It was sophomore year, and I was in my expository writing class. I walked up to my teacher, absolutely befuddled by the writing assignment laid before me. Why was I so befuddled? Was it the content? Was it the prompt?
No, it was because I couldn’t say what I wanted to in five paragraphs.
Now, I always used to be a rule-follower. I was a bit of a teacher’s pet, and not a big risk-taker. I’d always do exactly what I was told, not necessarily because I needed the structure, but because I was afraid of making a mistake. I was afraid of doing something wrong.
My expository writing teacher looked at me blankly. “You do know that you can write more than five paragraphs, right?”
I stared back, equally as blank.
“Oh, I thought I had to write in five paragraphs.”
She laughed at me, and I think she thought I was kidding. After a few seconds, she looked back at me, seeing that my demeanor hadn’t changed and that I was still in a rut of confusion. In essence, my whole written world had been turned upside-down. How would I find structure in my piece if I didn’t know how many paragraphs to write? How would I know where to put sentences if I didn’t follow the proscribed format that had made me so successful up until now?
Luckily, I got through it, but I wished I would have known this about writing when I was younger.
Many teachers teach the five-paragraph essay with good intention, but what they don’t realize is that they’re doing more harm than good. What children really need to learn when writing is how to structure a piece so that it aligns with their purpose. This allows their writing to be flexible enough to write on any topic, not just on descriptive topics that require a series of paragraphs with topic sentences and three supporting details.
One of the best ways to do this is by reflecting the Common Core Informational Text Standards related to text structure and main idea into writing. In order for students to develop this understanding of how to structure a piece of writing that is aligned with a specific purpose, it’s important to analyze various texts first in order to analyze the author’s choice of text structure. They’ll slowly begin to see that constructing any piece of writing isn’t quite as difficult as it once seemed, and that some purposeful cognitive energy directed towards text structure can actually be more freeing than the proscribed nature of the five-paragraph essay.
In fact, structure itself is intended to be freeing, not limiting. The structure of the five-paragraph essay does just the opposite of providing freedom: It creates a writing culture that focuses on standardization–not creativity. It emphasizes product over process, and we, as teachers, should be emphasizing the process. By teaching text structure in tandem with writing, we create a safety net so students feel supported in their writing, meanwhile allowing them the freedom to take risks and roll around in the creativity that a safety net will support.
Check out this example from our TED talks last year:
With these supports in place, students will eventually begin to use multiple text structures within a piece of writing (like the student above), so that they may truly communicate the complexity of their thoughts and the depth of their knowledge. This is something that the standard five-paragraph essay simply won’t allow.
And that is why I simply refuse to teach it.