The five-paragraph essay: the scourge of many an ELT writing class… but is it really a bad thing?
For at least a couple of years at the start of my career teaching academic English, the five-paragraph essay was the cornerstone around which all writing classes were built. You’d look at paragraph structure, how to craft a topic sentence and then how to back it up with examples. You’d look at introducing your topic, narrowing down from a general reference to the topic of discussion to a thesis that clearly indicated the three main points you would discuss in the body paragraphs. Finally, you’d, er, repeat what you’d written in a concluding paragraph.
When, if ever, have we woken up and realized that such formulaic writing is as limiting as it is useful? This proved to be quite a fertile topic for last week’s Easter extravaganza of an #EAPChat.
Proving that you should never take things for granted, @muranava kicked off proceedings with a pertinent question:
‘so what is the 5 para essay?’
@yearinthelifeof (that’s me, by the way, although I’ll continue to refer to myself through my twitter moniker for the rest of this post) attempted to define this writing model:
‘5 parag essay – intro + 3 body parags + conclusion – but is it really useful?’
What’s good about this model?
@yearinthelifeof then made the case for the defense, noting two things that teaching this model enables us to do in class:
‘It is also a flexible writing model that can be used for diff genres.’
‘It can serve as a model to help students organize their thoughts.’
The benefits of a model
These suggestions were met with a degree of agreement, firstly from @rantaboutfooty who suggested:
‘It’s an easy way for teachers to get across the fundamentals of writing in English.’
‘Yes models are good for low levels.’
As did @DanielaArghir:
‘Even for higher levels – on controversial issues for instance.’
So, is it really all that, or does it have its limitations?
At this point @yearinthelifeof revisited an issue that Scott Thornbury had discussed on his blog the week before, that of forcing a type of writing onto another culture. Are we making learners accept the cultural norms of English speaking nations when we teach them to write in English?
‘Good point, but are we ‘forcing a behavior’ on non-native writers: ‘you must write according to how we write?’
@muranava also wondered what exactly this might entail:
‘What non-English organizational writing diffs are there?’
This wasn’t picked up on, even though this is an issue that affects all writing in ELT and not just the five-paragraph format. @yearinthelifeof merely noted a…
‘Great cultural variance in writing styles.’
Let’s move on and look at what were highlighhted as the main problems of the five-paragraph essay.
The disadvantages of the model
@yearinthelifeof proceeded to lay out the following two criticisms:
‘My main criticism of 5 parag essay is that it only exists in ‘how to write’ classes. Few actual assignments follow this model.’
‘My second main criticism is that the organizational skills learned aren’t transferable to other types of writing.’
@eltworld countered well, raising the following questions:
‘Isn’t a clear model better than no model? Why aren’t skills transferable?’
My experiences of teaching writing have led me to the conclusion that @eltworld has a point, to a certain extent, in terms of having a model to work with in that teaching a model of writing is better than not teaching it, particularly if your students are going to be assessed using such a format.
@MarkWordSmith reinforced this notion, suggesting that specialist exams might require the developing of specific writing skills to deal with the writing tasks of that exam:
‘Good point, but wouldn’t IELTS prep require specialist writing focus – focus not applicable to further education?’
@eltworld agreed with this and had the following sound advice to offer:
‘Make it simple – prep specially for IELTS writing and don’t even pretend it’s for anything else.’
Within the realm of exam prep classes, it would certainly make sense to familiarize the learners with the format they would be expected to follow.
As @MarkWordSmith suggests:
‘Given the tiny world limit for such wide open questions an L1 response to a writing task in IELTS would also need a rigid formula.’
Going back to @eltworld’s other question about the transferability of the skills learned when writing five-paragraph essays, I suggested the following in my defense:
‘For example, 5 parag essay doesn’t prep students for lab reports, longer essays or short answer responses.’
Alternative ways of scaffolding learners’ writing: checklists
A large part of the chat revolved around what participants regarded as being good practice in terms of facilitating learners’ ability to effectively organize their work. As such, this was a discussion of alternatives to the five-paragraph model. @DanielaArghir took the discussion in this direction with a nice suggestion:
‘A simple one, for low levels: using checklists?’
@yearinthelifeof’s interest was clearly piqued by this:
‘Could you give an example of a checklist?’
As was that of @eltworld:
‘Do you mean like ‘your writing has a -topic sentence, -main idea, etc’?’
Over the course of a couple of tweets, @DanielaArghir and @muranava explained:
‘Theme, content, creativity, graphics, introduction, organization, conclusion, sentences, language, conventions…’
‘I have labeled all my graphs; I have numbered all my figures, etc.’
@muranava also exemplified how such lists might look in an EAP setting:
‘Have only done technical report writing so chklist may say – I have listed all my refs, I have not used personal pronouns, etc.’
@muranava then suggested one possible limitation of such checklists:
‘Checklists are a good first step in getting Ss to recognise, how to get them to produce?’
So, while checklists of what has and hasn’t been included in a piece of written work, do they actually help the learner in the production of their writing, or are they merely something to be used after?
Alternative ways of scaffolding learners’ writing: graphic organizers
So, if the five-paragraph essay model is limited in the type of writing skills it develops and checklists, although beneficial, only help at the post-production stage, what alternatives are available to us to aid in written production?
Well, @yearinthelifeof suggested a manageable alternative that can be used for a variety of writing needs:
‘I’m more in favour of helping students master mind maps and graphic organizers as methods of organizing.’
Have your say
What are your experiences in teaching writing? Do you violently disagree with any of the ideas expressed here? Do you have anything to add?