The writer lives in Wayne, Neb., where he teaches high school English.
A pliers, hammer and screwdriver may not be the most sophisticated tools in a craftsman’s toolbox, but they are some of the most useful.
However, in reviewing the new state language arts standards, a group of Nebraska college professors recently denounced a useful tool to English teachers and students: the traditional five-paragraph essay. According to a Jan. 27 World-Herald article, they see the form as “simplistic.” “You have to get away from the five-paragraph essay,” one of them argues. “It’s just way too basic.”
As someone who works with Nebraska students daily, I disagree entirely with these comments, as well as with the group’s apparently general disdain for the five-paragraph essay form. I use the five-paragraph essay form extensively in my senior English classroom, and I teach my students to use it the way a craftsman would use certain basic tools.
The traditional five-paragraph essay form — containing an introduction with a thesis, three body paragraphs and a restated thesis within a conclusion — is indeed basic. However, this basic form can teach many fundamentals of writing, one of the most important of which is organization.
Every teacher knows that students very often have great ideas but just as often need help with organizing their thoughts. Brain development, the adolescent social milieu and portable electronic devices (to name only a few factors) give so many students cognitive interference. The traditional essay’s thesis sentence is the perfect place to begin helping students achieve clarity in their thinking and writing.
A simple conversation between teacher and student early in a writing assignment can clarify a student’s central thesis and certain number of factors. This same conversation can help students identify what kind of background information is necessary for their audience and what tone is appropriate for the purpose of their essay. This type of conference can allow students of all ability levels to begin to craft clear, concise writing.
From there, the number of body paragraphs is actually quite flexible. Three is only a good starting point. My senior students sometimes write only two, when weighing both sides of an argument, or sometimes up to 13 to 15, when presenting the results of more extensive research.
At the end, a reiteration of a central idea is virtually always a good idea within or near the conclusion of any piece of writing, as well as a closing thought that leaves the reader thinking. My students learn this from the five-paragraph essay as well.
Critics of preconceived forms will argue that any form is an unnecessary restriction on students’ creativity. I posit, on the other hand, that writing toward a pre-planned form does not hinder but actually helps the creation of strong writing.
Advanced students have written five-paragraph essays for me that are so fluid one could easily forget there is a form at all. Average students have used this form as a guide or aid to say things they might never have been able to say otherwise. And below-average students, far from being held back by the form, have quite often found it liberating.
Moreover, in high schools, teachers’ instructional and planning time is quite limited, while students’ personal time is sometimes spread over a large number of classes, extracurricular activities and other obligations. A pre-shaped writing assignment can help a teacher help a student create solid and smooth writing much more efficiently.
The professors cited in the article note — correctly, to be sure — that the contemporary world demands familiarity with many other kinds of writing. Just as a pliers, hammer and screwdriver are introductory tools to thousands of other handheld implements, the five-paragraph essay is a great introduction to all kinds of writing.
Everything from business letters to journalism to lab reports to poems to tweets — virtually every other kind of writing demands the very same things that a well-written classroom essay does. Yet in the same way I do not know every tool a master craftsman uses, I cannot foresee every kind of writing my students will see in their lives and careers.
So while a pliers, hammer and screwdriver are not the only tools someone needs in a toolbox, they are some of the most reliable and durable. The same can be said of the five-paragraph essay form. The professors reviewing the new state language arts standards reject it unwisely.