Down With the Five Paragraph Essay!

Teach Your Kids a Better Way to Write

Essay writing
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Writing essays is a skill that will serve kids well throughout their lives. Knowing how to present facts and opinions in an interesting, understandable way is valuable regardless of whether they attend college or go directly into the workforce. 

Unfortunately, the current trend is to focus on a type of writing called the Five Paragraph Essay. This fill-in-the-blank style of writing has one main goal - training students to write essays that are easy to grade in the classroom and on standardized tests.

As a homeschooling parent, you can help your children learn to produce informational writing that is meaningful and alive. 

The Problem with the Five Paragraph Essay

In the real world, people write essays to inform, persuade, and entertain. The Five Paragraph Essay allows writers to  do that but only in a limited way.

The structure of the Five Paragraph Essay consists of:

  1. An introductory paragraph that states the point to be made.
  2. Three paragraphs of exposition that each lay out one point of the argument.
  3. A conclusion that sums up the essay's content.

For beginning writers, this formula can be a good starting place. The Five Paragraph Essay can help young students get beyond the one-paragraph page, and encourage them to come up with multiple facts or arguments.

But beyond fifth grade or so, the Five Paragraph Essay becomes an obstacle to quality writing. Instead of learning to develop and vary their arguments, students remain stuck in the same old formula.

According to Chicago Public School English teacher Ray Salazar, "The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless."

SAT Prep Trains Students to Write Poorly

The SAT essay format is even worse. It values speed over accuracy and depth of thought. Students are conditioned to turn out a large number of words quickly, rather than to take the time to present their arguments well.

Ironically, the Five Paragraph Essay works against the SAT essay format. In 2005, Les Perelman of MIT found that he could predict the score on an SAT essay solely on the basis of how many paragraphs it contained. So to get a top score of six, a test taker would have to write six paragraphs, not five.

Teaching Informational Writing

Don't feel you need to assign your children school-type writing projects. Real-life writing is often more valuable and more meaningful to them. Suggestions include:

  • Keep a journal. Many kids enjoy keeping a journal or notebook to capture their thoughts. It can be something to share with you (some teachers use journals to communicate with their students; you can do the same) or a private record. Either way provides useful writing practice.
  • Start a blog. Even reluctant writers can become enthusiastic when writing has a purpose. Writing for an audience provides purpose. There are many options for starting a free blog and privacy features offer parents and students control over who reads the content.
  • Write a review. Ask your kids to review their favorite books, video games, movies, restaurants - the list is endless. Unlike most school-type reports, reviews have to be written with the audience in mind, and they have to be entertaining. They also help kids learn to express opinions and present valid arguments to the reader.
  • Do a research paper. Give your kids' essay-writing a purpose by integrating it into a history project or science topic. Let them choose an area that interests them and explore it in depth. Writing research papers also gives students practice in critical thinking and evaluating and crediting source material.

Essay Writing Resources

If you need some guidance, there are some fantastic online resources for writing essays. 

"How to Write an Essay: 10 Easy Steps". This hyperlinked guide by writer Tom Johnson is a particularly easy-to-follow explanation of essay-writing techniques for tweens and teens.

Purdue OWL. Purdue University's Online Writing Lab contains sections on the writing process, how to understand an assignment, grammar, language mechanics, visual presentation and more.

About.com's Grammar and Composition site has an entire section on Developing Effective Essays.

Research Paper Handbook. A handy textbook by James D. Lester Sr. and Jim D. Lester Jr.

The Five Paragraph Essay has its place, but students need to using it as a stepping stone, not the final result of their writing instruction.

Updated Kris Bales.

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Ceceri, Kathy. "Down With the Five Paragraph Essay!" ThoughtCo, Feb. 8, 2017, thoughtco.com/down-with-the-five-paragraph-essay-1833127. Ceceri, Kathy. (2017, February 8). Down With the Five Paragraph Essay! Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/down-with-the-five-paragraph-essay-1833127 Ceceri, Kathy. "Down With the Five Paragraph Essay!" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/down-with-the-five-paragraph-essay-1833127 (accessed November 25, 2017).