In Defense of My Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay

I posted last month on what I see to be the value of the five-paragraph essay. Though I was responding to another author’s post, I thought I was making a fairly innocuous and common-sense point: basically, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. A paradigm shift doesn’t mean we should toss out all that was done before and sneer smugly back at the previous generation. The post generated some enthusiastic responses from other teachers, mostly echoing my argument that there is some utility to be found in the five paragraph essay (hereinafter, the 5-PE) before moving on to more complex and authentic formats.

When I heard that there was a rebuttal to my post, and, at that, one written by Nigel Caplan and Luciana de Oliveira, whose names I know and whose work I greatly respect, I was both honored and a bit intimidated. Needless to say, as I read their words, my feelings turned to dismay as I found my ideas so misconstrued. As I revisited my first post, I can see that in the process of editing down from my 2,300-word first draft down to the 1,000 published, some sections were lost and my ideas were a little muddled. Still, I read Caplan and de Oliveira’s response with distress and confusion, seeing my ideas so misunderstood.

Much as I respect the scholarship and authority of Mr. Caplan and Dr. de Oliveira, I feel a responsibility to respond. In this post, I will respond to their argument, clarifying that the 5-PE is entirely compatible with the teaching of genre.

Before I proceed, a bit of detail on the context: It was a post entitled Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay by Brian Sztabnik over at Talks With Teachers that impelled me to write my first post on the topic, “In Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay.” And then the rebuttal to that post was Caplan and de Oliveira’s “Why We Still Won’t Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay,” to which this post is a direct response.

Quote? Unquote.

In Caplan and de Oliveira’s post, they debunk a host of absolute statements: “the exclusive teaching” of the 5-PE, the 5-PE as “the main pedagogical response” to unstructured writing, the “assumption that everything is an essay,” that the 5-PE is a “one-size-fits-all quick fix” for teaching cohesion and coherence. Interspersed among all this I find my own name, leaving the implication these are my strong words and extreme ideas. Yet I have made no such claims. I have not, do not, and would not argue that the 5-PE be taught exclusively, that it is the main or one-size-fits-all response to anything, that everything is an essay. Is anyone anywhere arguing any of those things? I’m not that straw man.

Caplan and de Oliveira argue that it’s “incorrect…to say that rejecting the five-paragraph essay means eschewing all structure.” Elsewhere the point is reiterated, using my (decontextualized) words: they say, “throwing out the ageneric…five-paragraph essay is by no means giving students free reign to write ‘an incoherent mess of free associations and stream-of-consciousness.’” This is a deceptive quotation, my words having been stripped of essential context. The implication is that I have presented readers with an absurdly false dichotomy: Choose the 5-PE or be left with sheer compositional mayhem.

But in the original context it is utterly clear that I am responding to the words of Brian Sztabnik and his rejection of the teaching of format: “Formats confine. They box you in. They limit where you can go.” I was not suggesting that the 5-PE is the only thing between us and the “incoherent mess”; I was suggesting that the entirely unstructured approach Sztabnik seems to advocate can lead to that incoherent mess.

The Value of Contrivance

It seems to be a pet argument among critics of the 5-PE that little published writing actually takes the form of a 5-PE. Sztabnik makes this point, and Caplan and de Oliveira observe that my post is not in 5-PE form. Cute though this may be, it has little bearing on whether to teach the 5-PE. Is anyone arguing that the 5-PE is a form in wide use among professional writers? Who on earth is perpetuating the alleged “fallacy” that “everything is an essay”? Certainly not I.

When Caplan and de Oliveira describe the 5-PE as “contrived,” there is certainly a pejorative ring to the word. But as I said in my original post, the value of the 5-PE resides precisely in its contrivance; it is valuable precisely because, as Caplan and de Oliveira themselves observe, authentic writing is “more complex” and “messy.” Indeed, it is. So complex, in fact, that many learners are unable to discern the structures and patterns that underlie authentic writing. It is a standard and uncontroversial technique in a teacher’s arsenal to simplify for the sake of explanation and awareness-building before exposing students to increasingly complex and authentic language.

Before we teach complex sentences convoluted with embedded clauses, indirect objects, nested prepositional phrases, and pleonastic pronouns, we start with simply, largely contrived, simple present S-V-O sentences. She likes oranges. We have candy. Subject verb object. When we want to help students to see that there are indeed some basic patterns that underlie the convoluted and intimidating relationship between spelling and pronunciation in English, we don’t dive right into throughout, colonel, and entrepreneur; we temporarily set aside authenticity for contrivance, and teach cat, get, hit, not, and gut. Note that none of the sentences in this post are pure, three-word S-V-Os, and only 50 of the 1,600 words follow the C-V-C pattern.

Composition is no different, and the 5-PE is nothing but a starting point for teaching the rudiments of composition above the paragraph level. There are forms to paragraphs and arrangements of paragraphs. There are more and less effective ways to arrange them and to structure writing. In order to effectively participate in written discourse, students must develop a sense for these arrangements. The simple, formulaic, and yes, contrived, 5-PE is a great way to initially introduce some of the types of paragraphs we write and the most basic ways that they can interact with one another. This paragraph introduces a main thesis. These paragraphs support that thesis. These are some words we can use to transition from this kind of paragraph to that kind of paragraph. And cetera.

But let me be entirely, unmisquotably clear: My endorsement of the 5-PE as a device to introduce students to the structure of text is in no way a rejection of any other pedagogical strategies. My argument that contrivance has value in ELT is in no way a rejection of authenticity in ELT. Authenticity is wonderful. The teaching of genre is highly advisable. There is no either/or here. We should teach the both/and. I do and will continue to.

I should hope this goes without saying, but I am also not arguing that the 5-PE should be taught as an end in itself: the outcome of the writing process. It is a stepping stone on the path to well-organized, authentic writing. If anyone out there is suggesting that the 5-PE is any more than that, I will take this opportunity to distance myself from that stance.

Tilting at Monoliths?

Yet Caplan and de Oliveira describe the 5-PE as “monolithic,” and over at his personal blog, Caplan recounts his frustration at students’ attempts to “shoehorn” an authentic assignment into a “pseudo five-paragraph essay.” Here we may have found the source of our divergence. I quite simply have never encountered students who over-rely on the 5-PE in this way. Quite the contrary: the most common issue I encounter is students who are unable to organize and focus their ideas. Teaching context may be quite important here. Caplan and de Oliveira both seem to be teaching in university settings, whereas my experience has been primarily in independent IEPs and adult education. Teachers respond to the needs of our students as we perceive them, and I would surely be singing a different tune if I were repeatedly encountering writing that seemed to evidence the detrimental effects of the 5-PE.

However, before rushing to judgment, I would consider whether the problem is rooted in the 5-PE itself or how it is being taught. I have a hard time believing that the cursory treatment that I give the 5-PE leaves my students with the impression that it is a major authentic format to be used at all costs. Then again, perhaps the 5-PE is monolithicker than I had realized, and perhaps there are those out there teaching it in a drastically different manner than I assumed.

A Genuine Challenge to the 5-PE

There is one point, briefly touched upon by Caplan and de Oliveira, that I was disappointed they did not discuss further. They argue that “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.” If true, this is the only genuine challenge to the 5-PE I can find in their post. The use of contrivance in ELT assumes that the skills practiced during the contrived exercises transfer into authentic situations. I have so far been unable to access the sources (Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock) that they cite in support of this assertion. But if there is indeed research showing that the skills practiced in 5-PE exercises do not transfer to authentic writing; if there is in fact evidence that the 5-PE, even when used in the limited way I describe above, limits rather than expands students’ writing repertory; if research shows these things, then I will have to reconsider, and we may have to discard the 5-PE.

Common sense tells me that these skills are transferable, and in my own experience as a student, this transfer has occurred. I remember learning the 5-PE and increasingly complex variations thereupon, and as I outline these very blog posts, I still utilize those transferred skills. But research trumps common sense and personal anecdotes, so I will need to do some more reading.

5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE, 5-PE

At this point, I have now spent more time writing and reading about the 5-PE than I have actually spent teaching it! My hope is that this debate is instructional and provokes reflection. Please share your own experience and beliefs on the 5-PE in the comments!

from TESOL Blog


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