Part I: Introduction--What inspired my argumentative response?
For decades, too many high-school teachers have been instilling persuasive writing skills by teaching students the five-paragraph essay. You know it:
Introduction with three reasons
A summary of all three reasons
It's bad writing. It's always been bad writing. With the Common Core Standards designed to shift the way we teach students to think, read, and write, this outdated writing tradition must end. If you're teaching it--stop it. If your son, daughter, niece, or nephew (or a young person you care about) is learning it--prepare to engage with the teacher to end it.
The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless.
If I were using five paragraphs to convince you, based on the argument above, you wouldn't need to read any farther. Instead, we should use the original argumentative form Aristotle promoted but that somehow got watered down into the ordinary structure we, unfortunately, were likely taught or may currently teach.
Aristotle became one of the godfathers of rhetoric by creating structures for persuasive writing and speaking that--if taught to young people today--would transform writing instruction and facilitate the implementation of the Common Core, proving that students--when guided appropriately--can succeed with critical thinking in the 21st century.
Part 2: Background--What preceded my argument and / or what needs to be clarified?
Teachers know that, in the 90s, state standards were developed to guide instruction. Some teachers liked them; some hated them. Each state, though, had its own. A few years ago, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers began work on national standards to increase consistency. These new national standards are challenging--and necessary.
According to the Common Core Web site, the "standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers."
Besides allowing for instructional consistency among states, the states help align instruction vertically so one grade's instruction leads to the next.
The Common Core site also states that "these standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. The standards:
- are aligned with college and work expectations;
- are clear, understandable and consistent;
- include rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills;
- build upon strengths and lessons of current state standards;
- are informed by other top performing countries, so that all students are prepared to succeed in our global economy and society; and
- are evidence-based."
If high-school students and teachers are to succeed with Common Core Standards, the five-paragraph essay cannot be part of instruction. Too many times, this ordinary format is the default mode for expressing thinking in English, in history, in science, in P.E., and even in math. The problem is this format doesn't encourage thoughtful persuasion. It promotes low-level summary that nobody really cares about.
Aristotle rightfully promoted five parts to effective writing and speaking. Eventually, because of low expectations, because of poor literacy training, because of convenience or some combination, these five parts became five paragraphs. And writing became boring and predictable.
Part 3: Confirmation--What supports my argument?
The thesis or argument in the traditional five-paragraph essay doesn't lend itself to debatability or originality. It's a trap that students can never escape. A few years ago, I got the chance to be an AP English reader for the College Board. Over and over, if a student used the rudimentary three-part "argument," there was no way he or she could demonstrate success in the analysis essay--even though we were all supportive readers. Students were trapped into only writing about three aspects of the text instead of starting at the top, ending at the bottom, and going through the text with a critical eye that revealed an insight to the reader.
In competitions such as history fairs, students cannot compete with the rudimentary three-part argument. When I started a Writing Center at a selective-enrollment high school a couple of jobs ago, the history teacher came to me and said she needed something to help students succeed. Over and over, she was getting arguments with blank, blank, and blank.
Together we came up with this structure for arguments, which has served me and students well:
specific topic + debatable view + significance to the audience
- Example A: The longer school day in Chicago next year does not guarantee that students will be productive in classes, reminding us that young people need to find learning meaningful.
- Example B: The longer school day in Chicago next year does guarantee more learning opportunities, resulting in increased student success.
If students want to get really fancy, they can use a subordinate phrase at the beginning to de-emphasize common beliefs:
- Example C: Despite its widespread use, the traditional five-paragraph essay does not allow students to express ideas engagingly, proving that this structure limits students' writing development.
The image above is the handout I use with students thanks to the conversations with my mentor Robin Bennett, a fondly remembered theater and history teacher.
Another damaging aspect of using five paragraphs is that students find it almost impossible to do anything but write in expository paragraphs. If we use Aristotle's original form instead, students are able to incorporate compare/contrast, cause/effect, definition, or analysis paragraphs as appropriate. We'll have more modes to teach; students will have more options.
Aristotle's form, however, is not a one-size-fits-all approach. This form doesn't work for science lab reports. For that, we should follow the example of the science tradition. Lab reports are not argumentative.
This form should also not be the form for a narrative essay. For that, we should follow the example of NPR This I Believe essays. While personal essays do carry a subtextual argument, they are not intended to persuade. They are written so we can experience what we have not or find solidarity through what we have.
Aristotle's form works only for persuasive essays--which need to be part of our educational system more often. We just need to make sure that we are presenting students with persuasive prompts that have more than one reasonable response.
Part 4: Refutation--What challenges my argument?
I know. I know. I'm hearing, "But how are students going to learn organization without learning the five-paragraph essay?" My response: they're not learning an organizational pattern that will help them succeed outside of your own classroom.
Effective cover letters aren't written in five-paragraph essays. We don't expect a news article to follow a five-paragraph format. Quite simply, there aren't always three reasons to prove our point.
Students need to write for a specific rhetorical context. The College Board promotes the SOAP format to help students understand guidelines and expectations:
Subject: Who or what are you writing about?
Occasion: What idea or incident is inspiring this need for persuasion? How much time to you have to write this?
Audience: Who will read this? What do they believe about the subject? Are they a supportive or skeptical audience?
Purpose: What is the job of this essay? What specifically do you want the audience to realize?
Students and teachers can use this to deconstruct prompts. Finally, the SOAP format, when combined with Aristotle's form, can help students write one or ten page essays effectively. The five paragraph essay limits students into about 1 1/2 pages.
Part 5: Conclusion--What are the benefits of accepting my argument?
Aristotle called the last part of the persuasive event the epilogue. Unlike the five-paragraph essay that begins with "As you can see . . ." and leaves the reader thinking, "Why are you telling me what you told me a couple minutes ago? I'm not stupid," Aristotle, in The Rhetoric, tells us a good writer should do this in the conclusion: "make the audience well-disposed towards ourselves and ill-disposed to our opponent." One way to achieve this is to explain the benefits if the audience accepts our view. It's a good opportunity for students to make inferences or predictions.
If teachers and students move away from the rudimentary, unengaging, and useless five-paragraph format, students will be able to think for themselves and understand that writing can really challenge people's views. Students will create persuasive essays that incorporate information in un-identical ways to everyone else. Furthermore, rhetorical limits won't be obstacles; they'll become guidelines for success.
Finally, students will learn that their persuasive abilities, when used responsibly, will have value outside of the 46 minutes they were given to write.
I'm adding this link to student essays that use Aristotle's form to help readers understand how they work. These were essays written by two of my students.
Due to the popularity of this post since May, in October I wrote about strategies for effective narrative writing--especially for personal statements--that avoid the traditional five-paragraph form.
What strategies have you used or seen that help students develop writing and critical-thinking skills?
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Have you ever made an awesome chocolate cake without looking at a recipe first? Unless you are an extremely talented baker, most likely the answer is “no.” Just one cup of flour too many and your chocolate dessert will be a chocolate mess!
The same goes for writing a 5-paragraph essay. If you are an extremely talented writer, you may be able to intuitively create a compelling essay with all the components needed to be both persuasive and easy to swallow…or follow.
However, if writing doesn’t come easily to you, you can benefit from creating a 5-paragraph essay outline before jumping into your writing assignment. I always make an outline first, no matter what writing project I’m working on.
There are endless, different ways to write a compelling essay. But, if your teacher is demanding that you sum up your argument in five succinct paragraphs, follow this easy tutorial on how to create a 5-paragraph essay outline.
Structure of the 5-Paragraph Essay Outline
The 5-paragraph essay is made of…you guessed it…five paragraphs. Each paragraph serves a specific purpose:
- Paragraph 1: Amazing introduction (hook) and the all-important thesis statement
- Paragraph 2: Argument A and supporting facts or quotes
- Paragraph 3: Argument B and supporting facts or quotes
- Paragraph 4: Argument C and supporting facts or quotes
- Paragraph 5: Conclusion, made up of your restated thesis and the broader significance of your argument
Here’s how this outline would look if you sketched it out:
A Note on Formatting Your 5-Paragraph Essay Outline
Now, I’m not saying that you must put your outline into a diagram like the one above—using a simple pen and paper or word processor will suffice. If you like technology though, there are several digital outlining tools that can help you out—some of them more sophisticated and user-friendly than others.
It’s not really about making a perfect 5-paragraph essay outline, rather, it’s about developing an outline that makes the most sense to you. An outline ensures that you have the necessary components to write an awesome essay.
Without further delay, let’s jump into more detail about each of the outline components.
Step One: Identify Your Topic
First we need a topic. Typically, your instructor will give you a subject to write about, or at least parameters for a topic. Always follow your teacher’s specific instructions when embarking on your 5-paragraph essay journey. After all, you don’t want the wrath of your instructor to come down upon you for completely ignoring instructions.
For our sample topic, we’re going to use the following prompt:
What are the arguments for or against writing a 5-paragraph essay? Should teachers continue requesting this writing method from students?
Step Two: Take a Stance on Your Topic
We need to take a stance for or against teachers asking students to write 5-paragraph essays, so we can argue for or against it in our thesis statement.
Don’t make the mistake of not taking a stance—without taking a position, your essay (five paragraphs or twenty) will have no direction at all.
When deciding on your position, you have to choose one that can be backed with valid and supportable arguments, either from your research or from the course materials provided in your class.
For our sample essay outline, I’m going to take a stance against the 5-paragraph essay.
Step Three: Write a Clear Thesis Statement
Based on my chosen stance against 5-paragraph essays, my thesis statement will be “Teachers should stop teaching students to write 5-paragraph essays.”
Notice the word “should” in the thesis statement? More power can be added to your position by creating a statement about what should or shouldn’t be done. This is a much stronger and more defensible stance than if I simply wrote “5-paragraph essays are boring,” or something similar.
Step Four: Develop Three Arguments to Underscore Your Thesis
Now you need to come up with three arguments that will back your thesis statement. Here are mine:
The 5-paragraph essay is too basic.
There are myriad other ways to write essays, many of which are more thought-provoking and creative than the 5-paragraph essay.
The 5-paragraph essay does not allow for analytical thinking, rather, it confines students to following a restrictive formula
Step Five: Develop Three Supports for Each of Your Arguments
Your evidence, or supports, should include facts, quotes, and data that substantiate your thesis. This is a great place to include quotes directly from your research sources.
For example, to support argument A (“The 5-paragraph essay is too basic”), I might offer the following evidence:
Similarly, in regards to argument C (“The 5-paragraph essay does not allow for analytical thinking, rather, it confines students to following a restrictive formula”), I might support it with this quote:
- Support 1C: According to an article in Education Week, “There is a consensus among college writing professors that ‘students are coming [to college] prepared to do five-paragraph themes and arguments but [are] radically unprepared in thinking analytically.’”
Remember, for the 5-paragraph essay structure, you typically need to come up with three supports for each of your three arguments. In our example, I only show three of the total nine supports needed to round out the argument.
Step Six: Develop Your Intro Hook
Once you have your thesis and arguments sorted, you can work on developing your introduction. (*Hint* it’s an exercise in futility to develop your introduction first, because you won’t really know what you’re introducing yet.)
Your intro should start with an interesting “hook” that will draw the reader into your paper.
For example, my hook could be, “English teachers across the nation have been teaching students to become ineffective writers.” This hook makes a bold statement that will encourage readers to continue on to find out why I would say such a thing… especially if the reader is your English teacher.
Step Seven: Develop Your Conclusion
After you have your paper outlined, figuring out a concluding paragraph should be a breeze. In a traditional 5-paragraph essay, the first step in writing your conclusion is to restate your thesis using different words.
For example, I might write, “The 5-paragraph essay is an outdated and useless writing tool that should be phased out of the classroom.”
To close out the paper, I would open a discussion on the broader significance of this argument. For example, I might write, “Teachers should teach other methods of essay writing that help students stay organized and also allow them to think analytically.”
Now that you’ve established all the components of your 5-paragraph essay outline, you’ll need to actually sit down, avoid social media for a while (I know, it’s hard), and write your 5-paragraph essay. Believe me, it will be much easier to do now that your thoughts are organized and you have somewhere to start.
Ask any writer. There is nothing more frightening than the pure white of an empty page. An outline is a great remedy for this.
Oh, and a couple more things:
As you start writing, you’ll want to be sure to connect all the pieces of your essay together with strong transition sentences. Don’t just line up the notes from your outline and call it done.
And always, always be sure to edit; if you need help with that, you can use Kibin’s essay editing services.
Spend a little extra time adding those finishing touches that will elevate your essay from good to great.
How about you? Do you work from an outline? Or are you more accustomed to writing by the seat of your pants? Let us know in the comments.
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.