I Hate the 5-Paragraph Essay and So Should You

Finding fault with the five-paragraph essay (FPE) as an instructional tool in the EFL writing class is easy. The paint by number format has many weaknesses.

Defenders argue there are few viable alternatives that teach organization and persuasion. I’d like to outline one alternative, an approach that meets the academic and professional needs of most EFL students.

Not Without Merit

To be fair, the FPE is an important instructional tool … in specific circumstances. EFL students who want to pass a high-risk test (e.g. ACT) must learn the formula. That usually means an introductory paragraph with a catchy opening and a thesis sentence, three body paragraphs each containing obvious topic sentences, and a regurgitation of the thesis and supporting ideas in a humdrum concluding paragraph.

What’s good about the FPE format?

  • Some say it’s a building block for EFL students who need to write 10-page essays while studying abroad. That’s debatable because the FPE does not prepare students for research, citations, or paraphrasing – let alone language development – all vital skills for university-level writing.
  • Easy to mark. Graders working for big test companies spend about a minute reading each essay. That’s good for companies who pay humans to score essays. Good for students? Meh.
  • Easy to teach. Teachers don’t need to prep much. Finding ways to be efficient is important because writing classes often involve lots of unpaid teacher time.

Faulty Construct

If the instructional objective is to help EFL students learn to describe things accurately and argue points persuasively, FPE is a faulty tool. Here’s why.

  • Irrelevant structure: Outside academia, the FPE format is almost never used in business writing, editorials or personal communication. I’ve been looking for a five-paragraph essay for twenty years and still haven’t found one.
  • Intolerance for ambiguity: The FPE format usually requires students to choose one side from a list of options. There is no room for hedging, itself is an important writing skill.
  • Structure trumps content. The FPE presents one way to organize information. What’s not included is an appreciation for the richness of ideas, elements of style or depth of reasoning.

An Alternative Approach to Writing Pedagogy

An inquiry-based approach to reasoning supported by three complementary skill sets is the teaching framework I use in my EFL writing classes.

Constructing a reasoned analysis is a four-step strategy that helps students think independently about a topic or issue.

  1. Begin with a question. Unlike the FPE, an inquiry approach asks students to generate good questions at the beginning of an assignment, not the answers. Believe it or not, formulating good questions is challenging, especially for students coming from a teacher-centred classroom environment.
  2. Collect evidence. This is a tough task because it asks students to sift through information and find the meaningful bits. Living in an age of information overload, I believe this is a thinking skill that writing teachers should foster in the classroom.
  3. Create warrants. A warrant is a principle or general truth that gives evidence context. Warrants are the glue in an argument that connect evidence to conclusions. These vital pieces of thinking are often ignored in the construction of FPE.
  4. Draw conclusions. These statements answer the initial question and are often presented as probabilities, not certainties.

Three Complementary Skills

My students spend a good deal of class time crafting papers and short analyses based on this reasoning framework. It is a necessary step for independent thinking, but insufficient. Students need to develop three other essential writing skills.

  1. Fluency. Almost every student needs to write faster.
  2. Proficiency. Writing with greater accuracy is vitally important, but which areas require immediate attention? In my classes, students benefit from language-focused teaching that addresses specific aspects of the writing process: articles, proofreading, appositives and complex sentences.
  3. Style. A little bit of knowledge helps students transform dull, repetitious text into passages that are joy to read. These elements of style include sentence variety, an eye for details, paragraph organization and text cohesion.

Wrap Up

Helping students develop four essential writing skills – fluency, proficiency, style and inquiry-based reasoning – is far more beneficial than drilling them with structure-focused lessons if the objective is to foster clear writing, thoughtful arguments and critical thinking.

Reasoning, supported by a suite of language-focused exercises addressing student needs, can result in surprisingly good work. More importantly, the strategies students learn to organize information and argue ideas will help them communicate effectively inside the classroom and beyond. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the five-paragraph essay format.

Teach writing?

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1 thought on “I Hate the 5-Paragraph Essay and So Should You

  1. I think your approach is very sound – but I have a couple of points in favour of the 5PE. The first is that three pieces of evidence is a decent minimum from which to make any kind of generalisation. The point of the 5PE is not to canonise its own structure but to instance a supported argument. The second thing is that for a low intermediate or intermediate EFL writer a 5PE is quite a substantial task and their available time is not unlimited. The validity of its use depends on how much students & teachers flesh out the skeleton.

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