five-paragraph essay

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The formulaic structure of the five-paragraph essay or theme.


A five-paragraph essay is a prose composition that follows a prescribed format of an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. Contrast with exploratory essay.

The five-paragraph essay (or theme) is an artificial genre often practiced in schools and required on standardized tests.

See Methods and Observations below. Also see:

  • How to Write a Pretty Good Five-Paragraph Essay


Examples of Five-Paragraph Essays


Methods and Observations

  • "A five-paragraph essay has three central paragraphs, and each one helps support your thesis statement. Essentially, then, central paragraphs are simply one-paragraph essays that each support one item in your blueprint. . . .

    "Specific support in a central paragraph supports the paragraph's topic sentence, and the three topic sentences, taken together, support the thesis. Therefore, if each central paragraph supports its own topic sentence, and if the topic sentences are properly related to one another and to your thesis, then the central paragraphs should persuade the reader to accept your thesis statement."
    (Edward P. Bailey and Philip A. Powell, The Practical Writer, 9th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)
  • Organizing a Five-Paragraph Essay
    "Just as a topic sentence is the main focus of a single paragraph, five-paragraph essays are centered around a thesis statement (or thesis sentence), the central view or argument of the whole essay. . . .

    "Your introductory paragraph should contain your thesis and also give a clear indication about what your body paragraphs will be about. . . . Your first paragraph should also include sentences that develop or build up to your thesis statement.

    "Your body paragraphs give more elaborate support for your thesis statement. Each of your body paragraphs should contain a topic sentence and must be directly related to your thesis statement. In other words, one subtopic (one individual point) can be developed in each of your three body paragraphs. . . .

    "Your concluding paragraph is a summary of what you've stated in your body paragraphs (of course, with different wording). In this paragraph, you can recap the preceding paragraphs and give additional emphasis to your individual points."
    (Susan Thurman, The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need: A One-Stop Source for Every Writing Assignment. F+W Publications, 2003)
  • Limitations of the Five-Paragraph Essay
    "Although school students in the US are examined on their ability to write a five-paragraph essay, its raison d'être is purportedly to give practice in basic writing skills that will lead to future success in more varied forms. Detractors feel, however, that writing to rule in this way is more likely to discourage imaginative writing and thinking than enable it. . . . The five-paragraph essay is less aware of its audience and sets out only to present information, an account or a kind of story rather than explicitly to persuade the reader.

    "No one at university is going to recommend that you adhere to a scheme as rigid as the five-paragraph essay (I hope) but there are certainly features common to all successful undergraduate essays that we can identify as the first step to practising them in our own work."
    (Tory Young, Studying English Literature: A Practical Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
  • The Hamburger Method in High School English
    "Dawn [a teacher of high-school English and first-year college composition] identifies the way students compose in high schools versus college as 'the biggest gap I've found.' While high school students learn rules for writing a five-paragraph essay, where an idea never has more than three parts, college students learn that composing essays is a process of making rhetorical decisions. She describes teaching high school students the 'hamburger method,' where 'you make the top bun and then you fill it with all kinds of stuff and then you slap the bottom on there.' Students compose in a 'piece by piece approach': 'They feel like every paragraph has to start with a topic sentence, and the topic sentence has to state exactly what you're going to do in the paragraph, and they think it has to be five sentences.' This five-paragraph essay and sequential process are in direct tension with the way she now teaches first-year composition, where she teaches students that being a good writer means learning to 'apply the different skills you have learned to the situation and the text you are completing.'"
    (H. Roskelly and K.J. Ryan, "Places of Possibility, Sites of Action." Closing the Gap: English Educators Address the Tensions Between Teacher Preparation and Teaching Writing in Secondary Schools, ed. by Karen Keaton Jackson and Sandra Vavra. Information Age Publishing, 2007)
  • Moving On From the Five-Paragraph Theme
    "[The five-paragraph essay] is taught because it's easy for teachers to teach and easy for students to learn—something a beginning writer can accomplish at an early age. . . .

    "The problem is that this adherence to a format tends to generate essays that oversimplify and under-explain your thinking. In the college essay, the main idea is more important than the format, so it's the format that should change for the sake of the idea and not vice versa. If an idea can be explained over five paragraphs, so be it. If the idea is so complex that it requires 16 supporting paragraphs grouped in two supporting sections, so be it.

    "You may feel reluctant to leave the five-paragraph theme behind after all these years of good service, but it's important to move on."
    (Roy K. Humble, The Humble Essay. Problem Child Press, 2008)
  • "The Perfect Theme"
    "Years ago, when I was instructing college freshmen in the humble craft of writing essays—or 'themes' as we called them—I noticed that many students had already been taught how to manufacture the Perfect Theme. It began with an introductory paragraph that contained a 'thesis statement' and often cited someone named Webster; it then pursued its expository path through three paragraphs that 'developed the main idea' until it finally reached a 'concluding' paragraph that diligently summarized all three previous paragraphs. The conclusion usually began 'Thus we see that . . . ' If the theme told a personal story, it usually concluded with the narrative cliche 'Suddenly I realized that . . .' Epiphanies abounded.

    "What was especially maddening about the typical five-paragraph theme had less to do with its tedious structure than with its implicit message that writing should be the end product of thought and not the enactment of its process. My students seemed unaware that writing could be an act of discovery, an opportunity to say something they had never before thought of saying. The worst themes were largely the products of premature conclusions, of unearned assurances, of minds made up. . . . So perhaps it did make more sense to call these productions themes and not essays, since what was being written had almost no connection with the original sense of 'essaying'—trying out ideas and attitudes, writing out of a condition of uncertainty, of not-knowing."
    (Robert Atwan, Foreword, The Best American Essays: 1998. Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
  • "A Phony Genre"
    "The five-paragraph essay pushes the classical view of genre to a point beyond all rationality, one instance of how modern composition textbooks pervert the ancient rhetorical tradition in the process of adhering to it. Some textbooks present the model as though it were the very foundation of meaningful discourse, the deep structure of thought itself. Even those teachers who are cynical about its eventual value beyond the classroom argue that its artificial regimen will support the efforts of unpracticed writers, showing them how to manage and organize their ideas. . . . [A]sking students merely to slot information into prefabricated boxes, regardless of the number of boxes, does not represent a first step toward improved organizational ability. Ordering ideas in discourse depends on the ability to see connections, to work them out, to experiment with alternatives, to think clearly and well. Giving students the chance to struggle with language, to fashion their own shapes, to make their own connections with the help of a discerning teacher-reader, will be more helpful to their development as writers than following a needlessly restrictive convention masquerading as a real constraint on discourse."
    (C.H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon, Rhetorical Traditions and the Teaching of Writing. Boynton/Cook, 1984)
  • Closed Texts vs. Open Texts
    "[I]t is easy to see that expository composition—writing whose great virtue is to confine the reader to a single, unambiguous line of thought—is closed, in the sense of permitting, ideally, only one valid interpretation. An 'exploratory' essay, on the other hand, is an open work of nonfiction prose. It cultivates ambiguity and complexity to allow more than one reading or response to the work."
    (William Zeiger, "The Exploratory Essay: Enfranchising the Spirit of Inquiry in College Composition." College English 47, 1985)