4 Reasons to Teach the 5 Paragraph Essay (and 1 Reason Why You Shouldn’t)

Love it or hate it, the five paragraph essay is a core part of writing curriculum in the United States. There are many arguments against it, but for most teachers and students, it’s here to stay. And while some people like to grumble about it, there are some solid benefits to writing in this style for both students and teachers.

So here’s my thesis statement: there are four reasons why teachers should teach the five paragraph essays, and one reason why they shouldn’t.

Not repulsed yet? Read on.

The Antiquity and the Ubiquity

The five paragraph essay has been taught for a long time. Nearly every student who has gone through an American high school or college has been exposed to some form of it. It’s everywhere and its ineluctable.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At least students know what to expect.

If a student wants to go far in academia, they will need to learn how to write research articles. They aren’t exactly five paragraph essays, but they’re close cousins: there is still an introduction, a body (methods, results, and you might include discussion) and a conclusion (which might just be your discussion). That structure – beginning, middle, and end, is illustrated very clearly when you learn the five paragraph essay.

For my ESL students, who have often grown up in different educational cultures, the five paragraph essay introduces them to these common practices in American writing. Someday, there may be a revolution that completely overthrows the five paragraph style, but until that time, it’s important for students to know what is widely used in schools and colleges.

The Magic of Three

We love the number three. It’s a deeply ingrained part of our culture. In religion, we have the holy trinity. In our folktales, we have the three little pigs and Goldilocks and the three bears. There’s the three stooges and the three amigos.

Another rule of three is found in the structure of a stool. Think about it: every stool needs at least three legs to stand. Similarly, the magic of three helps the five paragraph essay get on its feet.

There are actually two “threes” in a five paragraph essay:

  • Beginning, middle, and end
  • and body paragraphs 1, 2, and 3.

The first is necessary. Launching into examples without some explanation of why at the beginning will lead your reader to confusion. Leave out the body paragraphs and you’ll prove nothing. And without a conclusion, the end of your essay will be too abrupt.

And as for body paragraphs, three again seems to be the right number.

Once is luck, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern

Prove that your thesis is a pattern with three separate examples, and you’ve made it very strong. There can be cases made for more or fewer body paragraphs, but for me, three is ideal.

The Comfort and Confidence from Constraint

Writing takes a lot of mental processing. When I write these blog posts, I first decide on my topic, then choose what I want to say about it, then organize my thoughts into a certain number of points, then actually write those thoughts down, and then (sometimes) edit all the junk that I’ve written.

That familiar process and structure helps me write my blog posts more efficiently and (maybe) more effectively.

Giving your students some kind of structure and guidance will similarly help them save time and produce better work.

When it’s time for my class to get down to the business of actually writing an essay (after reading examples, learning about the form, and choosing their topics), the first thing I have them do is write their thesis statement and then their three topic sentences. Here is an example of a worksheet that I’ve used for this purpose.

It’s nothing fancy, but it often helps a great deal. Some students tell me that they just “start writing” without a plan when they get a prompt. Those students usually write essays that go off topic or are incredibly unclear because their points aren’t organized.

The thesis statement and topic sentences not only let the reader know what the essay and paragraphs are about, they also help the writer figure out what they’re actually saying.

When I can’t understand the point a student is trying to make in a certain paragraph, it’s because they don’t have a topic sentence. If I ask them to summarize what that paragraph is about in one sentence, usually they can’t do it. That’s a problem. That’s why those sentences are so important.

And then, once students get comfortable writing them, the whole process becomes easier. They can structure their essays faster and their points become clearer.

The Materials

Because it’s so ubiquitous, there are so many materials out there for teachers to use.

Every writing textbook I’ve used has taught some form of the five paragraph essay. There are variations in what goes into those parts (Do topic sentences come at the beginning of body paragraphs? Do you need a hook at the beginning of an introduction?) but the introduction, body, and conclusion are always there.

Out of the textbooks I’ve used, Final Draft has the best materials for teaching the five paragraph essay. It has several authentic and modified essays that clearly demonstrate the parts of an essay and very useful practice exercises that really help the students understand hows and whys of this type of essay.

(The link above is an affiliate link and I will receive a commission, without any cost to you, if you order through it.)

At the other end of the spectrum, there are several very weak materials that make the five paragraph essay seem boring or confusing. But I have yet to see a textbook that doesn’t use it as its primary framework. If you know of one, please let me know!

Also, if you’re teaching within an institution, you will most likely need to teach the five paragraph essay. It’s a core part of most writing curricula and there are probably many in-house materials already floating around your school or college (not to mention online). Lots of great writing teachers teach this kind of essay in their own unique and brilliant ways, and if you’re lucky enough to work with a wise veteran, you might have get some of those methods passed down to you.

…But: Where’s the Creativity?

Like any type of structure, the five paragraph essay has its benefits and drawbacks.

One way to describe the five paragraph essay is:

Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em

Tell ’em

Tell ’em what you told ’em

It’s cute, but it also sounds repetitive and boring. And these essays certainly can be. It’s painful to read an essay with topic sentences that are all just regurgitated bits of the thesis statement. It’s annoying when a “restatement” of a thesis is just the exact same sentence with “In conclusion,” slapped on in front of it. I’m sure students don’t like writing those either.

I would argue that students can be creative with their language at the sentence level. They can be creative with the background information in their introduction and they can choose interesting support for their body paragraphs. But at the end of the day, it’s still the same old structure.

What if a student doesn’t want to reveal her thesis at the beginning. What if they want to play with ambiguity? What if they want to tell a story with their essay? It’s possible to show causes and/or effects, argue, and compare/contrast without the five paragraph essay.

It might be worth it to see what your students can come up with.

Thanks for reading.

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Featured Image Credit: Joanna Poe

8 thoughts on “4 Reasons to Teach the 5 Paragraph Essay (and 1 Reason Why You Shouldn’t)

  1. I’m glad you included the “1 Reason Why You Shouldn’t”. There are always students who struggle with the five-paragraph essay simply because of how restrictive it is. I was lucky when I was at school to have a teacher who pointed out that the structure was a guide and we could deviate from it if we wanted.

    And, as you point out, there is almost nothing worse than a stack of essays that all begin with “This essay is about” and end with “In conclusion”. I was teaching ESOL teenagers some years ago and, once they had the basic structure down, I pointed out that they could omit such phrasing altogether and still successfully introduce the topic and summarise their ideas.

    From there, I went on to point out that there are many different forms an introduction and conclusion can take: an essay can be opened or closed with an anecdote, facts and figures, a rhetorical question, and so on. Made a huge difference to their writing, not to mention their enjoyment of the writing!

    1. Great points! I think your approach is great: once students master the basic forms, they should learn how those forms can be altered, or even omitted. Those basic forms are like the necessary cocoon for the butterfly of beautiful, enjoyable writing, so students shouldn’t stay in that cocoon forever! (forgive the lame metaphor 🙂 )

  2. Thanks for a great article! The five paragraph model is still very much the ‘in’ structure here in Australia too. And I completely agree that whilst it offers a useful framework for a student to organise his/her ideas, it also stifles creativity and originality. One of my tutoring students cites this very reason for choosing Literature as opposed to English for her Year 12 studies, because Literature does offer a more creative way of expressing your ideas.

    1. Thanks! Yeah this type of essay isn’t for everybody. It can be useful, but only in certain contexts. Interesting how Literature and English are split there. Is Literature more creative writing?

      1. Yeah, Literature does involve some creative writing, but it’s more that there is more freedom of creative expression in terms of how you structure your ideas. For example, the exam for Literature involves two passage analyses, in which students are given three passages from each text and have to respond to this : “Use the selected passages as the basis of a discussion of [text].” So as you can see there is a lot more scope for individuality of ideas and expression of those ideas.

        1. That makes sense. Tasks like that, where the student has to synthesize and respond to several different texts, take a lot of mental processing and creative organization in writing. It would be difficult to fit an appropriate esponse into a typical five paragraph essay.

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