Down with the five-paragraph essay!

Story by Meridian Pearson, Opinion Editor

The American school system prides itself on preparing its students for college, or so they say. However, many of the writing tips we are given in middle and high school don’t stand up to college inspection. The greatest of these aggressors is the five-paragraph essay.

In late middle and early high school, students are taught to write full essays on more difficult topics. This is a great time in their learning career for them to acquire more complex writing skills. Typically, this time in their schooling coincides with the teaching of the dreaded five-paragraph essay. This highly structured and painfully simplified outline for an essay dooms students for the creation of their first college essays. As a Writing Center consultant, I see the consequential effect of this at least once a week.

The idea of the five-paragraph essay is to create a piece of writing with a clear introduction, three main points, and a conclusion. Unfortunately, this conditions students to craft disconnected and robotic essays with few unique insights. By constraining each main point to one paragraph, students tend not to connect the ideas together, and the conclusion becomes an oversimplified review of those main points and repeat of the thesis. No true conclusions are reached, and the student ends up mostly regurgitating researched information rather than fully considering the topic.

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The five-paragraph essay has potential as a teaching tool, but it is misutilized and does more harm than good. Instead of teaching students how to become better writers and craft an interesting essay, this structure limits their ability to think critically about content and make meaningful connections. If it were made acceptable to include more paragraphs in order to cover more information (and reduce the amount of page-long paragraphs with no breaks), or if students could be taught how to make connections between their main ideas instead of isolating them, students would benefit much more from these lessons. 

Clearly, something needs to change in the way we teach writing in secondary schools. Students should be able to write confidently in college and understand the significance of what they are doing when they craft essays. By eliminating the five-paragraph essay as a teaching tool, we can produce better writing and more confident writers—a future I would love to see.

Categories: Opinion, The Saint