Since “The 5 Paragraph Essay” structure is ubiquitous in our schools, we ought to be asking not only Why is it the dominant form of writing taught?, but also What, exactly, is it teaching our students? Beyond that, we might consider what our kids are missing when their schooling spends so much time on one form of writing.
If we trace the history of this form, we can find precursors to the structure in 16th Century France, when author Michel de Montaigne developed what he called “essais,” which translates to “attempts.” These were designed to allow writers to be more subjective than other forms allowed. These first essays let people use writing as a tool for critical thinking and questioning, as much as for expression of one’s personal views.
But de Montaigne did not require that such writing utilize any given number of paragraphs. Its purpose was clear and there were no restrictions placed on structure or length.
According to Dr. Daniel O’Donnell of the University of Lethbridge in Canada, we can see the emergence of the five paragraph structure in 20th Century Germany, when the essay became the tool by which teachers assessed students’ knowledge of a subject. Later, when standardized tests were introduced, the essay was further standardized into this five paragraph form we are drenching our students in today.
This helps us see that the form took root in schools for its contribution to assessment. Anything that is standardized is far easier to assess on large scale than free form alternatives.
Ease of assessment is important in education. There is no argument against that here.
Still, does that justify the dominance “5 Paragraphs” enjoys in our schools today? I say absolutely not.
While the 5 paragraph essay does have redeeming qualities outside of assessment purposes (which I’ll unpack in a bit), it is not representative of all forms of literature, nor is it an appropriate form for every genre or purpose. Therefore it should not be applied to every purpose or assignment in school.
I propose that we put the 5 paragraph essay back in its place in education. Teach students the formula, so they can understand how to organize their thoughts in an essay for standardized tests, since this is where the structure is most useful, but teach them other forms, too.
Let’s take the 5 paragraph form out of the other areas of writing instruction. Students should be learning how to create writing that is organized into paragraphs that serve the organic functions of paragraphs—that is, to chunk together related information or descriptions. Our children should be learning that when a change in content occurs, a new paragraph is warranted. Instead, they are learning to squeeze into a single paragraph a variety of information that ought to be separated just to keep within the required paragraph count.
Put more plainly, by overusing the 5 paragraph structure, we’re conditioning our young learners to develop poor writing habits. What’s more, we are teaching them to prioritize form over content, purpose, voice, audience, and everything else that makes writing work. The teaching and learning are focused so intently on form, that they sacrifice the values of process, meaning, style, creativity, and personal expression.
As I mentioned earlier, this form does have some redeeming qualities. Young writers can learn: the importance of organizing their ideas and information in a way that flows naturally and smoothly; how to focus their writing on one driving point (a thesis); that using supporting evidence makes their point more convincing to readers; how to articulate their ideas clearly (through revision); how to write with an audience in mind; and about determining a desired result or purpose for their writing.
Here’s another suggestion: teach the 5 paragraph structure as a scaffold to yield better-organized writing, but do not require every written essay to have only 5 paragraphs.
The purpose of each paragraph in a 5 paragraph structure is clear:
This makes teaching and learning very clear and fairly easy. We do our students a good service to teach these qualities, because they are transferrable to other forms of writing. The 5 paragraph structure, mind you, is just one way to teach those things.
Once our students experience the formula in their own writing and internalize its value and impact on readers, they should be encouraged to organize their writing such, but to use however many paragraphs it takes to fully express their ideas and supports. When we hold them accountable to a number, rather than to the effect of the language they use or to the amount of research/evidence they include, then we do them a great disservice.
One more suggestion: teach children to write in other forms.
Our students should be learning how to express their ideas and imaginations in a variety of forms, experiencing the act of writing for a wide range of purposes and audiences. They should be learning how to craft stories, poems, letters, journals, arguments, articles, how-to’s, blogs, emails, text messages, and research papers that delve deeply into topics of interest (and which cover far more than 5 meager paragraphs).
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it ’til my last breath: yes, these things require more teacher effort, yes they are harder and more time-consuming to grade. Yes, they require more investment for teachers and students. But is it our job as educators to make life easy for ourselves, or are we here to equip our young people with all the tools that will enable them to explore and express their interests and ideas so they can fulfill their potential?
Are we in education to serve the demands of standardized tests, or are standardized tests supposed to be one way to measure what students are learning?
We owe it to our kids and our communities to make every effort to prepare our young people for the real world and the real world is filled with a rich variety of written communication.
I’m curious: how much of what you read is in the 5 paragraph essay form?