Breaking Free from the Five Paragraph Essay: Whys and Hows

There’s a saying in English, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” We mean that in discarding one thing we risk losing something valuable. The five-paragraph essay is one of these things. It has been with us for a while now, and it persists, but under fire. Should we chuck it? And if we do, what do we repace it with?

In Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom edited by Nigel A. Caplan and Ann M. Johns, a team of scholars take up the mission of helping classroom practitioners make a transition to new approaches, and they offer some good ideas. We’ll just touch on a few here, and we’ll also add a few ideas that come from our classrooms.

The book acknowledges that many teachers and students find comfort in the five-paragraph essay and the abundant materials that support it. It’s a straightforward, easy-to-teach, easy-to-grade, formula. Defenders argue that it provides a foundation that is transferable to other writing contexts; it can be very helpful for a harried teacher without much background in rhetoric; and it eases the burden for students who are devoting a lot of cognitive attention to the lexico-grammatical issues involved in explaining ideas in writing.

However, both old and recent research suggests that the formulaic model leaves students underprepared when faced with the real world tasks of academic writing and beyond. The work ahead, then, is to figure out what we can keep from the past, what we need to let go of, and especially how we can start transitioning to a writing classroom that feels relevant and purposeful.

Genre, Genre, Genre

The generally accepted current answer to the how question is genre. Using a genre-based approach essentially means designing assignments that have a specific purpose and a particular audience. That audience already knows certain things about the topic and has some expectations about how information will be delivered. Often these expectations are efficiencies in communication patterns that make it easier to communicate, such as a recipe. The genre generally starts with a list of ingredients with specified amounts which is then followed by a set of orderly instructions written in the imperative.

 We do not use the third person singular or hedging in most recipes because it would seem weird to say something like this: The cook might begin the process of making brownies by assembling ingredients. This person could then add the first ingredient to a bowl, which is typically an egg. Then many cooks add oil, though a percentage of kitchen practitioners might prefer to use butter instead. There are good arguments for each, but for the purposes of this recipe, we’ve opted to use oil. Of course, this sounds ridiculous because it’s not efficient, it employs the language patterns of a different audience and purpose.            

The beauty of a genre is that the writing is no longer abstract. The recipe writer has a specific audience in mind, knows the conventions of the form, and, importantly, can write an infinite number of recipes within that genre. The relationship between the producer of information and the receiver is crystal clear.

For many teachers, the focus is still language, so it’s also worth noting that a recipe also has lexical and grammatical features that could be be developed. Not only is the imperative useful, but there are also verbs such as chop, boil, and bake which can then become adjectives as in “add the chopped onions.” There could also be lessons on count and non-count nouns and expressions of quantity.

Teach Principles, not Rules

The gradeability of the five-paragrapher is straightforward. Is there a hook? A thesis statement at the end of the first paragraph? three topic sentences? and a conclusion? Are there the requisite number of sentences/supporting details? It’s so easy! And yet, personally, I (Alice) find grading them a chore, so I procrastinate or reward myself with a piece of chocolate after every five papers. When this happens, I must acknowledge that students are not engaged in writing papers that make me look forward to learning their contributions to the discourse.

That’s the missing piece.

Genre with its emphasis on conversations and communities in the real world can foster engagement with a topic that excites and motivates the writer and piques the interest of the reader. To use it effectively, Dana Ferris and Hogan Hayes offer a set of principles which they assert are distinct from rules:

Successful academic writing . . .

  • is purpose/thesis driven
  • is clearly focused
  • signals its internal organization to the reader
  • is economical
  • is well edited

In these principles, it’s possible to see traces of the 5 paragraph essay (at least part of the baby) but far less rigidity. This overlap can provide familiarity and security, especially since the transition to new types of assignments might begin before a coursebook is replaced, or the curriculum is revised.

For example, a thesis as an organizing idea is fine, but it need not be a single statement at the end of the first paragraph; it doesn’t have to state exactly the number of points that will be made; and it can even be implied through effective structuring.

Here’s another adaptation: paragraphs should be distinct and unfold in a way that is clear and efficient, but there need not be a set number of paragraphs with explicit topic sentences. Groups of paragraphs that include extended examples, personal anecdotes, or some other tangent can be effective. Teachers can encourage students to follow a train of thought into a new paragraph; after all if something is worth bringing up, it’s worth explaining. Why not have writers follow their thoughts in a new direction? Sometimes, starting a new paragraph is like opening a door to an epiphany.

In fact, when we use our low level series, Trio, to teach paragraphing, we find that an assignment designed to clarify shifts from one aspect of a topic to another (at the beginner level) often leads students to writing beyond the two paragraph goal. They might produce four or even five paragraphs as they take on board the idea that a shift in time, place, or focus allows them to refresh and expand their writing even with limited language resources.

Audience and Purpose; Purpose and Audience

According to Nigel A. Caplan, Ann M. Johns, and others, a big distinction between the “practice writing” of the five-paragrapher and the dynamic communication of real writing is a sense of a purpose and a clear audience.  The recipe example is obvious, and again there can be a bit of overlap with some of the formulaic modes (in this case process writing). But genres cannot be genres without an audience that is having a conversation about a topic of importance to them.

Thus, an assignment in a genre-based approach tends to have more on the front end as students read about the topic, learn the communication patterns of the topic area and pick up the embedded meanings of terms or frequently used expressions. All this happens before they begin writing. The goal is to understand who they are talking to as well as what they are talking about before the first draft. Again, Ferris and Hayes offer a simple and effective approach.

  1. Understand the task.
  2. Investigate the genre.
  3. Consider the target audience.
  4. Generate content.
  5. Study models.

A genre-based assignment, unlike a five-paragraph essay, is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all that is (arguably) transferable to multiple contexts. Instead, it is specific and provides a path for students to contribute to a target community. It’s a bit like joining a club in which longstanding members share words, ideas, and knowledge. It’s cool to be a member, but one has to do a bit of work to get in.

That said, the specificity and writing for targeted communities can make adopting a genre approach intimidating. Many teachers do not feel qualified to present academic content. (I don’t) Perhaps this hesitation at least partly explains why change is slow. But we should do it anyway.  

In fact, 21st century education doesn’t ask us to be experts. It invites us to learn together with our students. The term reciprocal learning is now prevalent in conferences these days as instructors level up efforts to meet students where they are, particularly in online formats. Teachers from California to New York are pushing topics in new directions, offering students opportunities to write critical analysis of a hip hop song or a critique of a massive online battle arena (MOBA) computer game. Moving online makes it harder to connect socially, and a student is more likely to log in if they’re interested, knowledgeable, and curious to learn what peers say about an issue.

There’s another plus to considering student expertise in choosing a topic. As their reader, we can naturally make audience awareness a robust element of prewriting and feedback. We can encourage students to really think through what their audience knows and doesn’t know about, say, League of Legends, or the beach town where they grew up. For example, in prewriting, you could tell students you have no idea what avatars look like or can do. Then in feedback you could reinforce their decision to explain by saying, I’m so glad you take the time to explain one of the avatars in a separate detailed paragraph because it helps me understand what it might like to play a game that I’ve never played in my life!

Engaging Content

 A response to a TED talk is another potentially helpful example since a variety of talks are available on demand, come with transcripts, and translations and are easy to digest with their amusing anecdotes and glossy slides. Students can even slow the talk down to work on listening skills.

For example, How to use Imposter Syndrome to your Advantage is a highly engaging talk by an Australian entrepreneur who uses his own personal story to communicate a cheery message of turning anxiety into fuel for growth. It’s not academic, but it gives students an opportunity to practice critical thinking by applying a concept on a new context. They can start by previewing the vocabulary, listening to the talk, and discussing Mike Cannon-Brookes story. They can analyze his suggestions for coping with the feeling that one is a fraud and make connections to situations they’ve experienced or witnessed. The first set of questions could go something like this.

  • What is imposter syndrome?
  • What are two or three examples that Mike gives from his own life?
  • Does the information seem surprising to you in any way?
  • Have you ever had imposter syndrome?
  • Could you use his strategy? When? How?  

A simple assignment could be a reflective discussion post based on the questions above. The audience awareness is straightforward, as it includes the teacher and peers. The purpose is to socially construct a sense of whether the information in the talk is useful in one’s life, which is relevant.

A higher-level assignment might involve a project in which students watch a couple of Ted talks on a similar theme, break down the structure into how the speaker engages the audience, constructs the sections, illustrates points with stories and details, and relates the relevance of the topic to the world. Students can then go on to do their own mini-talk as a recording or present at a mini-conference, which could also involve a written component.

The distinguishing feature in the example of a TED talk is that content and critical thinking drive the process. There is a clear stage in which learners enter into and develop awareness of the community and figure out their place in the discourse. They also look at the text to see where the authority lies, how voice is handled, e.g., first or third person, and what are acceptable and possibly unacceptable ways to support a point. They can investigate the way the information unfolds, through various paragraph types such as this short list:

  • key questions,
  • narrative suspense
  • myth busting
  • expectations challenged
  • paradox explaining
  • a backwards process

Adapt and Experiment

In an excerpt from The House on Mango Street, author Sandra Cisneros unpacks a single powerful moment in which she picks up a guava in a grocery store. The fruit evokes memories that contrast the country she left with where she is now. This piece can resonate deeply with immigrants and perhaps inspire them to explore a moment with an artifact that unlocks a powerful memory of their own. They can also look at Cisneros’ writing choices. She uses short direct paragraphs that effectively track the memories that cascade through her mind, and it works for her. Why not let students try it?

A five-paragraph essay may be an attempt to simplify writing for the multi-lingual classroom, but just as a gap fill doesn’t predict communication skills in the real world, a formulaic template doesn’t predict writing in the real world. It can provide a sense of how a paper might be shaped with a beginning, middle and end, and it can provide some insight into the basics of paragraph structure, but the typical five-paragraph assignment doesn’t provide what students need to become real writers. For that, they need to engage with real content and the producers who create it.

Caplan, N. A., & Johns, A. M. (2019). Changing practices for the L2 writing classroom: Moving beyond the five-paragraph essay. Ann Arbor Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Categories: ELT

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1 reply »

  1. Thank you for your kind comments about our book, Alice, and for these great ideas for teaching! I may have to borrow your example about not using modal verbs in recipes! ~ Nigel


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