Rethinking the Five-Paragraph Essay: The Limitations of Formulaic Writing (#TESOL17 report)

Introduction

Do you remember the scene in The Dead Poets Society where a student reads a passage on how to measure poetry on an X- and Y- axis, and then John Keating (Robin Williams) has students rip out those pages?

How can the muddled mess and maxims of poetry be codified into a formulaic scale of “greatness”? Well, if you agree with that scene, then you probably agree that the five-paragraph essay must go.

At the 2017 TESOL conference in Seattle, I attended a standing-room only session on “The Five Myths of the Five-Paragraph Essay,” given by a group of quite well-known names when it comes to writing instruction: Dana Ferris, Ann Johns, Nigel Caplan, Deborah Crusan, Luciana de Oliveira, and Christina Ortmeier-Hooper. It was an energetic session, entertaining and highly informative. I failed to take proper notes, so I can’t say exactly what all five myths are, but from what I remember, there is the myth that the five-paragraph essay is a natural genre (it’s not – it was specifically created to be a formulaic writing tool for students during the 19th century, see Nunes, 2013) and the myth of transfer (the skill doesn’t transfer over to the longer writing that students encounter in university coursework).

What I found interesting is that most of the speakers do support the five-paragraph essay at the very early stages of writing, seeing it as a sort of gateway to better writing. It helps to develop important writing skills like unity, coherence, developing a main idea and using basic support. In addition, its use is prolific because it is both easy to teach and easy to grade. However, this is one of its downfalls. Because of this, it is argued, teachers persist with the formula to the point where many students end their high school careers never having escaped its grasp.

There are other factors, too: teachers have to contend with the realities of writing for a standardized test (e.g., AP exams, SATs, TOEFL, even the FSOT). The-five paragraph essay most certainly seems like the the sine qua non of these tests. The pressure of these high stakes tests seems to almost demand a writing strategy that is easy to teach (and, again, easy to grade).

While there may be an actual need to teach the five-paragraph essay at lower levels and in a test-preparation capacity, is its continued use as a formula to base all writing on justified? That is one of the major issues the session touch on.

To atone for my poor note-taking at this session, I have read a number of articles related to the five-paragraph essay (or five-paragraph theme, FPT, which most refer to it as). While there are a variety of valid criticisms about the FPT, the most common one expressed in both the TESOL session and the literature is the way in which the FPT limits expression and critical thinking, or as Wesley (2000) puts it, the way it “stunts the growth of human minds.”

Body

The research on the FPT – based on expertise, experience, textual analysis, examples, and anecdotes – consistently shows the way in which students struggle with fitting their ideas into a prescribed frame of composition. Some panic at trying to cram complex thinking into the three body paragraphs allotted; they have too many ideas and they don’t see how to fit them into what they have been taught. Others can’t come up with enough good ideas to complete the form. In both cases, the writing form is framing their thinking, rather than their thinking framing their writing form.

Here, elaboration, exploration, and development that would take a writer into multiple paragraphs and rhetorical moves for a single idea is limited by the hamburgler of composition – the three paragraphs that the five-paragraph essay feeds on.

Writing, like poetry, is messy. Our ideas are cacophonous in our heads and writing is one way to tease them out and organize them into a somewhat coherent message. However, to wrangle our ideas and then force them into a tiny, rigid mold, to literally codify our thoughts into 3.5 format, is not the same as organizing and developing them in natural prose.

This is not my own opinion, nor is it an isolated anecdote from an uptight professor. This sentiment is echoed independently by both the session speakers and the literature. Here is just a sampling:

Teaching writing as a formula reduces a complex, messy process to a step-by-step, follow-the-recipe procedure. When we teach this reductive process, we are telling students that each writing task, each writing problem, is essentially the same. No matter what the task, if students follow the recipe, the final product will satisfy all appetites, regardless of variation in the situation. (Wiley, 2000)

What I find most objectionable is the view of writing that this shortcut engenders. The preset format lulls students into a nonthinking automaticity. (Rorschach, 2004)

…writing is about sentence placement, not about discovery and ideas. (Campbell and Latimer, 2012)

Its offer of structure stops the very thinking we need students to do. Their focus becomes fitting sentences into the correct slots rather than figuring out for themselves what they’re trying to say and the best structure for saying it. (Campbell, 2014)

As the images below show, the argument that the five-paragraph essay is just like filling out a form is easy to see. And, just like a form, you provide the information required and move on. Limited indeed. Of course, structure is not necessarily the problem. Different genres do in fact have different structures. Take for example the academic journal article. It certainly follows a formula. Like the FPT, the formula even has a name: IMRAD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion). However, to suggest that each section of this structure is limited by a certain number of paragraphs, a certain number of allowable ideas, or that you may only include the prescribed elements is asinine. Unlike the FPT, IMRAD is not rigid. You aren’t likely to find a neat plug and play graphic organizer for writing in a peer-reviewed journal.

As Rorscharch (2004) states, “I don’t wish to argue here that every five-paragraph theme will always be disconnected and undeveloped. The problem is not with the structure itself but rather with the false sense of security it provides teachers and students alike.”

There are other arguments against the FPT – it is not found outside of the classroom, it does not prepare students for university, it does not give students the highest scores on exams (Albertson, 2007), university students feel their high school experience short-changed them – but it is this deficit model of writing and thinking that it most damning.

Conclusion

Moving beyond the five-paragraph essay and breaking the rigid writing framework of students (and teachers) is not easy. Most agree that the FTP can possibly serve as an introduction to writing, but, after it is learned, students must move on in order to escape its powerful clutch. It doesn’t have to limit thinking, but its continued use certainly does.

As an alternative, Campbell (2014) suggests using close reading, better mentor texts (perhaps MICUSP?), journaling, and developing support paragraphs before ever writing an introduction or conclusion. By focusing on support paragraphs and writing enough for explanation, evidence, logic, etc., students do not see themselves as limited to a requisite and ideal number of ideas.

Wesley (2000) recommends continuing with the “essay” model but not requiring a certain number of paragraphs. For example: “The body unit of the essay should be an unspecified number of paragraphs, with each paragraph serving one of a variety of purposes: to define terms, to review the literature, to present evidence in favor of the thesis, to analyze that evidence, and to accommodate and/or refute opposing views” (p. 60).

Genre-based approaches seem to be the most recent, common, and research-supported of alternatives. Caplan and de Oliveira (2016) write that they “have seen over and over that the explicit and thorough teaching of genres is the best way to level the playing field and give marginalized learners of all ages access to the high-stakes ways of knowing, reading, and writing that will open doors in their academic, professional, and social lives.”

References

Albertson, B. R. (2007). Organization and development features of Grade 8 and Grade 10 writers: A descriptive study of Delaware Student Testing Program (DTSP) essays. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(4), 453–464.

Brannon, L. et al. (2008). The five-paragraph essay and the deficit model of education. The English Journal, 98(2), 16-21. Retrieved from here.

Campbell, K. H (2014). Beyond the five-paragraph essay. Educational Leadership, 60-65. Retrieved from here.

Campbell, K. H., & Latimer, K. (2012). Beyond the five-paragraph essay. Stenhouse Publishers.

Caplan, N. A & de Oliveira, L. C. (2016, February 12) Why we still won’t teach the five-paragraph essay. TESOL Blog. Retrieved from here.

Ferris, D. R., & Hedgcock, J. (2013). Genre authenticity: Avoiding formulaic assignments. In D. R. Ferris & J. Hedgcock (Eds.) Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice (p. 283-290). Routledge.

Nunes, M. J. (2013). The five-paragraph essay: Its evolution and roots in theme-writing. Rhetoric Review, 32(3), 295-313. Retrieved from here.

Wiley, M. (2000). The popularity of formulaic writing (and why we need to resist). The English Journal, 90(1), 61-67. Retrieved from here.

Wesley, K. (2000). The ill effects of the five paragraph theme. The English Journal, 90(1), 57-60. Retrieved from here.

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