Outgrowing the Five Paragraph Essay

By Joe Anderson

One of the simultaneously challenging and exciting aspects about teaching college writing is the fact that students enter into college with varying degrees of writing ability. On top of that, students begin college with such different perspectives about writing: some view themselves as writers, while others know writing as a source of anxiety.

And before I continue let me say there’s no shortage of articles lamenting the declining writing ability of incoming freshmen – this is not one of those pieces. This is about spectre that haunts the classrooms of any university’s first-year writing program: the five paragraph essay. It goes without saying that the expectations of college writing exceed the ability of even the most articulate five paragraph essay. That said, I still feel like I’m always navigating around the five-paragraph essay because students hang onto it like a life preserver.

The five paragraph essay is a great starting point for emerging writers. In elementary education, it serves as a nice heuristic that helps a developing writer organize his or her thoughts: there should be some sort of intro, a fleshed out middle and a deliberate ending. But what I saw time and time again in my classroom is that the form of the five paragraph essay superseded any content. A surprising amount of my students, mostly college freshmen and international ESL students, don’t see the five paragraph essay as a type of writing (which it is – and one that has outlived its usefulness). Instead they see it as the way you write in academic settings period. Naturally, these students have a harder time adjusting to college writing than their peers who have experience writing in multiple genres.

The fact that students read such a variety of texts in high school and almost none of them are a five-paragraph essay is an irony that is always worth mentioning.

But this is precisely why first-year writing programs and university writing centers across the country are currently fighting an uphill battle trying to wean students off the five-paragraph essay. What operates as an effective written argument in high school is likely to come across as underdeveloped at best, or obvious at worst. The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center has this amazing resource that explains just why the five-paragraph essay doesn’t meet the rigors of college while also offering some very actionable advice for writers looking to break free from the format.

But all of this raises the question of why the five-paragraph essay is taught as a gold standard in the first place. If it works as a nice starting point for emerging writers, then why is it taught well into high school? For me, I have always assumed its popularity had to do with relative ease of assessment. Although a typical five-paragraph essay might not allow for particularly complex arguments, it is still a decent way for students demonstrate knowledge on a subject while simultaneously giving them a chance to show a command over the mechanics of the English language. Furthermore, the features of a successful and effective five-paragraph essay can be spelled out in a rubric with explicit distinctions between an “A” paper and a “B” one. However in college and in specialized careers beyond, what makes for effective writing is not that clear cut. In my view, that has always been the real danger of the form. Good writing is about creating meaning.

As for as preparing students for the complex writing expected in college, writing and reading in multiple genres is a serious boon to one’s literacy skills:

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