The Vexing 5-Paragraph Essay

In our school district, thanks to an unflagging Language Arts Coordinator, all our students, from fifth grade up, can structure and write a five-paragraph essay.

You know: intro, thesis statement with three topics, one paragraph per topic, closing summary.

They can all do it exactly. Trouble is, the essays are usually so excruciatingly dull that I can barely bring myself to read them. Fortunately, I don’t teach a regular English class, but rather I teach writing (and arts) in juvenile corrections. Sometimes I go ahead and have them write one of these just to see what’s current in the district.

To the credit of the LA coordinator, she really does try to help teachers help kids write interesting essays. She hands out examples of good writing and all that. Of course, many teachers don’t write often or well, so the examples get a little lost in the transmission.

The real trouble is that the direct writing assessment, another of those looming, gravely portentous year-end tests, is graded (by hired graders duly devoted to the five-paragraph essay and highly trained in ascertaining it) by how faithful the paper is to the structure. Sometimes the test is given and graded by computer, which is also highly trained in the structure.

What I tell my youth-in-custody kids is that the 5-paragraph structure is not a bad thing in itself. It teaches us how to order our thoughts and support our arguments. But it’s kind of like a pair of shoes. You gotta have shoes. But you don’t have to wear dull black ones like the little guy to the right. You can try something quite, quite different.

It’s essential to keep a good structure in mind, but it doesn’t always have to be so #&!!@#! obvious as the five-paragraph essay. “Think well; write well,” I tell my students. And here (drumroll and flourish), I will share my no-fail secrets of teaching kids good writing:

Use sensory details. I actually write out the five senses on the board and make the students count two or three examples of each one before they turn in the paper.

Use specific examples. If you don’t know of any, make up some good ones.

Every writer “lies.” That is, it’s fair game to embellish and exaggerate. It’s all for the sake of art.

Tell stories: open with a stunning anecdote. Support your points with short narratives. It’s irresistible.

Sounds too easy? OK, English teachers heavy burdened with the five-paragraph essay. Just add these little trade secrets this year and get back to me on how sparkling your students’ writing has become.


2 thoughts on “The Vexing 5-Paragraph Essay

  1. The problem is as you mentioned the graders. They use a rubric and if you don’t supply what the rubric says they should see scores suffer. Schools today are in conflict with that which made America great: Innovation. Today we must be conforming not creating. We must respond rather than think. Those in power can keep power if the populace is dull, disinterested and robotic. A populace that questions instead of answers, now that’s dangerous. I am a dangerous teacher because I teach my students to question, Questions create new knowledge and they are the signal of deep understanding. Oh how we are missing the boat in education today. Please let us grade children and evaluate teachers based on the new understandings created as demonstrated by questions.

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