Three Reasons We Should Stop Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay (and what we can do instead)

Wait! Before you get ticked off, hear me out.

I had never heard of a “5-Paragraph Essay” when I was a student. We wrote essays. Sometimes stories, sometimes research, sometimes about the books we read. In college, my professors wanted me to have a strong thesis, but never did they talk to me about how many paragraphs I should have.

When I became a teacher, though, I was inundated with this new (to me) way of thinking about writing. I had no clue how to teach kids how to write. I was just good at it, I thought. Therefore, this formulaic approach to writing clicked with me. I liked the directness, the accessibility. And frankly, I liked how it made it just a little easier for me to assess writing. “It’s like training wheels,” I told myself.

Here’s the thing, though. We never took the training wheels off. Kids were going to college, or into life, without knowing how to ride the bike.

So, why do I think we should abandon this idea of the “5-Paragraph-You-Know-What” (a term coined by my favorite writing teacher, Tom Romano)?

This writing doesn’t exist in the real world

I can’t remember the last time I clicked on a blog, or read a newspaper or a smart analysis of a film, and counted the paragraphs. I read to find the idea, to see how the writer leads me through their thinking. There are no editors anywhere telling writers, “Okay, this is a good start, but you don’t have five paragraphs.”

Because I want to develop students who see themselves as writers beyond my classroom, I have to ask myself why I continue to privilege a genre that seems to only live in school (if your answer is the test, keep reading). Can high quality writing be five paragraphs long? Sure! Does it have to be? Nope.

This writing privileges form over content

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.28 PMWhen students are overly concerned with how long their writing is, they lose sight of the important stuff, like content. They fill paragraphs with half-plagiarized evidence, or sprinkle in cumbersome transition words. They’re more concerned with adornment than substance.

Conversely, for many students, focusing on the number of paragraphs shuts them down. They see it as insurmountable, so they don’t even try. And before anyone accuses me of saying kids don’t have to know how to organize their writing, let’s just stop right there. Writers organize their writing. What writers don’t do, though, is say “This has to be a body paragraph with 5-7 sentences, and evidence.” No, instead writers focus on WHAT they want to say and then they figure out HOW to say it.

This writing doesn’t grow writers

About four years into teaching, I had an epiphany. Students weren’t getting better at writing 5-paragraph essays. Many of the kids I’d taught as 9th graders still needed the support when I had them again as juniors. Often kids ended up filling in a graphic organizer I created just so they had something to write about (and by graphic organizer, I mean fill-in-the-blanks dressed up like an outline. Cringe.)

I realized that this kind of writing wasn’t helping them to become better at thinking, at teasing out a train of thought, and developing it across a piece of writing. And if the thing I kept doing wasn’t working, than maybe… I should think about doing something else.

So what do we do instead?

  • Read Like Writers: I have a total teacher crush on The New York Times Writing Curriculum. When I read through one of the winner’s of last year’s Student Editorial Contest “Nothing Comes Between Me and My Sushi...Except Plastic” I notice a few things:Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.27.53 PM When I model for my writers what it looks like to read like a writer, we start to notice thing we can do in our own writing, and more importantly, we can start to think about HOW we can do them in our own writing.

 

  • Focus on Content Before Form: When I look further into this piece of writing, I notice how the writer develops an idea. She’s doing all the things I hope for my own writers. In addition to what’s above (a thesis, a hook, incorporating research), she also anticipates the counter argument AND pushes back. She’s not dropping this counter-argument in because it’s what she has to do. She’s doing it because it makes sense. She has been building up to it.Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.24 PM

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.33 PM

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.39 PM

  • Teach test-writing… and LOTS of other kinds of writing too: If you feel you absolutely have to teach the 5-Paragraph Essay because they’ll need it on The Test, then I encourage you to spend most of the year immersed in the study of the craft of writing (start checking out The AV Club, Players Tribune. Follow #wildwriting or #beyondanalysis). Teach students about the moves writers make in writing. We still talk about transition words, thesis statements, adding reasoning, and writing effective conclusions. But now, it is within the context of the craft of writing. Then, a few weeks before the test, teach students how to transfer all those skills to the test. Remember that nowhere in our standards does it mention that students have to write five paragraphs. They have to write multi-paragraphs, sure. But that could be three, or seven, or five. Nowhere in the rubrics from the state (if you’re using Common Core or something like it) does it talk about how many paragraphs students should have. Instead, it looks at content development, ideas flowing. 

Still not convinced? That’s okay. I encourage you to read John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the 5-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.12 PMIn here, Warner, who’s a college professor, talks about how limiting this kind of writing is, and explores other ways of teaching. For ways of thinking about literary analysis, check out Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti’s book Beyond Literary Analysis. And Kim Campbell and Kristi Latimer’s book Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay is a great resource. Sign up for a class at your local National Writing Project site.

Whatever your next step is, I encourage you to help kids take the training wheels off, to ride the bike on their own. They might crash, and that’s okay. That’s when the learning is happening!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She is blogging this month as part of the Slice of Life challenge at Two Writing Teachers, and thus, is seeing every interaction as a potential writing piece. Join her!

 

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