There are many commonplaces in teaching and pedagogy. One of these commonplaces is accessible templates or forms that students can use to gain control over complex and intimidating learning tasks. These consistent formats demonstrate the essential “moves” of particular learning tasks, which the students can apply to their own work. Ideally, they will then let go of those formal constraints, having learned to perform these moves on their own. However, sometimes these forms have negative unintended consequences, and their weaknesses outweigh their benefits. One such example is the five paragraph essay. I believe that the five paragraph essay should be abandoned as a teaching tool.
One major reason to abandon the five paragraph essay is that it leads to formulaic writing. This is unsurprising, given that the five paragraph essay is a formula. When we talk about the five paragraph essay, we are not just talking about five paragraphs. We are usually talking about an introduction that begins with a broad theme and ends with an explicit thesis statement, three body paragraphs that use topic sentences to articulate specific arguments in favor of that thesis followed by evidence, and a conclusion that restates the thesis and broadens outward. This set format does indeed provide students with a consistent, reliable system that they can use again and again. But that merely results in consistently, reliably stale, uninspired essays. This is bad enough from the perspective of the teachers who must read and grade these essays, but it is truly destructive for the students themselves. By so associating the act of writing with rules and restrictions, teachers risk dulling the inventiveness and fun that can inspire students to become lifelong writers.
Another reason to oppose the five paragraph essay is that these tasks bear little resemblance to the writing tasks most students will have to undertake at work and in college. Whether in classes or at the workplace, in their later lives our students are much more likely to undertake researched writing, such as in a white paper or researched argument, or formal correspondence such as business letters and emails. In their private lives, students will likely be writing genres like reviews, personal narratives, and fiction, none of which are likely to be deeply enriched by practicing the five paragraph essay. What’s more, composition increasingly includes important aspects of working with different mediums and modes, such as incorporating visual design elements or interactive features for online text. This divide between the skills learned in composing five paragraph essays and the writing tasks our students undertake regularly again serves to disconnect writing pedagogy from their real-world writing needs. This is not to say that persuasive writing is unimportant to students, or that they are uninterested in it. Rather, the persuasive writing students undertake will have far more in common with the blog posts and essays that they read compulsively online than it does with the five paragraph essay.
In addition to these first two reasons to oppose the five paragraph essay, another strong argument against its use is that students may never take the necessary steps beyond it. Very few would ever argue that the five paragraph essay is the only form students need or should learn. Instead, they argue that the five paragraph essay gives students the opportunity to practice important aspects of writing with a form that works, which they can then abandon as they become more mature and confident. But years of experience teaches me that many students never undergo that evolution. Instead, they cling to the five paragraph essay, having been told by overworked middle school and high school teachers that the five paragraph form is the correct way to write an argument. Students frequently have difficulty understanding the difference between more formal “rules” such as in basic syntax — every sentence must have a subject– and guidelines that can be helpful or harmful depending on context — make your thesis statement the last sentence of your first paragraph. Given the rise of standardized tests, it is hard to blame K-12 educators for sticking to the reliable five paragraph essay. We also cannot blame students for sticking with a form they have often practiced again and again. But we can, as a community of educators and policy makers, deliberately move away from the five paragraph essay as a teaching tool.
In conclusion, the five paragraph essay harms more than it helps and should be abandoned in our writing pedagogy. In its place, we should concentrate on tasks rather than forms, and on global writing skills such as mechanics, rhetoric, and style rather than on satisfying conventions that go in and out of style. This will enable students to see writing as inventive, freeing, and fun, such as in this Peter Suderman essay, for example. Teaching meta-skills and broader mental habits of mind, rather than formal conventions and restrictive rules, will serve our students not only in the writing classroom, but beyond.