Monday, February 12, 2007

The Five Paragraph Essay

New horrible papers are on their way. Until then, I wanted to write about something different:

If there's any form of paper writing that needs to die, it's the five paragraph essay. They're really popular for standardized high school tests in Michigan, mostly because they're easy to grade. Oddly enough, they still have a place here at the University of Michigan. The format goes like this:

Paragraph 1: Introduction
Paragraph 2: Antithesis
Paragraph 3: Info
Paragraph 4: Info
Paragraph 5: Conclusion

And the writer is not to deviate from the structure!
Back in high school, I had to do one of these essays in preparation for the MEAP. I did all this research and put together an essay I thought was pretty good, but my slight deviations (saving the antithesis for the fourth paragraph for example) earned me a C: not because I didn't write well, but because I observe the rules of the five paragraph essay.
Furthermore, the red ink suggested that it was a huge error on my part to allow my conclusion paragraph to analyze and wrap up. According to the powers that be, the conclusion cannot introduce any new information. The author is not allowed to analyze: only to repeat what he has already said as if the reader might have forgotten the point of the paper in the time it took him to read a few paragraphs.

In the end it goes something like this [if I were writing about five paragraph essays]:

In this blog post, I am going to convince you that five paragraph essays suck. They're awful.
Some may say that five paragraph essays are great. They are wrong.
This is a short paragraph where I can't cram in any info.
This is another short paragraph. Too bad I can't have a third info paragraph.
Conclusion paragraph that consists of what I just wrote less than a page ago.

Is this how we're going to teach kids to write a good essay? A child would do considerably better if someone taught him how to write a several-paragraph essay where the paragraphs transition nicely from one to another. Why teach a kid to fill up all his essays with dead words? There's something wrong about an essay where only two out of five paragraphs have good, solid information.

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20 Comments:

Blogger tekla said...

I only failed one paper in my entire life, and it was a 9th-grade 5-paragraph essay critiquing the 5-paragraph essay form. My teacher thought I was being cheeky, and I remember breaking down in tears after getting it back (because I thought I was so cool!). If I ever become a teacher/professor, I won't allow the 5-p essay form, that's for sure.

Speaking of disallowing it, though, there's an English prof at UM (Dr. Back, I think) who won't let her students write in 5p form. Most of them are freaked out and frozen for a few weeks, but by the end of term they write pretty darn good intro papers.

2:57 AM  
Anonymous jb said...

My writing instruction at UM encouraged no adherence to the 5-paragraph form. In fact, in at least one class, they required the final paragraph ("conclusion," in the parlance of our times) to introduce new information.

That said, the five-paragraph cookie cutter was the bread and butter of my high school curriculum.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I don't understand how you can write a university paper in only five paragraphs. Aren't most papers required to be over five pages long? That'd demand some damn long paragraphs.

I'm shocked that anyone at a university (any university) would require this hampered, unoriginal, limiting format.

10:31 AM  
Anonymous heidi said...

I have received 5-page papers in 5-paragraph essay form. Each paragraph takes up approximately a page. No, I am not joking. Yes, they did follow the formula. It's actually rather common (in intro. classes, especially), not that it isn't totally disheartening as well.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous dana khan said...

Thank God they've replaced the MEAP with the ACT. I think they still require the writing, but I trust the ACT corporation to judge more intelligently than the State of Michigan.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Kathleen said...

I teach high school here in SE Michigan, and I have to tell you, the only way some students can wrap their heads around the concept of organizing a paper is to start them on the 5p. essay.

That said, as they advance through their high school career, we try to teach them variations on the 5p essay (i.e. that what really matters is that you have an intro, a body, and a conclusion; that the body can be as big or as little as you need it to be, but that you should have topic sentences, a thesis in your intro, and a conclusion that does recap your main points). The idea of not introducing new info (for me) doesn't mean NOT analyzing, but not citing new information that would also need to be analyzed.

In response to dana khan, while the state has replaced the MEAP with the ACT/MME, the ACT rubric for the writing test, as well as the MME Civic essay (both of which the students are required to do) calls for pretty much the EXACT type of 5p essay that AHFB outlines above. So we've just replaced one stupid test with another SERIES of stupid tests, one of which (the ACT) has nothing to do with measuring what you've learned in high school, but is meant to predict your success in your first year of college.

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm from Massachuetts. We have our own sort of MEAP, the MCAS, that requires a fairly strictly organized essay, but I have never heard of this 5-paragraph form. Actually, I don't think that I've ever written an antithesis in my life. Instead of this, we were always taught to have (at least) 3 detail paragraphs. As for analyzing in the conclusion, I was taught that the majority of analyzation should go in the detail paragraphs, but I don't think I was ever told to put NO new information in the conclusion. I'm really surprised to hear about the absurdity of that... I thought the MCAS was dumb...

6:05 PM  
Anonymous adrienne said...

OH God! I was taught a similar system in high school and I never could get it right. The first paragraph was supposed to "start general and end with the thesis statement." I never could start generally enough. I wanted to write something like, "People live all over the world." Just to see if it was "General" enough. Gah!

7:00 PM  
Anonymous heidi said...

Of course, the problem is, as always, that we're trying to substitute a rote-learned form of writing for real thinking.

7:06 PM  
Blogger AHFB said...

Adrienne: Someone actually told you to start general? Geez, I've seen far too many papers start with stuff like "Since the beginning of time, family relations have never been easy."

Geez, no wonder.

7:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yes, in the diagrams for the 5 paragraph essay, the intro and conclusion are represented by triangles, both pointing toward the body. It shows how you go from general to specific in the intro and specific to general in the conclusion.

8:57 PM  
Anonymous dana khan said...

Kathleen-

No, I know the format is the same. I'm just thinking about how absolutely horrendous my MEAP writing topics were.

Realistically I'm happy because not only will the immense budget that went toward creating the MEAP now go to better things, people won't have to pay for the ACT anymore. True, unprepared students might get poor ACT scores and kind of get hurt. But I feel like the skills needed to succeed on the ACT are much more useful than those needed to succeed on the MEAP, so if a curriculum is now based on making students perform better on the former, it's still moving in a positive direction.

Does that make sense? I'm not the most eloquent when I try and get my point across.

10:12 PM  
Blogger Brian Restuccia said...

Shouldn't you structure a paper based on an idea that you are writing about and not the idea around the structure of the paper you have to write?

10:50 PM  
Blogger Canadian Canuck said...

Of course, by grade 12, they acknowledge the fact that no one writes essays like that and it's just a simple way to write an essay and makes it really easy to mark.

1:32 AM  
Blogger malaria bordeaux said...

I knew nothing other than the 5-paragraph form until I got to college. It's painful for those of us who can/like to write. As was mentioned somewhere above, however, I agree that sometimes it is used for kids just so they can somewhat write a legible paper. Many high school students are lacking when it comes to motivation and interest in essays. I understand that it's a stepping stone in understanding how to provide information, even in a simple, predictable way.

When I got to college, I quickly learned that the 5-paragraph form was NOT what they were looking for (and it felt great!!). I brought a couple papers back at one point to a high school English teacher that I was close with, just to get ideas on touching them up before I turned them in again. The only thing she had to say was that I didn't have clear enough topic sentences, I included more than one topic in a paragraph, and that it wasn't in a 'form'.

As for on campus, the first and only time I've experienced a teacher/class looking for the 5 paragraph, Triangle-down-triangle-up method is currently in SAC 236, where topic sentences are highly encouraged.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

As an engineer, I've always hated how writing is formally taught. I think a lot of us think very non-linearly.

I've since learned to forget everything from high school and just make the flow of information presented natural + use proper grammar. Everything else falls into place.

In conclusion, that's what I think about what I just said.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a teacher, and I have to teach the 5 paragraph essay. It is a pain in the rear end to teach, but when you have 30 kids to a class and only 47 minutes with them, it's hard to do anything less structured than that. They need a strict rubric, and WE, as teachers, need that, as well.

I know it sucks, and I know it only teaches the kids to write a stereotypical essay; however, it's difficult to teach a student how to write to begin with unless you have some kind of outline to go by. Otherwise, they'll be all over the place and never say a thing.

6:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I personally dislike writing five-paragraph essays. I find it exceedingly difficult to make the essay something interesting that draws the reader in if you've got to have the inverted triangles and only three body paragraphs (!), one of which must be the antithesis.

That said, I do think that the five paragraph essay is something which everybody should know how to write, a reference point, as it were. It's kind of like "you need to know the rules before you can break them." The five paragraph essay does provide one method of structuring one's argument- the problem occurs when it is presented as the only way.

I am, for what it's worth, a high school student.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Kelly said...

I say work from home like me, and you won't have to ever write an essay again. Check out my blog at
mythoughtsonalot.blogspot.com or

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6:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kathleen I am a high School student and i have to disagree with your assertion that the only way to teach students to organize a paper is the five paragraph format. I am a firm believer in revised and edited streams of thought or revised and edited rants. The idea of teaching to write is to give the student the tools to manipulate rhetorical devices to express a thought. The five paragraph essay doesn't give such tools and doesn't allow for purposeful digressions or free modifiers. I dare you to find a Montaingne or a Dillard essay in that disgusting format.

11:21 PM  

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