What about the Five-Paragraph Essay?

I remember the first time I taught the five-paragraph essay. It was in 1979. I was a brand new composition instructor and I had been told what book to use and that I needed to teach this formula. It was strange to me because I had never encountered it in my own education and it had not been part of the “Writing in the Schools” course I had taken. However, I did as the program commanded me to do.

I remember two students from the course. One was a Chinese girl who wrote short gem-like pieces that were more like prose poems than essays. They were unconventionally beautiful. The second was an African-American clarinet player who wrote like he was taking a free-form solo in a jazz tune. He wrote pages and pages in a rapid scrawl on any assignment, but it was pretty much free association without any coherence. On the day that I introduced the five-paragraph essay, some instinct was telling me that the Chinese girl shouldn’t listen. I was right. Her attempts to write this sort of essay were short, formulaic and vacuous. Within a couple of weeks, she disappeared from the course.

The clarinet player came up to me and said, “I think I need six paragraphs.” I said, “Go for it.” His writing became coherent after he had a form to pour it into. He went from being an unintelligible writer to a pretty good one.

So, the first time I taught this format, it hurt one student, helped one student, and left the rest pretty much unchanged. It might have helped some others too, though their writing didn’t change significantly. But the one it helped the most realized right away that he had to modify it to suit his purposes.

Build on What They Know

Now the five-paragraph essay is ubiquitous. It is often all students know how to do. When they get to college, some composition teachers teach it, some accept it, and some hate it. What is clear, however, is that to be effective writers at a higher level in any discipline, they have to outgrow the five-paragraph essay.

However, most students have been so thoroughly drilled in producing five-paragraph essays that we can’t simply eliminate this persistent format. After all, it is possible to write a good five-paragraph essay and, of course, no one wants to be told that everything they know about something is wrong. What we have to do is build on what they know, help them write better essays, and help them grow out of the restrictions of the format.

Without the Romans

I have been suggesting that the Roman Six-Part Speech is a good alternative to the five-paragraph essay (also see the mini-module, “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion“). I think it is, but for the reasons outlined above, we can’t just perform a switcheroo. Here are three principles that I think will help students write better five-paragraph essays without getting the Romans involved:

  • Don’t obsess about the number of paragraphs.
  • Think about your audience.
  • Think about your purpose in writing.

If taken seriously, those three directives will go a long way toward producing better essays.

With the Romans

If we do get the Romans involved, they really do have some insights that will generally fit inside the five-paragraph format, although they put pressure on the five-paragraph limit. I have created a comparison chart:

5para-RomanSpeech-Compared-chartimage

Each section in the Roman pattern has a rhetorical purpose.  These are all purposes and functions that writers of five-paragraph essays should also consider.

I think it is key to move students away from the five-paragraph format step-by-step. The first step might be to include a paragraph of narrative about how the issue developed to the point that we have to do something about it. That is introductory material that might create a need for six paragraphs. Students might think about these questions:

  • What background information does the reader need to know to understand the issue I am writing about?
  • What is the story behind the issue?
  • How did things get this way?

The second step might be to introduce a need to refute counter-arguments. This could take the form of questions such as

  • What will people who disagree with me say?
  • What are the arguments against my position?
  • How can I respond to them?

Putting more emphasis on these concerns, which are not generally part of the five-paragraph essay format and which are likely to expand the essay into six or more paragraphs for reasons that are pretty clear to the writer, will put students on the path to growing beyond the rigid five-paragraph format without having to abandon what they already know.

The Classical Pattern of Persuasion

I have taken ideas from several previous posts about the Roman six-part speech and descriptive outlining and created an article and mini-module combo that helps students think about essay organization.  The module overview says:

This module is designed to introduce students to a pattern of essay and speech organization based on ancient Roman practices as described in Cicero’s On Invention and On Oratory. This pattern is based on persuasive strategies directed toward the rhetorical needs of the audience so it is both more effective and more flexible than the essay formulas that are often taught to high school students. Although the pattern is more than 2,000 years old, it is still in common use today, as can be seen from using descriptive outlining to analyze the structure of current editorials and op-ed pieces. It can be used both to organize student writing and to analyze other persuasive texts. The writing assignment asks students to write an essay about a problem they see in social media, using the Classical pattern.

It has the following learning goals:

Students will be able

  • To articulate the strategies that they use in organizing essays
  • To compare the effectiveness of different modes of organization
  • To analyze the organizational patterns used in editorials and op-ed pieces
  • To write an essay utilizing the Classical pattern.

It begins with a quickwrite about how they currently organize essays and ends with a reflection on that quickwrite.  The main activities involve a lot of descriptive outlining of sample articles and other articles about problems in social media that they find online.  It discourages the five-paragraph essay, but does not forbid it or demonize it.  It presents the Classical pattern as a chart, as a series of questions for the writer, and as a series of questions for a critical reader.  It includes the Latin terms, but quickly moves to using English adaptations: Introduction, Background, Possible Positions, Support, Counter-arguments, and Conclusion.

Download the mini-module “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion,” here.  If you would like to use the article without the rest of the module, download it here.

I hope readers of this blog will find it useful.  As always, comments and suggestions for improvement are welcome.