Putting a Bullet in the Five Paragraph Essay

There's a great essay in this month's English Journal titled "The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education." In it UNC Charlotte WP representatives attack a 2007 column by Byung-In Seo defending this form. The article is a very interesting read, and the UNC WP pretty much crush Seo's article and any argument for formulaic writing.

I agree with the points in the article, but I still have a practical question. If not the five paragraph essay, then what? In the past, I have taught my kids that kind of thesis, restricted thesis, at least three body paragraph format because it seems like a good place to start to get students to at least flesh out that much (I know, deficit model). Then again, I've rarely been satisfied with the writing that comes out of assignments like the critical lens essay, controlling idea, etc. I think that most of us know how painful it is to score Regents exams (at least it was in the BPS), where only the top 10% are coherent and even less are original. Don't even get me started on the Task II essays (the factual reading).

So, I guess my question is, what is the alternative? Has anyone had success teaching essays* in any other format? What do you do?

* not personal essays, obviously, which lend themselves to more authentic organization.
** I'd put up a link to the essay, but you have to subscribe to EJ. If you do not, but would like to have a read, shoot me an email at malleyjoel@yahoo.com.


Kevin said...

I agree with your question: if not the 5 pp essay, then what takes its place?
How about some sort of multi-modal document that demonstrates planning, composition, multiple medias and authentic publication?
That would seem to have more value to everyone involved, if you ask me.
Take care

Mr. Malley said...

I agree wholeheartedly Kevin. I'm also involved with City Voices City Visions, a partnership between UB and the Buffalo Public Schools which teaches teachers how to integrate digital video composition into the classroom.

I'm wondering, though, how to best teach the quasi analytical/persuasive essays that typify state assessments. For instance, New York requires juniors to write four essays and all of their anchor papers have five paragraphs. Then, when you get into situations where other teachers are grading your exams I guess a teacher can get swept up in that deficit model of composition.

I don't set out to teach the 5 paragraph essay, but when students ask me how long an essay should be, in weaker moments I answer "at least three body paragraphs."

Essentially, I'm just wondering how other people approach more traditional writing assignments in a way that doesn't cater to the 5 paragraph model.

Appetite for Instruction said...


You could have students write authentic documents. By this I mean articles or informational texts that will appear online or in newspapers and journals for real audiences. Students could use Wikispaces or glogster.com in conjunction with GoogleDocs or Blogger.com to communicate with students in other countries or even just other districts and schools. They could participate in debates across the curriculum to interpret literature or analyze and persuade in real situations. This might make the kids more motivated and will help them develop real skills that will be marketable in the 21st century.

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