Why We Still Won’t Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay

A guest post by Nigel A. Caplan and Luciana C. de Oliveira
In this blog, Nigel and Luciana address a recent post by Robert Sheppard, which defended the teaching of the 5-paragraph essay in ELT.

Nigel’s son, a second grader, recently brought home an assignment to write a news report about Alexander Graham Bell for an audience of his day. Nigel’s colleague teaches intermediate-level ESL students descriptive writing through restaurant reviews. And in his pre-matriculation intensive English classes, he teaches business case analyses to future MBA students. Luciana teaches her doctoral students about how to write conference abstracts and qualitative dissertation proposals. As an ESL teacher, she taught responses to readings, arguments, and expository texts.

All these assignments have two things in common: They could not be satisfactorily accomplished with a five-paragraph essay nor would the exclusive teaching of the five-paragraph essay equip writers with the skills to succeed.

In a recent post on this blog, Robert Sheppard defended the five-paragraph essay from an attack by Brian Sztabnik on the Talks with Teachers blog.We agree with Mr. Sheppard that Mr. Sztabnik’s insistence on authenticity, voice, and self-expression do not always translate well to the ESL classroom, but we reject the conclusion that the main pedagogical response is the contrived, monolithic, and decontextualized five-paragraph essay formula.

It is no accident that Mr. Sheppard’s blog post defending the five-paragraph essay does not itself follow the form of a five-paragraph essay. It simply wouldn’t be effective. By the same token, we do not write letters, business proposals, narratives, restaurant reviews, research papers, fundraising emails, discussion board entries, or scientific reports all in the same way. The essential fallacy of the five-paragraph essay is to assume that everything is an essay, or worse, the essay. The reality is more complex—more messy, perhaps—and certainly more important for learners.

However, to say that rejecting the five-paragraph essay means eschewing all structure is incorrect. There is a widely used and studied alternative: Writing seen not purely as self-expression nor as formulaic reproduction but as a repertoire of genres, which it is our responsibility as teachers to expand. Mr. Sheppard is partially correct that “formats do confine and limit where you can go,” but there is no single “format” that is an adequate response to every rhetorical situation. The five-paragraph essay is attractive, of course: It is fairly easy to teach, learn, and assess. But it does not prepare learners—whether they are school-aged children of immigrants, students in foreign language classes, or undergraduates in English-medium programs—for success.

We use the term genre to refer to these different kinds of texts that are written or spoken for specific audiences in specific social contexts and have specific stages–phases that authors go through to achieve their purposes. Jim Martin contends “we cannot not mean genres.” We recognize the genre of all our interactions and written texts, and this allows us to make and understanding meaning. As Martin reminds us, genres constrain, but in doing so they give language users access to and a voice (that word again) in social actions. However, different genres have different constraints, patterns, and conventions. Throwing out the ageneric (to quote Christine Ortmeier-Hooper) five-paragraph essay is by no means giving students free reign to write “an incoherent mess of free associations and stream-of-consciousness.” Quite the contrary: We don’t teach the five-paragraph essay because it does not help students structure their ideas in ways that are acceptable in their target genres. Students not only need, as Mr. Sheppard states, to learn that there is a box, but more importantly that there are many boxes, and that each one is different.

Furthermore, we dispute the assumption that the only difference between struggling and successful writers is their use of rigid organization. Good writing is organized, but cohesion and coherence demand more than a simplistic, one-size-fits-all quick fix. It requires both genre awareness and the linguistic resources with which to develop and connect ideas. These linguistic resources can be taught very effectively in the context of genre-based approaches to writing, as Luciana and many others have shown in their work on elementary school classrooms and across the primary, secondary, and tertiary curricula. The five-paragraph essay with its funnels and previews, first of alls, and in conclusions does not teach anything beyond superficial cohesion. Contrary to common myths (as Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock demonstrate), the five-paragraph essay does not work as a crutch that students will later discard, it does not teach skills that transfer to “real” academic genres, and it does not even guarantee success on standardized writing tests.

Our concern is not to banish the evils of incoherence, nor to promote writing as the free expression of the author’s voice. We have seen over and over that the explicit and thorough teaching of genres is the best way to level the playing field and give marginalized learners of all ages access to the high-stakes ways of knowing, reading, and writing that will open doors in their academic, professional, and social lives.


Nigel CaplanNigel A. Caplan, MSEd (TESOL) is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in Newark, Delaware, USA, where he teaches ESL to international undergraduate and graduate students as well as MA TESL courses. His research interests include genre-based writing pedagogy, collaborative writing, and graduate communication needs. He is the incoming chair-elect of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section.

Luciana de OliveiraLuciana C. de Oliveira, PhD, is interim chair and associate professor in the department of teaching and learning at the University of Miami, Florida, USA. Her work focuses on L2 writing in K–12 classrooms, specifically on genre-based approaches to writing instruction and teacher preparation to address English language learners’ needs. She’s a current member of the TESOL Board of Directors (2013–2016).

from TESOL Blog http://blog.tesol.org/why-we-still-wont-teach-the-5-paragraph-essay/

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