"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

The Five Paragraph Theme: What is Being Taught?

November 13th, 2014 by

Perhaps it is not stretching matters to call the five paragraph theme (hereafter FPT) the foundational writing practice of the public schools. Though long criticized by teachers of Composition for its reductive emphasis on form, it has nevertheless remained a deeply entrenched practice in middle and high school English. Recently, significant questions have been raised concerning the kind of “writing proficiency” it engenders (Wesley 57), though some of the most important objections were voiced over twenty years ago when Marie Foley, writing in TETYC, suggested that “students trained in the five paragraph method regard essay writing as an alien, unnatural enterprise” (232). Noting the main support for the practice being the beginning lesson in structure students receive, Foley successfully refutes this idea in noting that it closes off “discovery” and “undermines one of the writer’s (and reader’s) most basic needs—the need for coherence” (232).

Foley’s point is convincing:

“The problem is not that the five-paragraph formula produces incoherence but rather that it limits students to a superficial, predictable level of coherence. For the body of their essays, students tend to tack any three loosely related ideas onto the prefabricated scaffolding. These three ideas cohere only in the sense that they are three aspects of the chosen topic…But juxtaposition is not coherence…To be asked merely to enumerate three aspects of any topic relieves students of the need to probe relationships.” (232)

It is the very lesson in structure that advocates praise that might be tacitly its most deadly lesson. Foley notes that in this pattern, students who attempt to go beyond the formula will likely suffer for “writing incoherently because they do not know how to signal their more complex structure” (233).

The Enduring Theme
Even so, it would appear that the FPT is gaining adherents in higher education for its obvious advantages in testing. One presenter at the 2009 4C’s has argued that the predictable form of the FPT is eminently suited to assessment, and he enlists Robert Frost in the cause, arguing that writing without learning the FPT might be like “playing tennis without a net” (Baldwin). Perhaps for similar reasons, the Princeton Review guides readers in steps to learn it to pass the writing sample for the GRE (The Princeton Review 235). And a recent contributor to Writing on the Edge has argued that the FPT is a way to overcome the failures of naïve expressivism in college level instruction (Schick).

To hear these affirmations, it is all too easy to simply conclude that, given the right conditions, the FPT really could serve as a basic writing strategy for students. As the argument typically runs, the rudimentary lesson in structure provided by the FPT—that an essay should have a beginning, middle, and end—might form the basis for all future work in writing.

The Enduring Lessons
What this view misses, however, are the “other lessons” of the FPT and of school sponsored writing more generally. Among these “lessons” which represent the legacy of the FPT, we could include the rejection of discovery in writing, as Foley puts it, the refusal of the need to really “probe” relationships. This suggests that the “important beginning lesson in structure” results in the rejection of ambiguity, complexity, and the need for a more extended writing process in which discoveries are made and then translated into meaningful text. All that is needed is the learning of the formula. We could enumerate other, corollary lessons, that writing becomes an empty exercise in correct forms and superficiality. Furthermore, as students often observe, school sponsored writing is not “real” writing, but writing in a classroom for a teacher.

It is these “lessons,” I contend here, that are being “built on” in college writing courses when arrangement is viewed as learning static discourse forms taught as ends in themselves (these are termed “modes of exposition” or of argumentation). In this sense, the legacy of the FPT is simply continued in the “modes of development” approach, which will usually include patterns once used in paragraphing and include process narrative, comparison/contrast, definition, cause/effect, and classification/division.

Works Cited
Baldwin, Doug. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the 5-Paragraph Essay: Confessions of a Teacher Turned Writing Assessment Specialist.” Panelist on From Validity to Validation: How to Use Validation for Better Writing Assessment. The Conference on College Composition and Communication. San Francisco, CA. 2009.

Foley, Marie. “Unteaching the Five Paragraph Essay.” Teaching English in the Two Year College, 16.4 (Dec 1989): 231-235.

Princeton Review, The. Cracking the GRE: 2008 Edition. New York: Random House, 2007.

Schick, Kurt. “A Five-Paragraph Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay.” Writing on the Edge, 18.2 (Spring 2008): 41-42.

Wesley, Kimberly. “The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme.” English Journal (Sept.2000): 57-60.

Posted in Uncategorized| 6 Comments


Comment by Tim Riter on November 13, 2014 at 10:14 am

Tom, in teaching at two different private Christian schools, I found students coming into the 10th grade with a slavish commitment to the rigidity of the FPT. I use the allusion to Paul in Corinthians, when he said as a child he thought, wrote, and spoke as a child, but when he grew up he gave up childish things. The FPT is helpful in earlier years, but I want my students to learn the freedom they have to use form as a tool, not a pair of handcuffs.

Comment by Tom on November 13, 2014 at 10:29 pm

Tim, I even see some of that slavish clinging to the form in some college students. Again, I think that they don’t really learn form or structure from the practice; they learn a superficial cohesion, as Foley suggests. They can have the hardest time developing a train of thought in essays in college.

Comment by Maria on December 8, 2014 at 6:21 pm

Reduced to the minimum, the skeletal structure of 5 paragraphs makes US sense “in these times”: Beggining, Middle, End + 2 connecting paragraphs

cp B-M
cp M-E

Maybe, the connecting paragraphs can be elongated.

I know that I suffer from FPTitis in my own way; and I know it because of the paper I wrote for a very good class I took last year at a university: once the teacher told us that 9 pages was the limit, I tried to impress her by cramming my “bright” ideas into a tripartite structure, akin to the Beggining-Middle-End. I was re-reading that paper today. It made me ponder.

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