High school English teachers often scorn the five-paragraph essay. Educators complain it kills creativity, decreases intrinsic motivation, and forces students towards prescriptive writing. Using the five-paragraph essay, students are obligated to support three main points in body paragraphs, whether worthy ideas or not. While the above are valid arguments, the five-paragraph essay remains useful. It is a tool for students struggling with writing organization and structure and a recipe for student success in increasingly diverse classrooms.
The formula essay has been used since the early 1900s (Haluska, 2012) in part because it benefits struggling writers by providing a framework. Students often overlap structure and organization, and the five-paragraph formula helps delineate the differences. Essay structure refers to the overall presentation of the essay. With a formulaic structure, students use five-paragraphs to help clarify how information will be presented. The information within the five paragraphs must be equally organized and the five-paragraph structure creates a thesis statement in the introduction and topic sentences in each body paragraph that support and clearly relate back to the thesis. With a focus on structure and organization, the five-paragraph essay helps the writer take an often overwhelming big idea – the essay – and manage the components.
In Jan Haluska’s (2012) article on the “Formula Essay Reconsidered,” he uses the analogy of aviation training to explain the benefits of a formula essay. Everyone from writers to pilots need training and practice. Students start as novice writers. They benefit from having big ideas broken down into manageable chunks and need to practice the different elements before combining. By chunking an essay into components – introduction with thesis statement, three body paragraphs with support for each idea and conclusion – writers feel less intimidated by the process. Once understood and competently used, students can free themselves of its confines.
Teachers act as writing coaches. A coach would never put a player on the court who has little or no experience and expect them to do well. Doug Hesse (2017) in “We Know What Works in Teaching Composition” states “Professors carefully sequence writing tasks. The idea is progressively to expand on students’ existing abilities and experiences.” At the high school level, the five-paragraph essay can be an important part of instructional scaffolding as teachers begin the writing process with a variety of resources, guides, and models. As students expand their writing prowess, they can break away from the limitations of the formula.
Students ask the same questions when they receive a writing assignment. They want to know the word count and if there has to be a certain number of paragraphs. My response continues to be the same. I tell them to use as many words and paragraphs as needed to answer the essential question. There will be equally as many students who do not use the five-paragraph essay as those who do, but when conferencing with the students who use the five-paragraph formula, they agree it helps organize and structure ideas.
The five-paragraph essay can help build the bridge to more complex writing, not limit it. While often be seen as prescriptive when tied to standardized testing (Schwartz, 2014), the formula essay should not be confused with the confines of testing. Students are instructed to use five-paragraphs to put forth their arguments clearly and effectively in order to earn a passing test score. Little thought is given to the development of critical thinking, personal expression, or creative writing. While teaching to the test is problematic and the five-paragraph essay structure has successfully been adapted to help students do well when tested. This does not devalue its merit as a writing strategy for students.
LaSalle’s (2014) article on “Intrinsic Motivation and the Five-Paragraph Essay” published in Urban Education showcase some of the benefits of the five-paragraph essay as one part of a larger writing program. It is an important beginning step for students who struggle with writing form and function. The five-paragraph essay works as a model. Students can easily visually deconstruct the five-paragraph model to better understand why a writer makes certain choses for coherency and completeness.
The five paragraph essay also establishes clear student expectations. An introduction with thesis, body paragraphs with topic sentence and a conclusion must work in collaboration to create the well written essay in its entirety. For students who are not natural writers, for whom the thesis statement and topic sentence do not write themselves, and for whom supporting points do not magically flow from the text, the five-paragraph essay can be the answer.
While Schwartz (2014) suggests that prescriptive essays are limiting, students’ ideas are in no way limited. Students should develop relevant arguments in their writing, whether personal, academic, or both (Schwartz, 2014), and develop the three most meaningful. If there are more, remember rules are meant to be broken. Once students have found success with the formula structure, they can move past it to attempt other modalities, employ additional rhetoric devices, and create more complex essays.
Classrooms are ever changing and becoming more diverse. The five-paragraph essay format works as a starting point for the class. It sets expectations that all students can meet, but allows more advanced students to showcase their creativity though advanced writing elements such as a sophisticated thesis, word choice, and sentence complexity, and then to even break from the structure. As Michael Ruegg (2015) puts it: “But, as much as it might make an English teacher cringe, the five-paragraph essay is our friend— a good friend, a reliable friend.”
Hesse, D. (2017). We know what works in teaching composition. The Chronicle of Higher Education. http://www.chronicle.com/article/We-Know-What-Works-in-Teaching/238792
Haluska, J. (2012) The formula essay reconsidered. Education Digest, 78(4), 25.
LaSalle, D. (2015). Intrinsic motivation and the five-paragraph essay: Lessons learned on practitioner research, the role of academic research in the classroom, and assessing changes in student motivation. Perspectives on Urban Education, 12(1), 22-36.
Ruegg, M. (2015). Five-paragraph essays are awesome. California English, 20(4), 13.
Schwartz, L.H. (2014). Challenging the tyranny of the five-paragraph essay: Teachers and students as semiotic boundary workers in classroom and digital space. Literacy, 48(3), 124-135. Doi:10.111/lit.12021