Reasons to (Still) Use the Five Paragraph Essay in High School and Beyond (Even for Advanced Learners)

The five-paragraph essay is a formulaic, bland, rigid model.  But it is also an incredibly structured, challenging guide.  It is a tool that can either stifle a writer or push them towards growth.   I have something of a love-hate relationship with the five-paragraph essay.  Students even can see it as a challenge or busywork, with the quality of essay and opportunity for growth that results.

But how can one little structured essay be all these things?  That relates to why it should still be used in the high school classroom, and beyond.

  1.  It’s very structured.  While the five paragraph essay can be very formulaic, the structure should be considered a positive.  For students who struggle with structure, the five paragraph essay provides additional practice and review of the basic essay structure.  Once this structure is mastered, it’s easier for students to expand the essay– add more body paragraphs using the same focused paragraphs and structure.  On the flip side, for students how are competent at longer essays with regards to content, students may get more lose with the essay and paragraph structure.  A return to the five paragraph essay can help them practice and review organization, with the reminder that the same guidelines of organization are the same, regardless of essay length (intro, focused body paragraphs with topic sentence and link to thesis, plus conclusion that provides no new information.)
  2. It’s very organized.  The five paragraph essay relies on the three pieces of support, along with the details or explanation of that support to form the body paragraphs.  Students who struggle with organization get practice focusing on one topic in their body paragraph, and can work on strengthening their ability to explain and analyze support in the body paragraph.  Most students will benefit from the review of using a main idea to start a paragraph, as well as keeping one topic per paragraph.
  3. It can be used to differentiate the focus for improvement.  No, really, I was surprised as I started working with this format more closely.  Partly because the format is almost fill-in-the-blank, the focus for improvement, or even grading, can be differentiated for students.  For students still working on complete sentences, the low content requirement can help move the focus.  Students can focus on clear, concise, and organized writing, down to sentence-level.  For students who are proficient writers, it can be tempting to just give them a ‘pass’ on the sentence-level development– HOWEVER, one great way to push the at-grade-level and above-grade level writers is to encourage them to add more content without adding more sentences.  This requires using complex and compound-complex sentence structures: longer sentences, but accurately structured and punctuated.  So, for high and low level writers, there is development of structure and mechanics, but differentiated.
  4. They can be quicker to review and grade, for faster feedback.  Feedback on the writing process is important.  More so, if students have the opportunity to see and track recurrent errors and work on them.  A series of short essays can build that portfolio of practice and review.  With short essays, it may be easier to work in workshop on conferencing time– there is less time needed to review the five paragraphs than a longer paper would need.  This allows time for the teacher to help review errors and corrections with more depth than can be done in margin comments.  Or, the short form, I find, works great for quick student conferences in class. 
  5. It’s good practice for demand-writing (and standardized testing.)  The five paragraph essay’s short length makes it quicker to write.  For students, this means they get practice writing texts of different lengths– sometimes I think there is too much focus on longer writing, to the point I’ve seen teachers focus on one or two BIG writing assignments, with little or no structured essay or research writing beyond the Big Writing Assignments.  Shorter writing is a good skill to keep sharp, especially if we recognize that much daily writing for most students will not be long-form research papers, but short, concise and direct.  Demand writing also has the element of limited revision, where students must write accurately the first time– no “sloppy copy” or rough draft where students don’t correct even basic errors they know need fixing.  Standardized testing gives little time for revision, especially if the student struggles with topic development before starting, and it’s good to practice this under-pressure short form to help students see and improve their weak areas long before the test.  We’d do a disservice to not spend some time writing short essays regularly.

One of my favorite tools for working with the Five Paragraph Essay is the use of support documents.  I like the Five-Paragraph Essay Model as a rough draft for students (even the proficient ones) and it’s easy to me to review and give fast feedback.  I’ve also expanded my toolbox for the Five-Paragraph essay materials to include Quick Guides (some may call them “Cheat Sheets” that walk students through process.)

With several levels of support documents, I might require that some groups of below-grade level writers use the models and reference guides, even referring to them myself in conversation.  For at grade level writers, I would provide and encourage the reference guides while working.  Lastly, for above-grade level writers, I might deny them the support guides during the writing process, to push them to independent work, but use them guides to discuss with the student what they achieved and what they did not, as compared to the guides and templates.

The Five Paragraph Essay, in my opinion, should not be left behind as students progress in grades, or even in writing ability.  It is a tool that has a place in any classroom to help review and reteach, but also to challenge and to check.


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