Monday, October 17, 2011

"There Is No Such Thing as a Five-Paragraph Essay," says Kelly Gallagher


In his new book Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts  (Stenhouse 2011), Kelly Gallagher challenges a staple essay form taught in middle schools and high schools from coast to coast: The Five-Paragraph Essay.

Thank you, Kelly!

I devote too much time proding seniors to consider the three parts of an essay--introduction, body, and conclusion--when composing essays rather than defaulting to the five-paragraph formula.

Before teachers sharpen their red pens, they should consider Gallagher's argument: When one searches the plethera of real-world writing in books, in magazines, on blogs, on web sites, in journals, and most everywhere else, the five-paragraph essay is as elusive as the proverbial needle in a haystack. Writes Gallagher: "in the real world, there is no such thing as a five-paragraph essay" (232).

Examples of collumnists who eschew the five paragraph essay include: Rick Reilly, Leonard Pitts, George Will, and Fareed Zakaria, offers Gallager.

"If our goal is to develop lifelong writers, and we recognize that the five-paragraph essay doesn't exist in the real world, then why are we still hammering it into our students' heads?" asks Gallagher (233).

Gallagher counters teachers' responses that students "need the structure of a five-paragraph essay" by suggesting we teach students that essays need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Translation: introduction, body, and conclusion.

This, of course, makes more sense than the artificialness of a five-paragraph essay.

I'm a bit more cynical in my thinking about why many teachers teach the five paragraph essay: it's easy. All one need do is direct students toward what to do for each paragraph: Put your thesis in the first paragraph; make your first point in the second paragraph, your second point in the third paragraph, and your third point in the fourth paragraph. Summarize in your fith paragraph. Now you have an essay.

For teachers who are mandated by their districts to teach the five-paragraph essay, particularly as part of state-mandated testing, Gallagher suggests teachers spend approximately a week on the formula.

So, once again, thank you, Kelly, for vindicating those teachers who have long railed against the five-paragraph essay as a formula of a world other than the one in which we live.

I actually received a scolding many years ago by an administrator for telling students not to use the formula, the consequence of a well-intentioned colleague who complained because I refused to teach this contrived formula while she taught nothing but it.

Perhaps our reliance on formulaic writing helps explain why so many students find writing both meaningless and tedious.

It's time the five-paragraph essay go the way of the Whooly Mammoth: to extinction.

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