Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Topic: The Five-Paragraph Essay

10-second review: Focusing on teaching the five-paragraph essay for expository writing to pass state writing tests robs students of creativity and deprives students of experience with other forms of writing like stories and poetry.

Title: “Study Great Ideas, But Teach to the Test.” Michael Winerip;. New York Times (July 13, 2005), Internet.

No Time for Other Types of writing

Quote: “There’s no time to do creative writing and develop authentic voice…. There are three essays on the state test and we start prepping right at the start of the year. We have to teach to the state test…. …not what writing is about, but it’s what testing is about.”

The Five-Paragraph Essay Is Hurting the Teaching of writing.

“The National Council of Teachers of English has warned that standardized tests mandated by the Federal No Child Left Behind Law, as well as the College Board’s new SAT writing sample, are actually hurting the teaching of writing in this country.”

The Five-Paragraph Essay Stops Students from Thinking.

“If you give kids the formula to write an essay, you’re taking away the very thinking that a writer engages in…. Kids are less apt to develop a writer’s thinking skills.”


Model for Expository Writing

The five-paragraph essay is a model for how to organize expository writing. It is not a model for story writing or poetry.

Tests, Topics and Thinking While Writing

In state tests, students are given other people’s topics to write on. That is one element of the tests that deprives students of the opportunity to think. Tests also give little opportunity for brainstorming the topic or revising and editing. That’s why students limit themselves to five paragraphs in tests.

Not Limited to Five Paragraphs

In class, as part of writing instruction, students are not, when writing exposition, limited to five paragraphs.


They brainstorm the topic for 15 minutes or so.


They formulate a thesis. The thesis can be as many sentences as they need to tell their readers what they are going to tell them.


They write a draft based on the thesis. They sometimes expand the thesis sentence to a much as a paragraph.

Topic Sentences

They use topic sentences for middle paragraphs, but they shorten the size of the paragraphs, which means they use a series of paragraphs based on the same topic sentence or paragraph—and do not have to have a topic sentence for every paragraph. As writers they use the middle paragraphs to give the details that develop the thesis.

Summary Paragraph

The draft concludes with a summary paragraph (telling the reader what they have told them). As one of my student writers said, “It’s like hitting your reader over the head three times with your point –the thesis, the middle paragraphs and final paragraph—so they clearly understand it.”


They construct an interesting introduction. I leave the introduction to the last so the students do not become hung up on it. It is my strong belief that students should write the draft as quickly as possible. If they are hung up on the introduction, they might not finish it.

They revise and edit.

Length, Thinking and Unity

Their compositions can be as short as five paragraphs, but can be as long as several pages. Most of my students’ compositions were several pages in length. The thinking is in the brainstorming, the thesis and the topic sentences in the middle paragraphs and the summary paragraph aligning to produce unity. They revise and edit to polish their writing.

The New York Times Critic Follows the Formula.

The writer of this article, which criticizes the use of the five-paragraph essay, uses that model in producing his article. He has a lengthy introduction describing what a teacher has learned about writing in a summer program.

Following his introduction, his thesis states clearly his point: “And so, when Ms. Karnes returns to Allendale High School to teach English this fall, she will use the new writing techniques she learned and abandon the standard five-paragraph essay formula. Right?

“Oh, no,” said Ms. Karnes. “There’s no time to do creative writing and develop authentic voice. That would take weeks and weeks. There are three essays on the state test and we start prepping right at the start of the year. We have to teach to the state test.”

He uses topic sentences throughout the article. “MEAP is not what writing is about….” “In Michigan, there is added pressure.” “In this fashion, the five-paragraph essay has become the law of the land….” “Many English teachers have developed a standard five-paragraph form with blanks to fill in.” “The National Council of Teachers of English has warned…,” etc., etc.

And he concludes by summarizing his point that the five-paragraph essay deprives students of the opportunity to write something besides the five-paragraph essay: “She loves the last month of school, when state tests are over, she said. Last spring she did lessons on poetry and writing short stories. ‘I found interests and talents in those kids I didn’t know were there,’ she said. ‘It would have been nice to have a whole year to build on those things.’ ”

In summary: The Five-Paragraph Essay Is a Model for Writing Reports (like the one in the New York Times article).

The five-paragraph essay is not a formula, except in testing situations. It is a model for organizing expository writing, the type of writing that is used in formal reports used to conduct the world’s business. RayS.

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