Reviving the Essay by Killing the 5-Paragraph Form

Writing an essayA previous post, “A 5-Paragraph Essay is Not an Essay – Rethinking Essay Writing,” highlighted the stifling of students through the constant assigning of 5-paragraph essays. Unfortunately, over-reliance on the 5-paragraph form detracts from future exploration of a topic instead of allowing open-ended conversations, which was the original intent of the essay genre. The 5-paragraph essays assigned in classrooms across the globe, which are not essays but articles, focus on concluding thoughts and ideas; however, if we want students to engage in on-going discourse, we must learn how to teach traditional essay form in order to present future opportunities for inquiry.

How to Assign an Essay

The below suggestions are just that – suggestions. Feel free to experiment, adopt, adapt, and/or contribute your own ideas in the comments section below, keeping in mind that the objective of each suggestion should answer the one question essays pose to all students: “What do I know?” When we engage students in this type of inquisitive dialogue, we are teaching them to break conventions, challenge perspectives, and express their ideas.

(1) Don’t rush students through the writing process.

Writing does not start with a thesis statement. Writing starts with an idea. An idea is a spark of curiosity that can ignite a passion in a subject. “An idea is everything.” (Alfred Hitchcock) And in order to develop an idea, students need freedom to read, explore, and discover. Give them time to ask questions, present problems, and sort through previous understanding. On the other hand, if you want to kill an idea, rush students through the writing process.

(2) Allow students to pick their own topics.

A fellow colleague was complaining to me the other day, quite sarcastically – “I can’t wait to grade 50 essays on the death penalty after a day of teaching [eye roll].” I suggested that, perhaps, the grading process would be more enjoyable if a bit of variety was injected into his class. Maybe students would also enjoy the writing process if they were allowed to pick their own topics.

This seems to be a no-brainer, but you would be surprised by the number of composition courses that require students to write on specific topics, and under the guise of the “Essay” genre no less. This is not an essay! There is no zeal, no excursion, and no singularity of idea generation for the student. Again, we are killing the essay genre. Instead, relinquish control, sit back, and wait for students to surpass your expectations when you start grading unique essays that expound on topics you never thought they would present. In the end, it’s not about what you want them to know, it’s what they want to know.

(3) Embrace multimodal writing.

Multimodal writing experiments with various sensory experiences (visual, textual, verbal, and tactile) to create a vivid expression of the writer’s knowledge, and the original essay form is perfect for multimodal writing – an old meets new situation. The best of both worlds! Embrace technology, the visual arts, and auditory expression. The writing process should be exciting for students simply because they should have the artistic freedom to use multiple modes of expression. For example, in the past, I have taught students how to project tone using VoiceThread. In another semester, students used iDVD to produce dynamic sequences of “meaningful relationships” in their lives. And instead of using diagnostic essays at the beginning of each semester for Remedial Composition (Read “I Teach Remedial College Writing – Save Your Pity“), students wrote letters to wounded veterans (there is nothing better than a hand-written letter of appreciation). Check out the University of Findlay’s synopsis on multimodal composition for more ideas.

In the end, invigorating the exciting genre of essay writing is important, and because we have so many tools at our disposal, it would be a travesty if we continued to subject ourselves and our students to the stagnant 5-paragraph form. I know that many of my writing colleagues engage in all of the above, and I also know that many of my readers do the same. I would love to hear from all of you! I welcome additional suggestions and am always looking for new “ideas” because, again, “ideas are everything” when writing.


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5 replies

  1. While I love these ideas and wish I could implement them, the sad truth is that I am shackled by testing that is the be-all, end-all of my class. Our curriculum is written to funnel students into the specific structures of the test format; time for idea generation is an unattainable luxury in a world where my kids must write not just one but two “essays” in a single morning (plus multiple other tasks). At best, they will have one hour each to devote to the two papers that will help determine whether or not summer school (and, eventually, graduation) is in their future. And while I wish I could take the risk of letting kids select their own topics, explore ideas, and analyze what they know, the professional risk is too frightening: if they fail, and I haven’t followed the prescribed path for test prep, I don’t think my job prospects will be very shiny.

  2. I agree with several of your ideas here. I have pretty much removed length limits from my writing assignments, replacing them with suggested ranges. I would modify your point that “all writing begins with an idea” to all writing begins with a question. More accurately, all real research begins with a question. I find students engage with any topic more genuinely if they have a question about it that is meaningful to them. I used to use the multimodal approach only for the end of semester project, but I’ve begun to see how it can be useful in other ways throughout the semester.
    It hurts me to see perennial debates among my K12 colleagues over whether they should or should not teach the five-paragraph essay. Even more painful are those schools/districts that require the five-paragraph exercise and make it the only acceptable format for the state writing test many students must pass to graduate. The tremendous amount of time and energy that goes into drilling this format into students’ minds could be so much better spent on helping students develop writing and thinking skills that they actually will use in college and beyond.

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