Unlearning the Five Paragraph Essay

June 28, 2019

A key challenge for our freshmen students in the transition from high school to college is to unlearn the five paragraph essay.

I call the five paragraph essay a hot house flower because it cannot blossom in the sun. No professional writers actually use this form. College instructors may be baffled when they witness it. Yet it is the main form that our freshmen students know and deploy.

Unlearning the five paragraph essay may be a greater challenge for our students than learning how to write—with all its messiness—in the first place. As anyone who has tried to master a second language knows, the first language creates interference. We fall back on the inherited patterns of the first language which impede our mastery of the second.

What is the five paragraph essay?

The five paragraph essay encourages its practitioners to produce a thesis with three parts and then to map those three parts onto body paragraphs followed by a conclusion.

The five paragraph essay gives the writer the false comfort of a formula into which to plug ideas. It takes the sting out of thinking—which is one of the primary challenges of writing—and promises us whatever our thoughts, we can reduce them to an over-simplified format.

I have witnessed some student writers attempting to produce six page papers with five horribly bloated paragraphs. It’s like religiously following Siri-narrated map directions into an adjacent lake.

As long as you are not a stickler for nomenclature, some longer essays are also five paragraph essays when they hew to its peculiar logic of listing and mapping. Not all essays with five paragraphs are five paragraph essays when they grow organically—based on a writer’s purposes and design—rather than being held hostage to a formula.

Why is the five paragraph essay a weak form?

It distorts what a thesis is.

This distortion is both conceptual and syntactic.

A thesis presents an arguable idea and also serves as the controlling generalization for the essay as a whole.

One way of conceptualizing a thesis is to use the metaphor of an umbrella (this metaphor comes from an article  written by my colleague Karen Gocsik). A thesis is like an umbrella because it is large enough to cover the full range of ideas explored in body paragraphs. When a thesis is distorted by being broken down into the three parts which are then mapped onto the body paragraphs, it serves as three little umbrellas rather than one large one. Student writers aren’t learning to generalize, but to find a poor substitute for generalizing. The three little umbrellas aren't keeping them from getting soaked.

In its crudest form, the three part thesis often devolves into identifying subjects rather than arguments and identifies the areas of focus picked up by the body paragraphs. For example, a student writer might decide to address the issue of friendship in literature, history, and personal experience. Such a tentative thesis focuses on a subject (“friendship”) and three major areas where the writer hopes to address that subject. The writer never identifies the claim about friendship to be developed in the essay, nor even wonders whether it is useful to address these claims in such disparate areas as literature, history, and personal experience. Rather, he or she just joins or adds these three disparate areas together as though they formed an automatically meaningful sequence.

Finally, when a thesis is divided into three parts, the sentence which reports these three parts itself frequently breaks down. It is difficult enough to express an idea in a complete sentence. Try encapsulating three ideas, joining them together, and jamming them into the thesis. Chaos generally ensues.

It distorts the organization of an essay.

The sole organizing principle of the five paragraph essay is that of addition.

A well organized essay is more than the sum of its parts.

Consider the various components that might be included in an essay.

A writer might want to highlight major ideas or issues and minor ones as well.

A writer may want to anticipate and address the arguments of others that run counter to his or her own.

A writer might wish to explain the complicated reasons behind any given phenomenon (mass incarceration, global warming, income disparity) and identify which ones are most compelling and why.

In order to perform the first task one might organize according to a relationship of emphasis: most important, less important, less important still.

In order to perform the second task, one might compare and contrast the various arguments.

In order to perform the third task, one might devote a paragraph to defining the phenomenon and the next to identifying and assessing its causes.

Because it is too rigid in its over-reliance on addition, the five paragraph essay would not allow a writer to organize via emphasis, contrast, or causality. Rather the ideas would have to be presented illogically (as additions) when they should be organized according to other types of relationships which would reflect the real purpose for writing. The form itself encourages incoherence.

The five paragraph essay takes meaning making out of the writer’s hands.

An essay is a vehicle for exploring ideas and creating meaning.

In order to explore ideas, a writer makes a series of decisions about how to present, develop, and organize them.

In order to create meaning, a writer decides how to sequence sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph.

The five paragraph essay takes many of these decisions away from the writer. It promises that a formula will replace decision and meaning making. As long as a writer plugs into the formula, the reader will be electrified by the magical results.

As a consequence, students do not develop strategies for the complex expression of their own ideas. How do I best express them? Why should I organize in one way rather than another? How do I anticipate a reader's response to my argument?

It creates the illusion that the form creates meaning instead of the writer. It creates the illusion that it is the sole or primary form so that student writers never learn the full variety of formal approaches.

The five paragraph essay may have been developed out of a well-meaning effort to simplify essay writing for novice writers.But it is not merely a simplification of essay writing, it is an over-simplification. And as such, it limits the development of the cognitive abilities of student writers.

The five paragraph essay does not encourage students to develop the ability to be critical about their own strengths and weaknesses as writers because it turns writing into a check-list of features that are either present or absent.

Why should college instructors pay attention to what students have learned in the past?

Teaching students about writing requires an understanding and acknowledgment about their earlier instruction in the five paragraph essay.

Without understanding the nature of and the reasoning for that past instruction, you will appear to undermine that instruction without a real purpose.

Students won't understand why they are being asked to adapt to a new, unusual, and even strange mode of writing instruction.

They will fall into the familiar and comfortable formulas taught to them in the past because you won't have given them reasons for the new instruction about writing and the challenges you put in their path.

You might not even know that your instruction in writing is new to your students.

In that regard, you and your students may be on a common ground: what is familiar to each of you may not be familiar to the other.

But that common ground is not fertile ground for teaching or learning.

Unlearning the five paragraph essay means unteaching it as well.