An Analogy to Get Us Out of the 5 Paragraph Essay Rut

I spent three days this week scoring writing essays for the State of Utah’s high stakes tests (yes, folks, our test window for writing this year has already closed).  Can’t really talk much about the details (nondisclosure agreement), but working with teachers in this setting brought up the ever-recurring issue of the necessity of the five paragraph essay (cue sound effects…dun dun dun).   Teachers sometimes get hung-up on the idea of the ‘5 paragraph essay’ as the ultimate in essay-ness, the cream-of-the-crop format, the one-to-shoot-for, the essay sans pareil.  I get it.  It’s easy to teach.  It’s neat.  It’s tidy.  It often fits the prompt:  intro, three body paragraphs, conclusion.  It can also be boring, redundant, and make us want to ‘poke our eyes out with sticks if we have to read another.’  Not to mention what this might mean for our student-writers year after year after year (maybe they want to ‘poke their eyes out with sticks if they have to write another?’).

As I was driving home after three days of debating scores on papers, I was thinking how many times I’ve heard experts make arguments against the necessity for the 5.P.E. (as we’ll reference it going forward). Cue Kelly Gallagher (slides from his keynote presentation last year at the Gulf Coast Writing Conference in Destin, Florida):


I’ve made the argument that we need to move beyond the 5.P.E. at many writing conferences myself.  But, for some reason, it doesn’t seem to sink in.  I realize not everyone is comfortable teaching writing, not all teachers are writers, and not all have had a great deal of stellar training on how to be effective writing teachers.  It occurred to me, maybe we need an analogy, something to help people understand that sticking solely with the 5.P.E. though ‘clean’ to teach and ‘easier to grade,’ is doing our student-writers a disservice.  So, here’s my attempt at an analogy; please let me know what you think:

“Teaching students to write only five paragraph essays is like telling them you can’t build a house unless it has three stories.”

A one story house can have all the ingredients that make a house a house:  a kitchen, a bathroom (or several), bedrooms, a living room, dining room, etc, etc., and be as elegant, beautiful and fully livable and enjoyable as a three story house.  A three story structure doesn’t make a house ‘better’ or ‘bigger,’ and the three stories doesn’t mean it has features that one or two story homes don’t.  It’s all about how the architect plays with the pieces, putting them together in creative ways to craft an interesting whole that does the job (based on his purpose, task and audience, er…you get my drift).  Mucking around with the pieces can result in a more exciting product and can leave the crafter with a much better sense of fulfillment.  Imagine stamping out the same cookie-cutter house again and again, day after day.   Where’s that stick?  The redundancy would be mind-numbing. 

We want our students’ minds to be stimulated, not numbed.  Go crazy.  Get wild.  Experiment writing ‘an essay’ yourself, even responding to a prompt, without doing it in the 5.P.E. mode.  Get out of the box and see what it does for you.  Imagine what this freedom might do for students.  Then, imagine, just imagine, you, in front of the class, modeling writing, breaking the 5.P.E. mold, but still addressing task, purpose, and audience, while finding your own voice and having some fun, to boot.  You might surprise yourself.  I guarantee, if you widen the possibilities, your student-writers will surprise you.  Best of all, nobody will be looking for a stick.

2 comments

  1. Great analogy, Janiel! I think lots of teachers feel uncomfortable teaching writing, so it's easy to fall into a "formula."

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  2. Hi Debbi,
    Thanks! I agree with you...I think that is a prime reason this happens. A formula can be like a security blanket and I get that. But, we don't want to box our students in and limit their possibilities!
    Thanks for writing! I'm excited to get a comment!!! :)
    Have a great evening! -j

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