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December 03, 2003

THE TEXAS MIRACLE....Texas says they have excellent public schools but they are actually quite bad. They are bad because they have a high dropout rate. They are also bad because their test scores are low. And they are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays.

Texas schools have a high dropout rate. They say their dropout rate is low, but they are lying. I blogged about this back in August, and you can click this link to see what I said. Texas schools have a high dropout rate.

Texas schools have low test scores. Their test scores seem high, but this New York Times story shows that they are actually very low. A passing grade on the Texas test is equal to the fifth percentile on a national test. That means you can pass even if you are in the bottom ten percent of students. Texas schools have low test scores.

Texas schools are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays. I had never heard of five paragraph essays until today, when Jeanne d'Arc told me about them. I am writing a five paragraph essay right now! Texas schools are bad because they teach students to write five paragraph essays.

In conclusion, Texas schools are bad. They have lots of dropouts, low test scores, and five paragraph essays. Texas schools are bad.

And you should read this Jeanne d'Arc post right now. Mine is a total ripoff — although perhaps more authentic because I did not use any contractions. Unless "d'Arc" counts as a contraction, of course.

Damn. That's six paragraphs.

No, seven.


Oh hell.....

Posted by Kevin Drum at December 3, 2003 07:08 PM | TrackBack


Yes, I know the NYT article is about Houston schools, not Texas schools. But the joke worked better this way.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at December 3, 2003 07:10 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe you could combine a few paragraphs until there are only five left?

Another problem is that you have links to actual factual evidence to support your arguments. I don't think that's allowed in Texas.

Posted by: Wayne at December 3, 2003 07:20 PM | PERMALINK

Ok, yes, this was funny and an explanation of why an apparent master of the 5 paragraph essay in texas would end up flunking a college-level writing class. However, truly mastering the 5 paragraph essay (in a good way) requires one to organize one's thoughts more subtly and flow better than Jeanne d'Arc's example. On the other hand, her essay was certainly reminiscent of some of my finer works from the 6th and 7th grade.

Plus, the 5 paragraph essay isn't just "golden" because of the 3 points... it's because 5 good, well-written paragraphs will give you about 1000 words, or 4-5 double-spaced pages, which is about what one should expect from a high school writing assignment every two weeks.

Now I want to re-read my old Master's thesis and see if the 5-paragraph formula drilled into my head in high school ended up showing its influence on any sections. Hm... I think the first draft had 5 chapters. Uh oh. :)

Posted by: Constantine at December 3, 2003 07:27 PM | PERMALINK

Great post replying to a great post.

I've now written two paragraphs. But my first did not contain a sentence. Don't mess with Texas.

Posted by: John Isbell at December 3, 2003 07:40 PM | PERMALINK

They made me do this in middle school! And that was as recently as 1995-1996.
Luckily the five-paragraph essay didn't rear its ugly head again in high school.

Posted by: JAG at December 3, 2003 07:48 PM | PERMALINK

Back in Arkansas in the 80s, we called this a three-point theme. I always considered it a good jumping-off point, but not the end of the writer's journey.

Posted by: Phillip J. Birmingham at December 3, 2003 07:56 PM | PERMALINK

Five paragraph essays are a starting point for writing, and a useful way to organize your thoughts. A well-written one makes an excellent set of notes to write a real essay from. And they are quick to whip up, so they are perfect to use as a basis during a timed test.

The rules Jeanne quotes are slightly different than the ones I learned... for instance I was taught to vary the wording of each point in order to help you look at it from a different angle. I was also taught that the final paragraph had to be a helluva lot more than a summary, as it contained the actual thrust of the essay. Also, who else remembers the dreaded "funnel paragraph"? The first paragraph had to go from general to specific, ending with your theme.

Useful tools, when they are taught correctly. That's all.

Posted by: Laura at December 3, 2003 08:25 PM | PERMALINK

Dude, you're being totally and unfairly harsh on the five paragraph essay. It's actually a quite useful form, for three reasons: It forces the student to organize their paper somehow, it forces the student to support their assertions, and it forces the student to have a damn point, already.

The organizational aspect of it sounds unimpressive, unless you've ever read a bunch of junior high papers. Junior high kids, left to their own devices, won't structure a paper at all: They'll just move from point to point with reckless abandon, getting lost in a maze of random, half-connected statements.

And, of course, none of their statements actually do much in the way of supporting their points. They'll just make a bald assertion, and move on, without bothering to even make a case for their insanity. ("I think the theme of the Outsiders is that people should just try to be nice to each other. The author seems to be a nice person.")

And that's if they even have points to support in the first place, which they usually don't. Remember, most of their, ah, research for the paper was done in the august pages of the World Book Encyclopedia, which isn't exactly known for advancing provocative theses. Students, if not forced to do something else, will stick with that same dry recitation of facts that build into no larger point.

So, yeah, the five paragraph essay isn't perfect, and it's probably overused, but it is useful for teaching students that papers should have structure, should make points, and should support those points.

(And that's what real five paragraph essays look like, not the painfully stilted strawman that you and Jeanne are burning in effigy.)

Posted by: Mike Kozlowski at December 3, 2003 08:26 PM | PERMALINK

I don't get it. It reads just like every brief I have ever written. Extremely well organized.

Posted by: A Lawyer at December 3, 2003 08:27 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, Constantine, I don't see how 5 paragraphs comes close to 1000 words. That's 200 words a paragraph, or something like 50 words a sentence. More like, 5 paragraphs = 400 words = 1 1/2 pages double spaced in 12 pt font, and even at my lowly state institution, that's a fail.

I can understand teaching some formulaic structure to beginning writers, especially for argumentative essays. I give my students a template as well (or a couple of templates), but 5 paragraphs? What kind of 'essay' is that? It takes 5 paragraphs just to lay out a view, fer crissakes.

Posted by: epist at December 3, 2003 08:30 PM | PERMALINK

Having taught only 9 sections of freshman comp (first at a mediocre state school and then at an, uh, Eastern elite school) so far in my ongoing grad student career, I can say that I loathe the 5P essay. Most freshmen at the elite school don't know it, but most at the state school, where the sections were much larger, did. Go figure.

The funnel opening is terrible, yes, because it normally means students starting every essay like I did in High School: "through history." To which I always write "unproveable. Strike." I want them to get to their thesis as quickly as possible, mainly to ensure that they're saying something contestable, i.e., worth saying.

The 5P is bad because, generally speaking, because the middle graphs can be re-arranged without anyone noticing the difference. A good essay has a sense of inevitability to it, and I don't think can be done with the 5P.

And no one's going to flunk my course for writing a 5P essay because I let them know that they simply not allowed to write one.

Posted by: Karl at December 3, 2003 08:34 PM | PERMALINK

i'm left wondering if the POTUS can write a five paragraph essay... probably not now that i think about it. it would require him knowing how to count to five.

Posted by: Jeanie at December 3, 2003 08:36 PM | PERMALINK

and if "d'arc" is a contraction, what is it a contraction of?

Posted by: Jeanie at December 3, 2003 08:37 PM | PERMALINK

'de la arc' of the arch, in French. French drops intervening vowels (and sometimes, as in this case, entire words) from prepositional phrases and personal articles when they precede a noun that begins with a vowel, and contract them with an apostrophe. So, for example, it isn't 'la etoile' (the star) it's 'l'etoile'.

Posted by: epist at December 3, 2003 08:45 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, the "five paragraph paper"! I haven't thought about it in years. It was the cornerstone of the high school English curriculum at my Texas high school back in the 1970s.

I agree with another poster that if done right, the five paragraph paper is a perfectly good way of organizing one's writing, so being proficient at it is not a sign of bad education. It was certainly better than the anal fixation my senior English teachers had on spelling errors in the research paper. (One error, 50% off the grade.)

However, I also know that Houston schools are lousy. They were lousy back in the 1970s. I didn't believe in the "Texas Miracle" because I knew they weren't spending any more money on the schools than before and the schools had been parched for $$$ for years. When I lived in Texas (until 10 years ago), the big tussle was over equalization of funding and ending the inequities between rich districts and poor districts. I still don't know if they've gotten that right. Since then I've lived in Utah, which has a more fundamental problem, that of not enough money and too many kids. Stuffing 45 kids in a 4th grade class (and YES, that was a standard for the Granite School district in the Salt Lake area) was simply hard to believe after coming from a state where even if funding was poor, there were still going to be no more than 22 students per teacher in elementary school.

Well, this was no five paragraph paper...

Posted by: Mirele at December 3, 2003 08:58 PM | PERMALINK

And it's a pity that nobody mentioned the absolute worst high school writing sin:

"Webster's defines [subject of paper] as..."

Posted by: Mike Kozlowski at December 3, 2003 09:02 PM | PERMALINK

Yesterday you blogged about the little one-stroke engine from Texas that could:

(Bush said)....he had eliminated the terror threat from Afghanistan and weapons of mass destruction from Iraq and ensured that Medicare will remain solvent.

And now you begin tonight with this:

Texas says they have excellent public schools but they are actually quite bad.

Kevin...are you trying to imply something about Texas? You really ought not to. Allow those folks their puffing. After all, your governor can probably beat up their governor. And your governor has five or so humvees. Trust me: Texans envy you Californians. So really...there is absolutely no need to imply that they are big Fat LIARS.

(aside: idea for a remake of the parlor game of Clue:
Delay with a whip in the house of representatives)

Posted by: -pea- at December 3, 2003 09:19 PM | PERMALINK

The 5 paragraph essay in the format

Synopsis FactA FactB FactC Synopsis
FactA FactA1 FactA2 FactA3 FactA
FactB FactB1 FactB2 FactB3 FactB
FactC FactC1 FactC2 FactC3 FactC
Synopsis FactA FactB FactC Synopsis

Was an integral part of my mid-80s elementary school curriculum. I thought it was stupid back then, because it ended up just being a game to find out how many times you could reword something. By the time I hit high school, it wasn't accepted, and when I went to college (at the University of Houston, actually), it was thought by me to be a relic of a bygone age.

Then again, I thought something was fishy when I heard all these stories of people falling asleep during the middle of the TASP (Texas high school test or something). It seemed like a joke. Little did I realize that the joke would be the basis for Texas' awesome education statistics.

Posted by: XPav at December 3, 2003 09:29 PM | PERMALINK

Well, this is what happens when you have the Houston office of Arthur Andersen auditing test results.

-- Norbizness ('89 miracle graduate of the Texas public school system)

Posted by: Norbizness at December 3, 2003 09:29 PM | PERMALINK

I will brook no defense of the five paragraph essay. Don't get me started on "IRAC" and "CRAC" (annoying law school methodologies), either--you teach boring formulas for writing, you'll get boring, formulaic writing.

Posted by: Katherine at December 3, 2003 09:30 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, thanks for the memories and the laugh. In high school, I hated the five paragraph essay. I always wanted to build toward the thesis (or a provocative final thought) rather than start with it.

That being said, it is quite difficult to organize an essay around its natural logical development, and, as a result, I'm an extremely slow writer, especially when I'm under the influence of terse math books. I guess I understand the pragmatics of the five paragraph essay.

Posted by: Matt at December 3, 2003 09:39 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Kozlowski hit the nail on the head here: the 5P essay isn't anything you'd ever want to read in the pages of The New Yorker or the Atlantic, but any consistent organizational form can be a blessing when you're dealing with the output of 6th and 7th-graders.

You gotta crawl before you can walk.

Posted by: Doctor Memory at December 3, 2003 09:41 PM | PERMALINK

The five-paragraph essay, and other related templates (like the "pyramid" paragraph) were alive and well in Vancouver public schools in the early nineties, and I suspect they are still going strong -- mainly because you absolutely needed a template to pass the writing portion of the provincial exams. Otherwise you won't finish in time.

Sure, the 5-paragraph essay can be kind of a dopey template, but the BC provincials didn't allow you the luxury of contemplating the best way to organize your ideas. In the History 12 exam, for instance, you needed to churn out single-paragraph essays on topics like "What forces led to Russia's withdrawal from WWI" in under seven minutes, and you had about 20 minutes for each "proper" (i.e., 5-graf) essay.

And of course, style and organization didn't actually count for anything in the grading. All you needed to do to score 10/10 was name-drop all of the correct references. But this kind of template made it easy for the bored, distracted, underpaid teachers -- who were required to grade thousands of these things -- to easily find the information they were looking for. Variations on the 5-paragraph template would not only eat up your exam time, they would likely earn you a lower grade.

I think pretty much everyone involved knew that the 5-graf thing was just a survival skill, and hoped that we'd learn better once we got to college. But even there, I relied on the 5-graf template (or small variations on it) to get through timed written exams -- and it actually worked pretty damn well. Obviously take-homes or proper essays are a different story entirely.

Bottom line -- don't hate on the the 5-graf. It's not "real" writing, but it will get you through in a pinch.

Posted by: Thad at December 3, 2003 09:43 PM | PERMALINK

It sucks to be Molly Ivins, is all I can say. You warn people, they blow you off, they get stung in the ass and suddenly you didn't try hard enough and it's all your fault. Education President. Leave no child behind. Not Vietnam. Depressing.

The kid next door in diapers is still going to be dealing with this crap -- he'll be lucky if he doesn't get drafted.

Posted by: Mike D. at December 3, 2003 10:07 PM | PERMALINK

I hate formulaic writing.

First, I hate formulaic writing because it is boring. Teachers already have a tough enough time reading the same topics over and over again. I'm surprised they want it in the same format too.

Second, I hate formulaic writing because it is unlikely to produce insight. It is non-awful and compiling data. It isn't likely to get anything new.

Third, I hate formulaic writing because....well I can't think of a good third reason, but there are supposed to be three supporting points.

And that is why I hate formulaic writing.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw at December 3, 2003 10:23 PM | PERMALINK

But I could use a good formulaic proofreader. "It is non-awful at compiling data. Bah.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw at December 3, 2003 10:25 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, why did it have to be three points? I always liked a thesis supported by one really good argument, rather than one plus two space-fillers.

Posted by: Matt at December 3, 2003 10:48 PM | PERMALINK

Frankly, I wasn't fooled for a moment by Kevin's spurious essay. Anyone who can successfully count to seven *and* eight can't really be Texan.

Posted by: Anarch at December 3, 2003 11:44 PM | PERMALINK

way back when, getting her doctorate, my sainted wife TAd a large intro course at Berkeley. she got her first stack of papers to grade. they ranged from bad to decent, but there was this subset she could not figure out. it was, she said, written in some sort of moon language. there were words and sentences.. but they didn't make sense.

she talked to some veteran grad students. they explained the five-paragraph essay. she came home and started throwing things, including the more tolerant of the household's cats.


these days, she no longer complains so much about the students' writing abilities, for whatever reason. however, every so often, she reads something on the web and starts muttering about "moon language" darkly and threateningly. the writer is almost always a loony-right essayist. this, you may imagine, is my cue quietly to put the cats out of reach.

cats have claws!

Posted by: wcw at December 4, 2003 12:40 AM | PERMALINK






There. See? Easy.

fouro -

Del Rio TX,
Laughlin AFB Elementary
Grades 1 - 5.

Posted by: fouro at December 4, 2003 03:37 AM | PERMALINK

I remember 5-paragraph essays from high school in Oklahoma around 1971 or so. Actually, though, I had a good English teacher, who taught us to us the formula as a starting point rather than as a rigid template. I remember him saying something about wanting mammals, not insects: bones, not an exoskeleton.

For anyone who thinks following a form can't lead to good writing, I prescribe a few hours of listening to Mozart.

Posted by: rea at December 4, 2003 03:43 AM | PERMALINK

For those trying to defend the ugly 5-P essay, note the wide disparity of ages you're advocating its use for: high school, elementary, middle school? That's a point that makes itself--the problem is not so much the form itself, but its stagnancy, all the way through public education. And (as several people above have attested) this form gets so ingrained after 12 years or some portion thereof, that by college, the students get quite defensive about it:

"Well, Mrs. Albright told me I had to write this way. And Mr. Smith. And Ms. Davis. And Mrs. Hiller."

So there's no getting through to them.

And I actually think (having read hundreds of writing portfolios from incoming U Michigan students, back when they had to submit portfolios) the AP system reinforces the 5-P essay in a really scary way. It's really about:

Marbury v. Madison was about this, this, and this.

The first thing Marbury v. Madison did was X.

The second thing Marbury v. Madison did was Y.

The third thing Marbury v. Madison did was Z.

And so, dear AP committee, please give me a 5 so I don't have to take intro english.

Posted by: emptywheel at December 4, 2003 05:26 AM | PERMALINK

I was taught the five paragraph essay in Ohio in the 70's. They called it a 3.5 paper. 3 points in 5 paragraphs. I went to one of the better public schools in the area and we wrote 3.5's in 7th and 8th grade as preparation for highschool.

Posted by: carsick at December 4, 2003 05:54 AM | PERMALINK

I love wcw's gem of a review. mrowr!
d'Arc is actually a contraction of de Arc, there's no need to add "la", the more so since "arc" (bow) is masculine.

Posted by: John Isbell at December 4, 2003 06:08 AM | PERMALINK

yeah, but kinky friedman says he might be running as our next governor. check out the houston press' article today, "A Kinky Kind of Campaign?" (i don't know how to shorten a long url, sorry).

Posted by: paperpusher at December 4, 2003 06:11 AM | PERMALINK
Yes, why did it have to be three points? I always liked a thesis supported by one really good argument, rather than one plus two space-fillers.

If its one really good argument, that's your thesis. Heck, in California public schools I learned the same format, and its something that I still turn to for basic structure often, and writing is one of the things -- in college and beyond -- that I've always been told I do really well.

But, I mean, its a basic format. Yes, a bad 5-graffer looks like Kevin's or Jean's examples, and those are painfully common in middle school, and high school writing. But when used as a flexible basic template, it works well, as a guide the content you almost always ought to have, even if you might structure it a bit differently, or vary the number of points.

Its like the basic heroic formula in fiction/scriptwriting. Yes, if you apply it blindly and uncreatively, you end up with bad, cookie cutter, uninteresting writing. If you learn it, understand its utility, and let it inform your writing without using it as a straightjacket, it can be very helpful in producing good, effective writing.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 4, 2003 06:59 AM | PERMALINK

I graduated HS in '86. I had passed AP English, but for some perverse reason I decided to take Eng 1A (at Cal, not with wcw's wife as TA though). I still recall my first assignment. I thought I had done a reasonably good job, using my trusty 5-para formula.

Worst. Grade. Ever.

All part of a first semester figuring out how poorly prepared I was for college. It was humbling. It was also a great learning experience.

Posted by: Dave at December 4, 2003 07:20 AM | PERMALINK

Time magazine recently had a cover story about the changes that will soon take place in the SAT, including a new writing section. Will the 5P essay will be its template? If so I can just see the Kaplan classrooms now, with high schoolers being drilled in the 5P form over and over and over again.

Posted by: Lisa at December 4, 2003 07:31 AM | PERMALINK

"'de la arc' of the arch, in French. French drops intervening vowels (and sometimes, as in this case, entire words) from prepositional phrases and personal articles when they precede a noun that begins with a vowel, and contract them with an apostrophe. So, for example, it isn't 'la etoile' (the star) it's 'l'etoile'."

epist: if it was 'de la arc' then it would just be 'de l'arc'. I think the contraction is of 'de Arc'...

Well, that was kind of a useless comment, no?

Posted by: milked at December 4, 2003 07:37 AM | PERMALINK

Mr. Drum's criticisms of the 5 paragraph system do not hold water. Students need a structure for their writing to organize their thinking. Kevin also fails to follow the format of the structure as it is actually taught, so his implicit criticism fails. The intent of the system is not to lock the student into a single writing style, but to provide a basic style, from which the student can learn his own voice. Without taking these points in mind, Calpundit will not understand the purpose of the 5 paragraph system.

The best thing about 5 paragraph is that it reinforces one idea - the paragraph. I have read far too many papers which present their point in one very long paragraph to decry anything that forces people to organize their thinking a little bit. (My personal specialty when learning to write essays was the 1/2 page - double spaced typed - sentence, so who am I to complain?) Others use the 3 page paragraph, or the more abrupt one sentence per paragraph methodology. Presumably they believe newspapers represent the height of style in essays. Having a system at least dulls the edges of the worst stylistic problems.

BTW, Kevin gets a "C-/D+" on his essay. He doesn't have enough points in each paragraph, and he isn't creative enough in his restatement of the themes of each paragraph. The system is supposed to be 1+3+1 paragraphs, with 1+3+1 sentences each. (1 thesis, 3 supports, 1 summary which is NOT merely a repeat of the thesis.) Mr Drum also depends too much on the passive voice - use the active voice instead. Consecutive sentences and paragraphs should not start with the same word or phrase. His spelling gets top marks, as does his basic grammar. Our host can earn top grades by keeping these rules in mind.

Texas writing education contains more than merely the 1-3-1 structure. It also assumes that once the writer becomes competent, he will discard these rules when necessary for style or to make a point.

I will not claim that 1-3-1 makes particular stirring prose, but it does serve a purpose. It organizes the often unformed thoughts of the student to allow comprehensible writing. In combination with the other rules, it makes for decent, if unexciting prose. And, once the writer is more fully developed, it will be discarded. Don't mock that which you don't understand.

(Fort Worth HSEP @ Dunbar, 1989)

Posted by: rvman at December 4, 2003 07:39 AM | PERMALINK

Blogging as existentialist crisis,or Beckett On-Line.

Van Gogh and the crows,darn they moved,wipe, paint,wipe,paint

But over at Atrios....

And Reuters says...

Just one more point.

No I'll stop now

On the other hand

I can't go on

I'll go on

Posted by: bob mcmanus at December 4, 2003 07:47 AM | PERMALINK

It's actually supposed to be a sonata form (Statement-Development-Recapitulation), though Kevin's example was more a Theme and Variations.

Posted by: Zizka at December 4, 2003 08:09 AM | PERMALINK

We discuss the series of New York Times articles and other studies by economists of school reform at Economists for Dean. This the link to our archives on education.

Posted by: lerxst at December 4, 2003 08:10 AM | PERMALINK

I went to high school in Texas in the 70's and I don't remember the 5 paragraph essay. Guess I wasn't paying attention. Thank god I got to college and in my first english class the professor made us buy a copy of The Elements of Style and I've lived happily ever after.

But you're right, schools in this state pretty much suck.

Posted by: lizette at December 4, 2003 08:22 AM | PERMALINK

"note the wide disparity of ages you're advocating its use for: high school, elementary, middle school"

You'll hate me then :) I used that format on my History M.A. comps. I'm sorry, but I had 3 hours to answer 3 questions; the last thing on my mind was the beauty of my writing. Being able to cram way to much info into a 1-hour essay was made a lot easier by the ready-made template; "Where the hell do I mention brahmanical tyranny? Ahh, paragraph 3" is a nice feeling when you are operating under pressure.

Posted by: Phalamir at December 4, 2003 08:23 AM | PERMALINK

Rea --

"I remember him saying something about wanting mammals, not insects: bones, not an exoskeleton."

I like that analogy.

"For anyone who thinks following a form can't lead to good writing, I prescribe a few hours of listening to Mozart."

Good point. See also, the Beatles, Shakespeare. Great bones, those guys.

Posted by: denise at December 4, 2003 08:37 AM | PERMALINK

Many here are defending the five paragraph theme as a way to teach students to organize a piece of writing. The five paragraph them is a particularly good form to teach the use of the paragraph itself as an organizational tool in writing. The truth is that students do have to learn to step back, view their composition as a whole, and organize their ideas before beginning to write, and the five paragraph theme is a useful tool for that.

On the other hand, though, I believe that there is a valid basis for criticism of the five paragraph theme in that it does not allow the writer to develop ideas in a critical way. There is no ability to modulate the voice. The only point of view allowed is 'neutral fact giver' and 'evidence bearing arguer'. How much more rich writing is when ideas are tried out and tested and placed into discussion with each other. There is the potential for both the reader and the writer to grow!

But how do you combine teaching students writing with structure and writing critically? I think the best way is to use a three part form based on 'thesis', 'antithesis', and 'synthesis'. In its simplest incarnation, this form can survive on just three simple paragraphs, but it can also be expanded. In fact, the form is in use in the essay portion of the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test), in which students have one hour to write two short themes. I say 'Abolish the Five Paragraph Theme' and replace it with this alternative that encourages students to learn to write critically and with structure!

Posted by: wetzel at December 4, 2003 08:42 AM | PERMALINK

My problem with the 5P essay is not the 5 part but the "paragraph" part. When I was in high school I learned that the essay should be 5 sections, not paragraphs. Each section should be a few paragraphs, enough to flesh out the point in detail.

As a grad student in history at Northwestern I teach students to start their essays with a "hook" - a vignette that draws the reader's attention. Then quickly lead to a thesis that answers/explains the conundrum revealed in the hook. Depending on the length of the essay a historiographic point can be introduced before or after the thesis - that is, the statement about why every other writer on the topic was full of shit and where your essay fits in to the literature. In some essays the historiographic point can be avoided outright but I encourage even freshman students to do this, if only to help them to think critically about their sources. The structure of the essay body can be vaguely chronological or thematic but should have clearly delineated sections. The conclusion should, in a more sophisticated fashion re-emphasize the thesis (not restate, mind you) and then offer suggestions for what the larger implications are for the essay.

As always the best way to write a good essay is to read one. And we all have our favorites.

Posted by: Elrod at December 4, 2003 08:45 AM | PERMALINK
On the other hand, though, I believe that there is a valid basis for criticism of the five paragraph theme in that it does not allow the writer to develop ideas in a critical way. There is no ability to modulate the voice. The only point of view allowed is 'neutral fact giver' and 'evidence bearing arguer'.

First: That's two different points of view, so "the only point of view allowed is..." seems inappropriate.

Second: Even given that, I don't thinks its true. While those two may be generally what the 5P is used for, and what people who ask for 5P essays are looking for anyway, I don't think they are demanded by the 5P format, taken somewhat flexibly.

I say 'Abolish the Five Paragraph Theme' and replace it with this alternative that encourages students to learn to write critically and with structure!

Why abolish one tool to teach another? There is no reason students couldn't be exposed to both the 5P model (which, when I was taught, was called a variety of other things besides "5 paragraph", and is very expandable although the particular name "5 paragraph" hides it), and the thesis/antithesis/synthesis model.

Good writing needn't -- generally, shouldn't -- adherely rigidly to a model anyway, and there more useful models students are exposed to and can apply and adapt as appropriate to the writing tasks they encounter, the better.

Saying "abolish 5P, teach only t/a/s" is like saying "abolish the hammer, teach only the use of the screwdriver", IMO.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 4, 2003 09:12 AM | PERMALINK

As a graduate of Texas public schools and then UT in Austin, I'd like to say:


Drove me nuts. Especially "the thesis sentence must be the last sentence of the first paragraph"...and how every paragraph must end and begin with a sentence that restates and leads into the next.

It does become an exercise to see how many ways you could reword a lame point.

Posted by: andrew at December 4, 2003 09:14 AM | PERMALINK

I'll add my voice to those defending (to a limited degree) the 5 paragraph formula.

I was taught the formula late in Grade 12 by a very good English teacher. He emphasized that it was a useful tool ONLY when faced with the tight time limits of standard tests.

When I later TAed a third year university arts course, I found myself wishing that some of those students would use a formula (any formula) to help the reader make some sense of what they were trying to say.


Posted by: Yukoner at December 4, 2003 09:27 AM | PERMALINK

I will be yet another defender of the 5 paragraph essay. I think we would be amazed and disappointed by the number of Americans that can't write any sort of simple, coherent essay. So let's try to get every student up to at least that level. Now it's only a starting point not an ending point, but I think it is not wise to trivialize it.

Posted by: GaryL at December 4, 2003 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

Silly me. I was reading through his post thinking what a great insight Kevin had on the topic when I realized he was just making fun.

Me, I'm simple. I like the 5P thing. It has a point, gets to it quickly, and backs it up.

Although, as a Texas escapee, and a MBA-armed consultant, I have graduated to the 3 bullet points.

Posted by: Out4Blood at December 4, 2003 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

Writing a 5-p essay is okay in some circumstances. Okay. I accept this.

I also accept that it can be taught well or taught badly.

However, I find that it shares many characteristics with my other pet peeve in the world of student work: the PowerPoint essay.

Namely: Students believe that if they simply follow the formula their work is done and the project deserves an A.

Never mind if the topic is too complex to be covered with three examples and one line of argument. Never mind if the examples require several pages of explanation to work -- squeeze each example into a huge, run-on paragraph and it must be good! (No joke -- I've had students panic when they realized they might have to write _6_ paragraphs; they also freaked when this made it clear that they didn't really understand what a paragraph is.)

As many people have said, it is not a bad place to start nor inappropriate for short, simple arguments. It is terrible for anything more, and I hated dealing with students who had been indoctrinated into believing that it was the Platonic form of the essay.

Posted by: Rana at December 4, 2003 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: theperegrine at December 4, 2003 01:09 PM | PERMALINK

Mike Kozlowski, your example of a five-paragraph essay would get a poor grade indeed.
1. You used contractions, which is super-bad in "formal writing", at least according to most junior high English teachers.
2. You started two sentences with "and", which is super-duper-ooper-bad according to those same English teachers.

Posted by: Alex Elliott at December 4, 2003 02:18 PM | PERMALINK
1. You used contractions, which is super-bad in "formal writing", at least according to most junior high English teachers.

Using contractions, I'd agree, is bad in most formal writing. Contractions are, inherently, informal.

2. You started two sentences with "and", which is super-duper-ooper-bad according to those same English teachers.

OTOH, this is not generally bad, although most junior high students who do this will do it badly.
IME, though, most treat this as less serious than the other, provided it doesn't result it horrible fragments. Or things like that. And stuff.

Posted by: cmdicely at December 4, 2003 02:43 PM | PERMALINK

The self-referentiality of Kevin's post reminds me of the story consisting entirely of self-referential sentences in Douglas R. Hofstadter's "Metamagical Themas."

"This sentence is bursting at the punctuation marks with news of the dire import of self-reference as applied to sentences, a practice that could prove to be a veritable Pandora's box of potential havoc, for if a sentence can refer or allude to itself, why not a lowly subordinate clause, perhaps this very clause? Or this sentence fragment? Or three words? Two words? One?"

Posted by: Simon at December 4, 2003 02:52 PM | PERMALINK

Fascinating discussion, one that gets at most of the issues related to writing pedagogy, my area of expertise. I've been teaching writing in college since 1960 and I'm still at it, taking a break from reading papers to comment here. I've also been trying to document the work of a college writing teacher in my blog, ahem, "A Writing Teacher's Blog" [witty title, eh?]

The current issue of Research in the Teaching of English features an article titled the "Five Paragraph Theme," giving some historical context. One unpublished dissertation claims the form originated with a 16th century French philosopher.

The comment about rhetoric is spot on. What most serious writing teachers focus on with their students is developing a sense of purpose and audience, then encouraging students to construct the paper that will express their ideas effectively, given a particular purpose and audience. You aren't really a writer until you can address a new writing task and know you have strategies for accomplishing it.

Why have so many schools taken up the 5P deal? Two factors, IMHO: one is massification. The use of the formula spiked in the 70s as the baby boomers were flooding schools and colleges. The other is the increased use of essay testing by ETS, ACT, and many state exams. I have read and scored six different tests for ETS over the past 25 years. No matter how the scoring rubric was written, a five paragraph essay with plausible evidence and competent mechanics would always earn a low pass. Teachers and the companies that get kids into college figured this out quickly and taught the form as a kind of fail-safe approach.

Now that the SAT is going to require an essay starting in 2005, you can bet the 5P thing will see a major revival.

Finally, the form itself is not a big problem, especially if understood as a specific solution to particular rhetorical problems (like mass testing). But in many cases, it has taken over whole writing programs in both schools and colleges. That's a big problem, because it doesn't engage students in what writing really entails: discovery what you have to say and then finding the best way to say it, given a specific rhetorical circumstance.

I'll probably blog this more extensively in the next few days.

Posted by: John at December 4, 2003 03:26 PM | PERMALINK

As a beginner, I was taught that an essay should have the framework of "Tell them what you're going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them."

As others have commented, it's a framework, not an end in itself. I do mostly technical writing, and my personal weakness has always been the "conclusion" part. Once I've covered the topic, I stop dead in my tracks. Luckily, the publisher that I write for does not require formal summations or conclusions at the end of each chapter, so my writing style fits their format nicely.

As for apostrophes: please see

Posted by: J David Eisenberg at December 4, 2003 05:04 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think many people would suggest that you should NEVER teach the 5P style essay. Heck, I hate it, but I'll be the first to admit that knowing that kind of simple, organizational structure has saved my butt on plenty of essay tests where I had to think fast on my feet. In some contexts, it's just the format that makes the most sense.

Some things that are important are when it's taught (early in school vs. late), where you take it from there (once the students who have trouble organizing their thoughts have learned something about that aspect), and how strict you're going to be about enforcing the rules (i.e., are you stifling the creativity of students who write well in a non 5P form). As other posters have pointed out, as a teaching tool, it can be really useful, but if that's the only way you ever learn to write, that's problematic.

And even though Kevin Drum was exaggerating in his parody of the 5P, I wouldn't say it's a strawman, exactly. I've read worse, from kids who really were taught to write that way.

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