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The 5 Paragraph Essay

This post is written by NCTE member Kim Zarins. 

[Disclaimer: I don’t have a PhD in composition studies. My PhD is in English with a focus on medieval literature. Besides teaching college literature courses, I write creatively, and my debut young adult novel comes out in September. I am joining the debate on the five-paragraph essay in response to Kathleen Rowlands’ smart “Slay the Monster” journal article, because I think high school and college teachers can work together and set up our students for success—and the five-paragraph essay is setting them up for a really tough time in college. Students don’t find their voices this way and come to college hating how they sound in writing, particularly in the essay form.

As a high-school survivor of this form and now a teacher occasionally receiving it from students trying their best, I have to say I hate this abomination. I hate it so much, I decided to be naughty and condemn the five-paragraph essay in a five-paragraph essay. Here you go. Enjoy. Or not.]

From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of the modern high school, the five-paragraph essay has been utilized in high school classrooms. Despite this long tradition, the five-paragraph essay is fatally flawed. It cheapens a student’s thesis, essay flow and structure, and voice.

First, the five-paragraph essay constricts an argument beyond usefulness or interest. In principle it reminds one of a three-partitioned dinner plate. The primary virtue of such dinner plates is that they are conveniently discarded after only one use, much like the essays themselves. The secondary virtue is to keep different foods from touching each other, like the three-body paragraphs. However, when eating from a partitioned plate, a diner might have a bite of burger, then a spoonful of baked beans, then back to the burger, and then the macaroni salad. The palate satisfies its complex needs for texture, taste, choice, and proportion. Not so for the consumers of the five-paragraph essay, who must move through Point 1, then Point 2, and then Point 3. No exceptions. It is arbitrary force-feeding to the point of indigestion. After the body paragraphs, and if readers have not already expired, they may read the Conclusion, which is actually a summary of the Introduction. There is no sense of building one’s argument or of proportion.

Second, critical thinking skills and the organization of the essay’s flow are impaired when a form must be plugged and filled with rows of stunted seeds that will never germinate. If we return to the partitioned-plate analogy, foods are separated, but in food, there is a play in blending flavors, pairing them so that the sum is greater than the individual parts. Also, there is typically dessert. Most people like dessert and anticipate it eagerly. In the five-paragraph essay there is no anticipation, only homogeneity, tedium, and death. Each bite is not food for thought but another dose of the same. It is like Miss Trunchbull in the Roald Dahl novel,  forcing the little boy to eat chocolate cake until he bursts—with the exception that no one on this planet would mistake the five-paragraph essay for chocolate cake. I only reference the scene’s reluctant, miserable consumption past all joy or desire.

Third, the five-paragraph form flattens a writer’s voice more than a bully’s fist flattens an otherwise perky, loveable face. Even the most gifted writer cannot sound witty in a five-paragraph essay, which makes one wonder why experts assign novice writers this task. High school students suffer to learn this form, only to be sternly reprimanded by college professors who insist that writers actually say something. Confidence is shattered, and students can’t articulate a position, having only the training of the five-paragraph essay dulling their critical reasoning skills. Moreover, unlike Midas whose touch turns everything to gold, everything the five-paragraph essay touches turns to lead. A five-paragraph essay is like a string of beads with no differentiation, such as a factory, rather than an individual, might produce.  No matter how wondrous the material, the writer of a five-paragraph essay will sound reductive, dry, and unimaginative. Reading over their own work, these writers will wonder why they ever bothered with the written word to begin with, when they sound so inhuman. A human’s voice is not slotted into bins of seven to eleven sentences apiece. A human voice meanders—but meaning guides the meandering. Voice leans and wends and backtracks. It does not scoop blobs of foodstuff in endless rows. If Oliver Twist were confronted with such blobs of written porridge, he would not ask for more.

In conclusion, the five-paragraph essay is an effective way to remove all color and joy from this earth. It would be better to eat a flavorless dinner from a partitioned plate than to read or write a five-paragraph essay. It would be better to cut one’s toenails, because at least the repetitive task of clipping toenails results in feet more comfortably suited to sneakers, allowing for greater movement in this world. The five-paragraph essay, by contrast, cuts all mirth and merit and motion from ideas until there is nothing to stand upon at all, leaving reader and writer alike flat on their faces. Such an essay form is the very three-partitioned tombstone of human reason and imagination.

Kim Zarins is a medievalist and an Associate Professor of English at the California State University at Sacramento. Her debut young adult novel, Sometimes We Tell the Truth (Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse, pub date Sept 6), retells Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with modern American teens traveling to Washington D.C. Find her on Twitter @KimZarins.

The 5 paragraph essay is considered to be the standard essay writing assignment. It is used in most exams such as TOEFL, IELTS, and the SAT. Since most of these exams limit the student time-wise in the "Writing" section, students are trained to memorize this format. This allows the student to answer the exam prompt quickly and efficiently. The format’s plasticity allows students to experiment with various essay styles. Persuasive, Argumentative, Expository, Narrative and Cause and Effect can all adapt to this format. As a result, perfecting the 5 paragraph essay is a practice that often turns rookies into experienced essay writer.


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Good Example Topics

  • Can one learn a life lesson from an experience that they didn't have? Can you learn from other people's mistakes?
  • Is animal testing ethical?
  • Should same-sex marriage be allowed?
  • Should laws on gun-control be more strict?
  • Should the death penalty be abolished completely?
  • Should marijuana be legalized?
  • Should education be free for all students?

The paper topics listed above are some of the most common topics students write essays about. Of course, they are not limited to only these. Before choosing a topic and start the writing process, students should look to come up with a catchy title. The reason for doing so is centered around grabbing the readers attention right from the get go.

Outline

This type of essay has a very specific outline; It starts with an Introduction, goes to Body Paragraph 1, Body Paragraph 2, Body Paragraph 3, and sums things up with a Conclusion. Each body paragraph serves a specific purpose, and the essay is in the form of a keyhole. This means that it starts out very BROAD, gets more NARROW and finishes out BROAD.

Introduction: 3-5 Sentences

  • The introduction sets the structure for the rest of the essay, with the first sentence being the HOOK sentence.
  • The Hook Sentence is kind of like the spark to a flame; It grabs the reader's attention.
  • The Hook is usually either a rhetorical question or some life example or a stunning fact

This is a rhetorical question, meaning it does not need an answer because it is obvious.

Brief Introduction of Supporting Arguments (1-3)

Here you are taking your supporting arguments and briefly introducing them to the reader without revealing too much information.

Tip: Think of it as a trailer for a movie, like it should be exciting but can’t give away the “PLOT”.

Thesis Statement

  • The most important part of your entire essay; .
  • This statement will be the basis for the rest of your custom essay
  • Since we are talking about nature preservation, an example of a good thesis would be:
  • “The preservation of our planet is the most important aspect of keeping Mother Nature in check and avoiding draconian disasters.”

Quick Tip: if you find that your body paragraphs have nothing to do with your thesis, you can go back and change the thesis.

Body Paragraphs 1,2,3 (5-7 Sentences)

  • This is the “meat” of your 5 paragraph essay, where you explain the side you are defending (Thesis Sentence)
  • Structure of the body paragraphs is usually: Intro sentence (1), Supporting Argument
  • Explanation (3-5), Concluding Sentence (1)
  • Intro sentence should briefly bring out your argument without revealing too much information
  • Example:
  • Supporting Argument and Explanation: This is taking the topic and going into detail, while still most importantly DEFENDING YOUR THESIS!
  • Example:
  • The Concluding Sentence should be the opposite of the intro: instead of introducing your argument, you are briefly concluding your argument, transitioning into your next one.
  • Example:

THE FORMAT FOR ALL 3 BODY PARAGRAPHS IS THE SAME

KEY TIP:

  • The arguments should go in this order:
  • First body paragraph should be your second strongest argument
  • Second body should be your weakest argument
  • Third body should be your strongest argument

To give our readers a nice keyhole format visual, we have a picture of a standard Graphic Organizer below.

Conclusion (3-5 Sentences): This is the “mirror” of your intro

  • Restating Your Thesis (Sentence 1): You take your main argument (thesis) and restate it in a conclusive way. You are paraphrasing it in an assertive manner to show that you have “proved your point.”
  • Example:
  • Concluding your supporting arguments (1-3 Sentences): This is taking your supporting arguments (your body paragraphs) and rephrasing the main points you made in one sentence per paragraph.
  • If some of your supporting arguments are similar then you can combine them into one sentence to keep the good structure.
  • So for example,

Concluding Hook Sentence (Optional)

A good way to end an essay is something unexpected, to surprise the reader.
Create a second hook, but this time it should be a hook that SUMS things up in a few words, rhetorical questions are good for this.

This gives the 5 paragraph essay some spice at the end and makes the reader question your statement.

General Grading Rubric

Several schools and universities worldwide use several different types of rubrics, but one of the most standard rubric styles is the 5 point style, where it is broken down into 5 segments: Focus, Organization, Conventions, Style, and Content.

  • Focus: Did the writer spends his time proving his thesis? Did he accomplish his goal?
  • Organization: Was the essay fluid and were the transitions in between paragraphs smooth? Did the writer follow the proper outline and not diverge from the set structure?
  • Conventions: Did the writer make many grammatical mistakes? Did they have run on sentences?
  • Style: Did the writer use high-level vocabulary, were words rarely repeated, how creative were his sentence structures?
  • Content: Did the writer properly prove his argument? Were his statements logical and factual? Did he create strong arguments?

Example

Essay Writing Advice From Our Professional Writers

Best Brian, fromEssayPro

A five paragraph essay is the first big writing assignment that your teacher will have you do in middle school! If you’re a beginner essayist, then my tip for you is to learn how to ensure that each paragraph has its own unique idea. Once you’ve mastered that, you can practice making your paragraphs flow into each other with transition sentences. Later on, in high school and college, this will be a very valuable skill to have. Connect your ideas together so your readers can follow along with ease. While writing, always keeps in mind what your next paragraph is about and try to lead up to it. In the first essays that you write, using words like “Firstly, Secondly, and In conclusion” is acceptable, but later on, you will need to find ways to separate your ideas without those linking words. Don’t make them a habit. Good luck with your writing!

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