The 5-paragraph essay

The Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal from the 24th:

A potentially useful aid to writing, turned into a rigid framework, and so pretty much guaranteed to turn students against the task (not to mention the craft) of writing.

As for the strip, it’s bitterly pessimistic. About schooling, about learning, and about the state of writing in everyday life.

From Wikipedia:

The five-paragraph essay is a format of essay having five paragraphs: one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs with support and development, and one concluding paragraph. Because of this structure, it is also known as a hamburger essay, one three one, or a three-tier essay.

In certain circles, the five-paragraph essay has been elevated to something approaching dogma and has consequently garnered severe criticism. But it’s obviously helpful to give novice writers models to follow, or at least useful advice about how to go about writing. Effective writing teachers offer both models and advice; they convey that there are many kinds of writing, for different purposes; they pair the experience of writing with the experience of reading; they communicate the joy of writing; and they explain that as a skill or craft, writing requires lots of  practice, work that improves skills.

Much of this is entirely parallel to the development of other skills and crafts — athletic skills; artistic skills (drawing, painting, cartooning, modeling in clay, etc.); musical skills (singing, playing an instrument); skills in dancing (of all kinds); and so on. In all of these domains, doing goes along with observing (playing sports along with watching sports, playing an instrument along with listening to instrumental music, cartooning along with reading cartoons, and so on), and you need to practice a lot (but practicing can be rewarding).

The teacher in the SMBC just doesn’t get this. But then she’s a wild exaggeration, though with a basis in life. There are people who would like to routinize skills, reduce them to formulas as much as possible. There are plenty of people who believe that the function of schooling (at least for the masses) is to prepare kids to be willing, obedient, and competent workers. And there are plenty of people who believe that learning should be tedious and painful (but it’s all for your own good).

One Response to “The 5-paragraph essay”

  1. Joel B Levin Says:

    Oddly enough, given my age and schooling, I never heard of this named structure before. We were told that an essay should have a paragraph of introduction, a body (of unspecified length) and a conclusion. In other words: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them tell them, and tell them what you told them.”

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