing structure available for students to draw upon and perhaps extend to their other types of writing.

My response to this is that I personally have not seen firsthand any over-reliance upon the 5-PE among my students. They are not trying to force authentic writing into the 5-PE mold. They know that it’s not appropriate. In fact I’ve met students who can write satisfactory paragraphs, but the problem is that they still struggle when it comes to writing things like a simple email. They really don’t know where to start–– they’re not familiar with the email writing conventions that their English speaking recipients expect. While on the one hand I know that real-writing takes time and practice, if I put myself in these students’ shoes I have to ask if we really have time for that.

Furthermore, I have yet to encounter research that provides evidence of the transfer of skills to ‘real writing’ scenarios following 5-PE instruction. Successful student writers are not engaging in strategies learned from 5-PE instruction alone. They’re constantly taking in new genres and unconsciously using of the strategies we see in genre writing, and genre writing does not require proof of transfer to 'real writing' as it is born from 'real writing'. If I observe my own writing patterns I can see that reliance on a fall-back structure is too narrow to fit life's numerous writing demands. When I needed to write an academic book review for a recent course, I didn’t just start with brainstorming and outlines––I headed straight to the internet to find published book reviews to analyze for how I could draw upon their structure, form, and voice. Instead of relying upon an overused and lackluster framework, we should be asking students to depend on the successful representations of the desired genre.

It has been argued that if we did away with the 5-PE, providing an alternative structure for students to follow becomes a bit more complex, due to the sometimes difficult and variable nature of real writing. The alternative paradigm to the 5-PE could prove too intricate and therefore not ideal for student learning. To this, I say we should be giving our students and our teachers more credit. Humans are pattern-finding machines by nature. If we give our students enough models of a genre type with the correct scaffolding, they will recognize and reproduce these patterns. The argument that authentic writing is too complex is a cop-out. If a speaking/listening task is too complex for our level of students, we scaffold––slow down the speech rate, annunciate and simplify our vocabulary. Why would the same practice not be worthwhile for teaching writing? True, it takes the extended effort of teachers to find authentic texts and edit them down to a digestible level for our students, but it is worthwhile in my opinion to provide authentic, meaningful input for our students.

Finally, I’m concerned that the comparison between the 5-PE and genre-writing is an apples to oranges debate. Comparing the two is comparing a product to a process. The 5-PE is not a teaching methodology in itself but rather a teaching and testing tool, and I believe that this is part of the reason why it has survived so long in the classroom. As a standardized unit for assessment purposes, the 5-PE no doubt has its virtues, ease and speed of evaluation being first. Yet that fact makes me curious about our assessment practices. If we truly want to know the real-world writing capabilities of our students, is asking them to produce a 5-PE the way to do it?

Don’t get me wrong. We shouldn’t be chasing teachers who use the 5-PE out of their classrooms with torches or pitchforks. If it has lasted this long, it’s not completely useless. And of course we must consider its use as it was intended and not as a sacred, unchangeable form. However, when we consider all of the comparative benefits that other methods or models have to offer we must begin to reconsider our choices. We have to reevaluate whether this form is not just doing well but doing better in terms of helping students write what they really need––anything less would be a waste of our time. It seems that for the rest of the field, the jury might still be out in the case of 5-PE vs. Authenticity, but at least there is value in the discussion. How do you vote? Guilty or Not Guilty?

bottom of page