Please stop teaching the five-paragraph essay for analysis. Please, pretty please with a cherry on top! clipart_food_fruit_watercolor_cherry

Let’s talk for a moment about the purpose of the five-paragraph essay. Many scholars trace its origins centuries back. Its parallel structure was favored over more meandering approaches. Today, teachers and students value the five-paragraph essay because it’s both easy and economical. Write a thesis, support it in three paragraphs, tack on a conclusion, presto!

What really happens, though, is much less magical. There are three major issues with the five-paragraph essay.

Issue #1: The structure dictates a closed thesis, which means static thinking. 

A typical five-paragraph essay has what my school calls an XYZ, or closed, thesis. This means that the topics for each of the three body paragraphs are listed within the thesis (XYZ represents the list). It might go something like this: Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, exposes the impact of prejudice through the characters Buckley, Max, and Bigger. Now each of my paragraphs will be about one of those characters, in that order. My thesis has structured my writing for me. However, I am essentially performing a redundant function with each body paragraph. While my support might change, I’m constantly addressing the same point. My thesis has halted any opportunity for my ideas to build. Students are constantly being told to show “deeper thinking.” Why would we train them to write in a way that, almost by definition, necessitates their superficiality?

Issue#2: The essay is built around five original sentences. 

Okay, there’s nothing wrong with five original sentences…except when that’s the extent of the original thinking for the entire essay. Think about it. A five-paragraph essay revolves around a thesis, three topic sentences, and a concluding sentence. Everything else is just support for those five sentences. If you want your students to summarize for an entire essay, this is great. But to demonstrate critical thinking that is not only sustained but grows over the course of the essay requires more than five sentences of real substance.

Issue #3: The essay turns analysis into a literary scavenger hunt instead of an exploration of purpose and meaning. 

An unfortunate teaching point of the five-paragraph essay is commonly that each paragraph should focus on a different device. Students dive into their close reading armed with lists of devices, eagerly trying to stick labels on as many devices as they can, regardless of whether they understand how the device functions in the text. While students should certainly consider an author’s use of devices to achieve an effect, that shouldn’t be the beginning or end of the thinking they demonstrate in each paragraph. More important is the way the meaning and purpose of the text develop over time, as shown through key quotations which contain devices that contribute to or reveal the author’s intended message or theme. Note that if you teach close reading through Costa’s levels of questioning, students who take this essay approach tend to get stuck and level two.

Beyond the pleasing parallelism, the five-paragraph essay is better as an example of what not to do in good analytical writing. Wondering what to do now? Stick with me for the next blog post, in which I’ll talk about a better strategy for teaching students to structure their analytical writing.

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4 thoughts on “Please Stop Teaching the Five-Paragraph Essay for Analysis 

  1. Thought provoking. I currently teach Honors 9-10 and Eng 9-10. Prior to this, I spent my first five years teaching 7th and 8th grade ELA.

    The Academic Coach generated a template for use when teaching 7th and 8th grade students the writing process. It was a useful tool then, but now I see the validity of my colleagues in the English department (one of whom teaches AP) which echoes your argument: having students write five paragraph essays limits them severely.

    I’ve shyed away from implementing the “Five Paragraph Essay” but have modified the template to be conducive to three and four paragraph essays too.

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  2. Interesting discussion. I teach 8th grade ELA blocks where the students are placed based on ability. For my advanced block, I can see how the structure of the essay limits exploration of a text- especially when using a closed thesis. I am pleasantly surprised with what these students come up with when they are offered the opportunity to explore a text outside of those confines. This group of students has the ability to write out their thinking and edit afterwards to maintain cohesiveness. The same is not true of my inclusion class. When offered the opportunity of the open thesis, my inclusion class’s writing (almost universally) becomes a giant ramble, or worse, summary because that is safe. Giving the frame to struggling writers has value because of the narrowed focus. Sometimes, that is exactly what they need.

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    1. There is definitely value in providing structure to help struggling writers avoid substituting summary for analysis. It’s much like the way we often talk about grammar: we have to know the rules of writing in order to break them. Also, sometimes students need time to mature into their writing. However, I’d argue that there are ways to scaffold an open approach for struggling students so that they learn to write around the organization of the text from the get-go. So much of it is really about how students approach close reading.

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