The pain of the five paragraph essay

Much of my purpose in teaching is about inspiring students to want to learn more and to communicate clearly what they learn with others. I am bent on encouraging students to stretch themselves, push their thinking, take academic risks, feel confident that they can overcome any obstacle, and feel empowered that they can make real change in the world. But then there is the five paragraph essay.

It’s not that I am totally against this prescriptive way of writing. I think it is an important way for students to start to learn to organize their ideas and create cogent and articulate arguments on paper. But for 8th graders, it seems its formulaic nature tends to prevent students from thinking rather than promoting and encouraging conceptualization. On top of that it makes them begin to dislike writing.

Essay writing for my students seems to put them in a mental tight jacket, not to set their minds free. Does it really help students to think? My strongest students usually are able to handle this. The students who have not developmentally crossed the threshold of thinking more abstractly and conceptually, end up getting the structure right, but haven’t pushed themselves in the direction of really thinking. In fact, it makes them afraid to think. They may come up with three ideas, but just juxtaposing them does not necessarily connect them. It keeps them on the surface of thinking not urged to go deep and take real conceptual risks.

Parke Muth, Senior Assistant Dean and Director of International Admission at the University of Virginia, calls them McEssays in the college application essays he reads:

Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays – usually five-paragraph essays that consist primarily of abstractions and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct in that they are organized and have the correct sentence structure and spelling, but they are boring. Sort of like a Big Mac. I have nothing against Big Macs, but the one I eat in Charlottesville is not going to be fundamentally different from the one I eat in Paris, Peoria or Palm Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big Mac. The same can be said about the generic essay. …. A McEssay is not wrong, but it is not going to be a positive factor in the admission decision. It will not allow a student to stand out.

Joseph Smigelski, a community college teacher, writes in his “Why Tiffany Can’t Write” at the Huffington Post:

This is the drill, the formula, the mind-numbing process: In your first paragraph, Tiffany, you must state a thesis, the main idea that you will develop throughout the rest of your essay, and this thesis should be the last sentence in the paragraph. In your second, third, and fourth paragraphs, you must support your thesis with three components of evidence, examples, or illustrations — one component per paragraph. And in your final paragraph, the fifth, you must present your conclusion, which is a restatement of your thesis in different words along with a little extra tag to give your reader something to ponder further.

Can any bit of instruction be more stilted, unimaginative, and soul-crushing? Don’t actually counsel Tiffany on how to think out and articulate a problem or a story; just give her a freakin’ formula that can be chalked up on a blackboard in five minutes.

Again, I am not against form and believe that there can be great freedom with limitations. I also know that at schools like Exeter, students are not exposed to this form of writing until 12th grade, because the emphasis is on the quality of the writing process.

Maybe I feel this way because I just finished grading 45 essays and was remarkably disappointed in my inability to help my students grasp this structure as only a starting point and to better help them plumb the depths of the ideas with which they were grappling.  In conversation, they are much better at doing this. On paper, obviously, something else happens.

However, there was one student who creatively connected threads and ideas, but threw the format out the window. Her paper was loosely structured, but it was rich in creative thinking. Reading it, I literally felt the author’s ideas flow out of the writing itself. I felt engaged in the process of her thinking. There were a few other papers that used the form well, but the majority were almost like lists– example/ evidence/ interpretation– in lock step toward the conclusion. Clearly uninspired.

I want my students to love writing and they mostly do except when it comes to essays. They don’t always balk at form and in fact feel safely held by form in writing sonnets, haiku, sestinas. They have deep and profound ideas in class discussion but clearly are more challenged by structuring those same ideas on paper. My students are much more resourceful and imaginative in their creative writing, but seem to be afraid to use these very same skills in writing essays. What is up with all of this?

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8 Responses to The pain of the five paragraph essay

  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting. I write a lot, as you know. I consider many of them “Essays.” I do not remember (maybe I forgot over the last fifty or so years) such an animal called the “Five Paragraph Essay” … first you draw an oval …

  2. JEROME BLOOM says:









  3. Mrs. Chili says:

    My misery loves your company.

    I’m taking a blogging break from grading (abysmal) research essays. These are from my seniors, mind, and we started them on November 19th. Most of the students didn’t bother to hand papers in (thereby making my job of grading them easier). One or two handed in work of acceptable quality, but the rest were, as I mentioned above, abysmal.

    I’m trying to get to the root of this problem, and a very big part of me thinks it’s because the kids are simply not engaged in the work we’re asking them to do – even when I give them creative freedom over their topic choices, the work that I get is half-hearted at best. The kids who really rock my socks are the kids who are interested in what they’re writing about – the kids who want to learn more and understand better and who want to be able to discuss these things with others in an eloquent and effective way. I think the trick is to get them to want to know about the things we have to teach them.

    In terms of the essay form, I honestly have NO idea what to tell you about why they have such trouble because, honestly, I’m often lucky to get a poorly structured paragraph, never mind FIVE paragraphs. As we finish a lackluster first semester, I’m setting my sights on trying to figure out how to light little fires in my kids’ brains – how to get them as excited about what I have to teach them as I am about teaching it, and how to get them to WANT to write. Until I figure that out, they’re just going through the motions.

  4. Meryl Jaffe says:

    I loved your post and feel your pain. I was at a lecture by Larry McEnerney the Director of The Little Red School House at the University of Chicago. He talks about the sever limitations of the five paragraph essay and how he gives courses to professionals still stuck writing professionally in this format which, in fact is NOT a convincing format (in his opinion). He notes the positive aspect of the five paragraph essay is to help students more clearly develop a perspective, but when trying to write a convincing piece for peers, this is not the format to use. He talks about how when writing to convince, you bring in levels of arguments that cannot be refuted. He also mentions Abraham Lincoln’s brilliance as a writer/orator who did just that.

    Anyway, don’t mean to ramble. Liked the post. Liked your wicked animal.

    All the best and look forward to more visits,
    Meryl Jaffe PhD

  5. Okay, so that is where the hamburger thing came from. I just accepted it as truth. Just as stumped. Wondering if maybe we just talk about writing more loosely. Let the organization come when it will? Love the dinosaur — like the five paragraph essay itself, a think that should remain buried in the past?

  6. Pingback: The meta post: at 1000 | Nexus

  7. I teach Developmental Writing (ie: Remedial English), at a US community college. I am a writer — not a teacher. I despise the 5-paragraph essay. However, I do understand it’s importance. My students, for the most part, do not know what to write. They NEED a mold to fit into, That being said, I mourn for the 5 students out of 20 who COULD write if the restrictions were removed. My job is to teach them to write within the constraints that are dictated by “the system.” I freely admit to my classes that I am not a grammarian. I do not readily identify a dangling preposition; I simply tell them “You can’t say it that way — say it like this.” As a general rule, I avoid semi-colons for fear of using them wrong. I am more content than mechanics based. So when a student writes about the struggles of becoming a mother at 17, finishing high school and entering college on a fast-food workers salary because her family abandoned her and her boyfriend wanted nothing to do with her or his child, I struggle to grade harshly. She has just done what I, as a writer, hope to do — put my raw, exposed self out there. To give her bad marks because she strayed from the model goes against everything I believe in as a writer. But that is 1 in 5 students. I also have a paper about football, one about cats, and one about the student’s favorite food — they NEED that structure; they need the formula. It is a constant struggle to reconcile myself as an instructor and myself as a writer.

  8. Marg Nelson says:

    I also taught developmental writing at a community college in Vancouver. The 5-paragraph essay came with the GED requirements, but we found it useful for helping non-readers develop logic and factual writing. Sure, it was limited…but so were the logical thinking abilities of our non-reading students. Creative writing is another animal altogether, and not suited to the method.

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