Back in May, I wrote a post entitled “One Size Never Fits All” that discussed the difficulties created by the imposition of the five-paragraph form onto evaluations of writing ability, either in the classroom or as part of state-wide testing. Two weeks ago, in my College Writing I sections, I decided to emulate Gerald Graff and “teach the conflicts” in composition studies by having students read three essays that appeared in English Journal a few years ago. Two of them, by Kerri Smith of Fairleigh Dickinson University and Byung-In Seo of Saginaw Valley State University, defended the use of the five-paragraph essay as a way to teach structure and idea development to writing students. A third article, by ten members of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative, vigorously disputed the position of both Smith and Seo.
I wanted to give my students a sense of the kinds of arguments that erupt among writing teachers as they go about doing their jobs, and to introduce them, as freshmen, to the ways knowledge is thrashed out within disciplines. A few of them indicated to me that this dispute bored them silly, but I also knew that others would think seriously about what these three articles had to say, if for no other reason than the experience they have had with the five-paragraph form during their prior schooling.
In fact, some students have commented on the dispute in their weekly writings. There has been agreement with Smith and Seo about the value of the form, and also agreement with the UNC-Charlotte group about how limiting the form can be, especially if the student, often out of habit, continues to call upon the form when seeking to execute college-level writing. I’m not sure I would call it a consensus but some students conclude that the form could have value as a way to learn about the importance of clear organization when writing, while also realizing that complex arguments in need of careful reasoning and convincing evidence require a different approach. Students also sent the message that the main problem with the form is that it is so hard to escape. Using the five-paragraph form as one teaching tool among many could be useful. But using it as the standard for demonstrating writing ability, and therefore ensuring it will be revisited over and over again by teachers intent on obtaining the best test scores for their school and district, can build general resentment towards the task of academic writing.
Seo, Byung-In. “Defending the Five-Paragraph Essay.” English Journal 97.2 (November, 2007):
Smith, Kerri. “In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay.” English Journal 95.4 (March, 2006):
UNC-Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative. “The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model
Of Education.” English Journal 98.2 (2008): 16-21.