Crimes and Misdemeanors of the Five-Paragraph Essay

by Elizabeth DeHaven, Intermediate/Middle School Faculty

Students in a classroom.The other day I was talking to a friend who teaches a writing course required for all students at Harvard, and it occurred to us that the five paragraph essay plagues writers at both the elementary and university level, and if I were to guess, middle and high school teachers feel the same way.  In elementary school, we strive to teach children to view themselves as writers, be risk takers in trying out literary techniques, and share openly with their writing community.  We introduce and help them construct a deep understanding of a variety of genres and make choices in pairing genre, purpose, and meaning. We teach them to read like writers in order to build the self-sustaining process of learning more about writing from real writers and real writing.  We provide time for experimentation and choice.  We look at the “rule breakers” and hypothesize their purpose and meaning.  We think about the effects those broken rules have on the reader. And then, we break the rules and join the ranks of the skilled rule breakers we’ve grown to love, admire, and understand.

Somewhere along the way in the academic careers of students, the rules become paramount and the key to their futures rests in a neatly packaged, five-paragraph essay, complete with an introductory paragraph, thesis, and body paragraphs that include topic sentences and supporting details, which are all tied together in the conclusion.  And, when they succeed at writing this essay, they gain admission to some of the most competitive colleges and universities in the country where they are enrolled in mandatory composition courses designed to break the rules of the five-paragraph essay.

So what happens when we let test writing interrupt and dominate the writing lives of our students?  Purpose and genre become unnecessary, revision obsolete, craft dispensable.  Enjoyment suffers and students lose their identity as authentic writers.  And, what’s worse, they allow a test to determine whether or not they are “good” writers.  As educators, if we allow test writing to be just what it is—a confined and discrete part of our writing curriculum–and continue to see beyond the limitations of the five paragraph essay, we will have time to teach our students to write well.

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