In Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay

Making Brownies

Although it is an imperfect beast and its overuse can be limiting, or even harmful, the “5-Paragraph Essay” should not be so unfairly maligned. It provides useful scaffolding for students learning to support logical arguments rather than ramble about their impressions and feelings, promotes clarity and focus for students as they attempt to formulate and support those arguments, and offers the security of structure and a type of ‘safety net’ for young writers not always certain how to best proceed.

Thesis Two

Like any set of ‘tools’ or ‘guides’ we provide young learners, the “5-Paragraph Essay” can provide essential structure for students learning how to make and support historical, scientific, or other academic arguments. Children are often given coloring books in order to facilitate artistic expression, or encouraged to play sports in which the field is outlined in chalk or painted lines and coaches from both teams move among the players guiding or correcting them until they’re able to do without such structures. Even as an adult, I’m far more likely to make brownies or muffins from a box with clear directions and limits than to take my chances with a bowl, some ingredients, and a dream. It does not limit a musician to begin by learning scales or how to form standard chords – it gives them a foundation on which to build while they become more skilled. Structure is not by itself good or evil; it’s only when we confuse ‘tools’ with ‘unbreakable rules’ that we limit students rather than guide them. 

Coleman Not Caring

That same structure helps to provide clarity and focus as students learn to distinguish between expressing themselves and making a logical argument. David Coleman, the primary author of Common Core and current Czar of the College Board, took some heat a few years ago after saying “people don’t really give a $#!+ about what you feel… can you make an argument with evidence{?}”** As horrifying as this was to the warm and fuzzy among us, his point was valid enough regarding the importance of being able to say something useful, clearly and concisely, and back it up with facts and reason. It’s a lost skill in our culture, rarely even attempted by our social and political leaders. I know few pilots or surgeons who complain about having to run through checklists before taking off or cutting in; the process prevents careless errors and helps focus attention. While the graphic organizers and other supporting requirements I use to help students build a “5-Paragraph Essay” can’t guarantee clarity or logical thinking, they go a long way towards revealing fuzzy thinking or spotlighting disjointed bits of unconnected information. Unsupervised play and avant-garde musical choices have their place, but such open-endedness can prove crippling to the long-term success of those never 'limited' by rules or musical orthodoxy. 

My Pal Foot Foot - The Shaggs

The role of structure in providing security and freedom was brought home to me clearly and eternally by ‘Melissa’, a high school sophomore in my first year teaching. After exhausting all three or four teaching techniques I knew, I assigned a chapter for students to read and then ‘do a project over’. When they asked what sort of project, I responded they could choose anything they thought would help demonstrate that they understood. They were in 10th grade, I reasoned – they knew what sort of projects they liked by this point. After several moments of confused murmuring and dazed expressions, Melissa raised her hand and politely but indignantly informed me that, “Mr. K! Sometimes fences set us free!” I’ve learned to appreciate the default settings of some of the video games I play, or the way the word processor on which I’m typing this automatically selects certain orientations, fonts, margins, and other settings unless I tell it to change them. I don’t feel limited, I feel supported. High school students are a scattered, confused, drifty and easily terrified bunch any time they’re asked to think or branch out, and structure can provide safety in that venture. As long as there’s always a clear distinction between ‘defaults’ (which can be altered when circumstances change) and ‘rules’ (which apply for all time in all circumstances), fences do indeed set them free. 

Run, Forrest, Run! - Forrest Gump (2/9) Movie CLIP (1994) HD

So while there are many good arguments against my complex thesis, whether the ‘Although’ makes you cringe or you’d rather I'd been more general or more specific, used fewer sentences or more, it’s a workable thesis which can be easily emulated in many – but never all – different situations. If you don’t like my structure, I’d encourage you to create another in its place rather than dismiss the idea altogether. The “5-Paragraph Essay” is certainly not the final goal of writing or reason, and it’s certainly not the ideal tool for personal expression, but neither should it be the whipping post of Academia, condemned to languish alongside Wikipedia and Direct Instruction as a shameful relic of some dark, inbred time we’d rather forget. 

5PE Graphic Organizer

**A slightly fuller version of the Colman quote is below, in case this is new to you. Don’t tell anyone, but my first reaction when I read this was to laugh. I don’t know that I’d make this into all-encompassing edu-policy, but he made a hard point humorously. How can I argue with that?

Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today? …It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a $#!+ about what you feel or think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.” 

Thesis Default

RELATED POST: Why Assignment Sheets Might Be Killing Your Students' Writing (from the edu-blog Three Teachers Talk

RELATED POST: Unlearning the Five-Paragraph Essay (from the edu-blog Word Doctor)

Comments

As much as the five-paragraph essay gets maligned, it does provide necessary scaffolding to help students form logical and coherent types of writing. Yet, just like the part of speech tend to be taught into the ground, there is a point where it becomes time to take students beyond that tried-and-true form. The fallout tends to be the five-paragraph essay gets talked down so much, so let's just encourage them to write WHATEVER! Well, "whatever" doesn't help drive home that good writing is akin to good thinking and all that jazz. Writing is an art, and it's getting more diluted all the time.

It is almost impossible to write a perfect essay and with accordance with all rules. At least for me. So the only reason is special services.

Structure teaches kids the rules so that when they are old, they can have good and effective reasons for breaking them when necessary. Without structure, students cannot figure out how to speak sensibly about important things. A decent amount of rhetoric is about breaking standard rules to create a desired persuasive effect on the audience.

There was a great article about cell phone antennas in Wired Magazine a long time ago but after the pull-out cell phone antennas went away. (http://archive.wired.com/culture/design/magazine/17-03/dp_cellphone) Cell phone designers had to be creative to get an antenna longer than the phone to fit inside the phone. If not for a "rule" of science, no creativity would have been necessary. Along the same lines, I am always amazed by how different each painting looks when an entire art class has to imitate a single master's painting. They are not just different, but they each reflect the individuality of the child in a more forceful way than if they had done a project where they had complete freedom.

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