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Writing: Beyond the Five-Paragraph Formula

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 5 Comments

During a recent training I delivered for Keys to Content Writing, a middle school special education teacher challenged a statement I made that we need to be careful about teaching the “five-paragraph essay” formula (i.e., paragraph 1 is the introduction, followed by 3 body paragraphs, ending with a final conclusion paragraph).  This teacher explained that her struggling writers really benefit from the structure that this formula provides – without it, she fears they won’t know how to get started or that they will simply write one, long piece without any paragraph breaks.

Based on many years of teaching struggling readers and writers, I absolutely agree that these students need the kind of structure that the five-paragraph formula provides. It’s a great place to start to teach that informational and argument writing is organized around the basic text structures of introduction, body, and conclusion. We definitely need to teach students that well-written text is organized into a structure that helps the reader comprehend. However, the five-paragraph essay is limiting, and many classroom writing assignments won’t fit the format. What if the body requires more or less than three body paragraphs to “get the job done”? What if the writing piece is simple enough that it only requires an introductory sentence or concluding sentence? Or, what if the piece is lengthy and complex, requiring more than just a paragraph for the introduction or conclusion? We have to be careful that our struggling writers don’t come to believe that all writing fits this formula.

I find Kimberly Hill Campbell and Kristi Latimer’s exploration of what they call “the myth of the five-paragraph essay” helpful for explaining the limitations of this formula. They point out that while the five-paragraph formula appears to offer a way into writing for students who need help in organizing their thoughts, thirty years of research indicate that this formula doesn’t always serve students well. Here are a few points they make:

  • Reliance on the formula keeps students from developing the thinking and organizational skills they need to support their writing. Their focus becomes fitting sentences into the correct slots rather than figuring out for themselves what they’re trying to say and the best structure for saying it. Its emphasis on organization over content squelches complex ideas that do not fit neatly into three boxes.
  • It reinforces a deficit model of education that believes struggling students must use this formula because of their limited writing skills. When the five-paragraph formula is emphasized, these students may perceive writing to be more about following a set of instructions than an expression of their individual thinking and creativity.
  • It doesn’t ensure successful writing in college. College instructors complain that the five-paragraph formula leads to bland but planned essays, first-year writing courses often focus on un-teaching the formula, and most college writing assignments are far longer than five paragraphs.

You can read more in their book “Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay” (2012, Stenhouse Publishers), or the article with the same title that Kimberly wrote for Educational Leadership (April, 2014) You can also listen to the National Writing Project’s 1 hour show “Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay” with Kimberly and Kristi.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founding partner of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy routines. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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5 Comments

  1. Phyllis M. Hakeem, M.A.,C.A.G.S.

    What I appreciate about Joan Sedita and her work is that she does her homework when it comes to staying current with the research. Her choice of references is sound – meaning that the studies she uses are valid, reliable, and most important have a large enough random sampling to allow for generalizing to our students! Thank you Joan!

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  2. Reenie Keith

    I couldn’t agree more Joan! Thank you for tackling an important topic. I especially like the idea of “planned and bland;” students deserve to learn how to write well and not be pigeon holed into using standardized formulas.

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  3. Lorie Shiveley

    Thank you so much for writing this! I teach 8th grade language arts and spend so much time undoing what our sixth and seventh grade teachers have done by only allowing five paragraph essays. I plan on sharing this with my principal in hopes she will pass it on.

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  4. Stacy

    This has been my philosophy for years, but I am now teaching at a high school that is very rigid about formulaic writing. I’m struggling with what I feel is authentic teaching/learning and conforming to department expectations.

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  5. Jane

    From my experience, I am both for and against. However, what concerns me is that there are a number of “people” discrediting formula teaching whilst not offering adequate and valuable alternatives. As professionals we should not be discrediting the work of our colleagues but building upon it – so students you have learnt the five paragraph model, now let’s advance on that. Why do we need to “undo” what sixth and seventh grade teachers have done? I would celebrate the fact that students have been given a solid foundation and use it to broaden their writing, I would take them out of the pigeon holing by exploring those “what if” questions.

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