So this has been bouncing around in my head for a couple of weeks and had I been more of a timely blogger, I would have written about it already, but there’s that whole “I’ve got to teach all day” thing that sometimes gets in the way of blog posts. Anyway, I was on Twitter and (to give credit where credit is due) Justin Tarte posted the picture at right, which said “Now is the time to stop treating the five-paragraph essay as the Holy Grail of education.” Obviously, it got retweeted–that’s what the Twitter sheeple do–but I found it to be pretty well off the mark and for a few reasons.
First, I’m not so sure that anyone ever thought of a five-paragraph essay as a “Holy Grail” of education. Maybe it’s just the way I define “Holy Grail” and maybe I’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade one too many times, but to me the Holy Grail is the great lost object or goal, one that may never be found but that one strives to find or achieve. The five-paragraph essay is far from that; if anything, it’s a minimum standard of writing, something that is more of a base than a goal. If there is an inappropriate Holy Grail of education these days, it has to be the idea that every teacher everywhere will get 100% of their students to pass a standardized test, despite the myriad issues that both teachers and students face year in and year out.
Furthermore, if you look at the structure of a five-paragraph essay, some of it makes sense. The average five-paragraph essay breaks down into an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. If you change five paragraphs to three parts, you still have a decent model for a basic argumentative or analytical paper: state your thesis, present your proof, conclude. It’s not completely foolproof, but I have found that taking students beyond the five-paragraph model is made easier by understanding of how the model actually works and showing what you can do with it. So if there’s a problem with the five-paragraph essay in this regard, it’s probably a result of the user and not the actual tool.
Finally, having taught a number of students who are either low-level or lazy, the five-paragraph essay provides a sound structure for improving their writing. Yes, me calling students “lazy” sounds like I’m being disrespectful toward them, but many of those I have taught are so task-oriented and get so focused on the quantity of their writing rather than the quality that telling them that they need a specific number of paragraphs in their essays actually causes them to do better work. If I were to say that you should write in three parts or write however much you think answers the question or prompt, then I would get back a few paragraphs or maybe even only a few sentences, which at that level is definitely not enough to fully address the task at hand. When a student is starting below his or her level more structure is needed to bring him or her up to that minimum, and the five-paragraph essay provides that structure.
This model for writing is not foolproof by any means; few things ever are. However, its age, ubiquity, and misuse does not equate to obsolesence, and while newer approaches to writing are always welcome, simply scrapping the old is as misguided as considering it to be some sort of false ultimate goal.