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If You Teach or Write 5-Paragraph Essays–Stop It! Part I: Introduction–What inspired my argumentative response? For  decades, too many high-school teachers have been instilling persuasive writing skills by teaching students the five-paragraph essay. With the Common Core Standards designed to shift the way we teach students to college essay background story example, read, and write, this outdated writing tradition must end.

The five-paragraph essay is rudimentary, unengaging, and useless. If I were using five paragraphs to convince you, based on the argument above, you wouldn’t need to read any farther. Instead, we should use the original argumentative form Aristotle promoted but that somehow got watered down into the ordinary structure we, unfortunately, were likely taught or may currently teach. Aristotle became one of the godfathers of rhetoric by creating structures for persuasive writing and speaking that–if taught to young people today–would transform writing instruction and facilitate the implementation of the Common Core, proving that students–when guided appropriately–can succeed with critical thinking in the 21st century. Teachers know that, in the 90s, state standards were developed to guide instruction. Each state, though, had its own. A few years ago, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers began work on national standards to increase consistency.

These new national standards are challenging–and necessary. According to the Common Core Web site, the “standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. Besides allowing for instructional consistency among states, the states help align instruction vertically so one grade’s instruction leads to the next.

The Common Core site also states that “these standards define the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and in workforce training programs. If high-school students and teachers are to succeed with Common Core Standards, the five-paragraph essay cannot be part of instruction. Too many times, this ordinary format is the default mode for expressing thinking in English, in history, in science, in P. The problem is this format doesn’t encourage thoughtful persuasion. It promotes low-level summary that nobody really cares about.

Aristotle rightfully promoted five parts to effective writing and speaking. Eventually, because of low expectations, because of poor literacy training, because of convenience or some combination, these five parts became five paragraphs. And writing became boring and predictable. Part 3: Confirmation–What supports my argument? The thesis or argument in the traditional five-paragraph essay doesn’t lend itself to debatability or originality.

It’s a trap that students can never escape. A few years ago, I got the chance to be an AP English reader for the College Board. Over and over, if a student used the rudimentary three-part “argument,” there was no way he or she could demonstrate success in the analysis essay–even though we were all supportive readers. In competitions such as history fairs, students cannot compete with the rudimentary three-part argument.

When I started a Writing Center at a selective-enrollment high school a couple of jobs ago, the history teacher came to me and said she needed something to help students succeed. Over and over, she was getting arguments with blank, blank, and blank. Example A: The longer school day in Chicago next year does not guarantee that students will be productive in classes, reminding us that young people need to find learning meaningful. Example B: The longer school day in Chicago next year does guarantee more learning opportunities, resulting in increased student success. Example C:  Despite its widespread use, the traditional five-paragraph essay does not allow students to express ideas engagingly, proving that this structure limits students’ writing development. The image above is the handout I use with students thanks to the conversations with my mentor Robin Bennett, a fondly remembered theater and history teacher. Another damaging aspect of using five paragraphs is that students find it almost impossible to do anything but write in expository paragraphs.

Aristotle’s form, however, is not a one-size-fits-all approach. This form doesn’t work for science lab reports. For that, we should follow the example of the science tradition. This form should also not be the form for a narrative essay. For that, we should follow the example of NPR This I Believe essays.

While personal essays do carry a subtextual argument, they are not intended to persuade. They are written so we can experience what we have not or find solidarity through what we have. Aristotle’s form works only for persuasive essays–which need to be part of our educational system more often. We just need to make sure that we are presenting students with persuasive prompts that have more than one reasonable response. Part 4: Refutation–What challenges my argument? I’m hearing, “But how are students going to learn organization without learning the five-paragraph essay?

My response: they’re not learning an organizational pattern that will help them succeed outside of your own classroom. Effective cover letters aren’t written in five-paragraph essays. We don’t expect a news article to follow a five-paragraph format. Quite simply, there aren’t always three reasons to prove our point. Students need to write for a specific rhetorical context. Subject: Who or what are you writing about? Occasion: What idea or incident is inspiring this need for  persuasion?

How much time to you have to write this? What do they believe about the subject? Are they a supportive or skeptical audience? Purpose: What is the job of this essay?