The five-paragraph essay is a form of convergent thought. It encourages the writer to fit information into a formula: an introduction stating a main idea and sometimes naming three supporting points; three body paragraphs, one for each point; and a conclusion renaming the main idea and three points.
The five-paragraph essay discourages writers from exploring new ideas. Instead, it encourages writers to stick with what they already know.
For example, a student writer might choose for an essay topic an uncontroversial idea, such as that smoking is bad for health. The writer might choose as the three points 1) smoking destroys lungs, 2) smoking leads to diseases like lung cancer, and 3) smoking leads to facial wrinkles. But what if the writer thinks, wait a minute, wrinkles aren’t a health problem. The writer ponders, searching for a third reason why smoking is bad for health, and can’t think of one. So the writer changes his topic completely to fit the five-paragraph format.
What if the writer had instead researched wrinkles to see if there is any connection to smoking and health? The writer might have learned that wrinkles are a health concern. He might have learned about research connecting wrinkles and smoking and health. He might have learned some open-ended questions which scientists are striving to answer. He might have learned.
The problem with the five-paragraph essay is that it encourages closed-minded thinking, not learning. It encourages simplistic, not complex, thinking. It encourages safety, not exploration of ideas. It encourages fill-in-the-blanks, not critical thinking.
- In fourth grade simple stories or essays are expected from most children. A topic sentence becomes the introduction, lots of facts become one or more body paragraphs, and a summing-it-all-up sentence becomes the conclusion. Many students need help with the introductions, not knowing how to begin. Almost all students need help with the conclusions. They are expected to use transitions. Students need to learn to plan their writing so that sequencing information isn’t a problem.
- The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) asks fourth grade students to “write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information; introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which related ideas are grouped to support the writer’s purpose; provide reasons that are supported by facts and details; link opinion and reasons using words and phrases (e.g., for instance, in order to, in addition);and provide a concluding statement or section related to the opinion presented.
- The CCSS also asks fourth graders to “write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly;
introduce a topic clearly and group related information in paragraphs and sections; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension;
develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic; link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g., another
, for example
); use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic; and provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.”
As for narrative writing, the CCSS asks fourth graders to ” write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences;
orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally; use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations; use a variety of transitional words and phrases to manage the sequence of events; use concrete words and phrases and sensory details to convey experiences and events precisely; and provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.
- By fifth grade, if the students have had enough practice, they should be able to write simple expository (informational) and persuasive essays and short narratives. They should write an introductory paragraph, two or three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.
I bet 99 out of 100 of my students have been told that every paragraph must contain five sentences, and that every essay must have five paragraphs. This idea is so indoctrinated by teachers that students fear veering from it. One of my best writing students composed an essay for which we thought up a single line zinger after the conclusion. It was perfect—irreverent and definitely humorous. She wouldn’t use it. “I wouldn’t have five paragraphs anymore,” she told me.
Click on the graphic to enlarge it.
Why the five paragraph essay, anyway?
- Formal logic is the tradition upon which essay writing is based, and that tradition goes back to ancient Greece. In formal logic, premises lead to conclusions. In five paragraph essays, the topic sentences of the three body paragraphs lead to believing the truth of the thesis, stated in the introduction and repeated in the conclusion.
- Essay writing began in France in the 1500’s, not as a structure for writing as much as a structure for logical thinking and arguing. Essays then were not confined to five paragraphs, and their purpose was to persuade with clear thinking.
- In the 1800’s in the US, essays—then called themes—became increasingly standardized so that they could be reliably assessed. An introductory paragraph introduces the general idea and ends with a thesis statement which includes the three main points supporting the thesis. Three body paragraphs each begin with an idea supporting the thesis and then go on to bolster that support. The last of those three body paragraphs sometimes defeats a counterargument. The conclusion cements the argument and repeats the main points.
- Standardized testing took hold in the US in the mid to late 1900’s, and with it came formulas for writing essays that could be easily graded.
- Today the five paragraph essay dominates in schools, starting in elementary grades and continuing into high school.
But why five paragraphs? Why not four or six or seven? I think it is the Western World’s preference for the number three. Take away the introduction and conclusion and that leaves three body paragraphs for the essay. Three has long served as an important number in western thinking, starting in the Catholic religion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The number three is important in many fairy tales such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Even Abraham Lincoln enshrined the number three with the phrase “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
This approach to essay writing requires that the writers know their thesis (that is, the conclusion of the logical argument) before they begin writing. As a result, students are taught to brainstorm and to write outlines of their thinking before writing their first drafts. These prewriting strategies help students to see the scope of the issue (brainstorming) and to narrow it down to its most important arguments (outlining).
Is this five paragraph structure good?
On the one hand, students have a pattern to follow which limits the number of paragraphs within which to explain their arguments. It requires conciseness and clarity, two qualities of good writing.
On the other hand, students are forced to conform their thoughts to a somewhat arbitrary pattern. What if students have three excellent points to make, not two? What if there are two excellent counterarguments that need to be defeated? Oh well.
Next we will look at transitions.