Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay: Long Live Authentic Writing

I checked out Edutopia’s most popular posts of 2015 this week.

These posts account for over one million page views. They represent the best of what resonated with readers. Yet, there is something interesting about them. Not a single one is five paragraphs. Not one has paragraph after paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence.

One began with a story. Another launched with a rhetorical question. One set up a scenario. None of them had a clear thesis in the introduction, nor a conclusion that repeated what was established in the introduction.

I say all this because the list represents a sample of authentic writing.

Out of the hundreds of posts it published this year, these posts captivated, grabbed attention, sparked debate, and were shared all over the net.

Yet none of these posts look like the type of writing that appears on standardized tests. Each defies the format taught in countless classrooms every day.

Blog posts represent just one part of a larger pie. Authentic writing includes reports, reviews, and a whole host of other forms that are produced each day by working adults. But they are an important part of that pie. Roughly 173 million blogs exist, and 1.13 million posts are published each day.

Goals of Writing

I always thought that a primary goal of education was to cultivate young minds to be thoughtful, versatile, and never satiated. The instruction of writing does the exact opposite. It is like so much of what’s wrong in education right now. It standardizes and homogenizes rather than individualizes and differentiates.

Dan Millman, author of 17 books including Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives and The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication, once said,

I kind of got more interested in writing after I turned in my last college essay and nobody was going to tell me what kind of academic papers to write anymore. I could write whatever I wanted, and I realized that I actually liked it when I could choose what I would write.”





It is time to torch the five-paragraph essay. It is time to offer our students a chance to write authentically.

Where We Went Wrong

During the Age of Enlightenment, essays were a favored tool of polemicists who aimed at convincing readers of their position. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing. Virginia Woolf believed that “A good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out.”

Yet as the essayist and technologist Paul Graham points out where we started going wrong. It coincides with the late 19th-century rise of the industrial model of education.

In 1892 the National Education Association “formally recommended that literature and composition be unified in the high school course.” [4] The ‘riting component of the 3 Rs then morphed into English, with the bizarre consequence that high school students now had to write about English literature– to write, without even realizing it, imitations of whatever English professors had been publishing in their journals a few decades before.

It’s no wonder if this seems to the student a pointless exercise, because we’re now three steps removed from real work: the students are imitating English professors, who are imitating classical scholars, who are merely the inheritors of a tradition growing out of what was, 700 years ago, fascinating and urgently needed work.

Standardized testing has only compounded the problem. By its very definition, to standardize means to make something conform, to make homogenous. And since what gets tested gets taught, all originality, creativity, and authenticity has been sucked out of student writing to standardize it for an exam.

How do we create fascinating and urgently needed work? How do we develop a permanence with our students and their writing that invites the reader behind the curtain to see something?

4 Keys to Authentic Writing

#1 Freedom

What I once did: Assign topics.

What I’m now doing: Not giving topics. I am challenging my students to tell me what they believe is worth writing about on a given subject.

Why I am doing it: It is not about me, it is about them. When I assign topics I am implicitly telling my students what I believe is important and disregarding their thoughts. Their writing will always be disingenuous it is conforming to my train of thinking.   Authenticity occurs when I value their choice of topic, not mine.

#2 Publishing

What I once did: My students wrote for an audience of one — me.

What I’m now doing: My  students are publishing their writing.

Why I am doing it: I do a blogging unit with my students each year because their writing needs to exist beyond the four walls of the classroom. Publishing their writing forces them to consider an audience beyond the teacher. Their peers may see it. They can show it to their parents. Perception is everything to them and knowing that their work will be seen by others, my students spend more on grammar, mechanics, and meaning. This didn’t always happen when it was for my eyes only.

#3 Simpler Rubrics

What I once did: Issue standard rubrics for each assignment with a matrix of 20+ boxes.

What I now do: I invite students to create the rubric with me, creating simpler ones that value originality and clarity.

Why I am doing it: Most rubrics confuse or overwhelm students more than they help them. They rarely deliver their promised precision. Just as standardizing test can compromise the quality of teaching, elaborate rubrics may compromise the quality of writing. Too many result in writing that serves the scoring hierarchy of the rubric rather than the spirit of the assignment, resulting in bland, unoriginal compositions.

#4 Model Style

What I once did: Teach a format.

What I now do: Talk more about style and less about format. 

Why I am doing it: Formats confine. They box you in. They limit where you can go. By discussing style, sharing mentor texts of varying styles, I am encouraging my students to be exist beyond those limitations and operate on a higher level. Formats may change but style endures.[bctt tweet=” Formats may change but style endures.”]

Read Part II of this post: Authentic Writing: What It Means and How to Do It in which nine teacher share their understanding of authentic writing and the assignments that lead to it.

I hope you will share your best assignments in the comments section below. I will feature them in a follow up post next week, a roundup of authentic writing assignments, so that other can learn from you and you can learn from others.

13 thoughts on “Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay: Long Live Authentic Writing

  1. This post is comes at such a good time. And I could have written much it myself! I am actually in the midst of ditching the 5-paragraph essay with my ninth graders. I’ve tried to transition using a classical argument arrangement: intro, narration, confirmation, refutation, conclusion. I have found that this arrangement is more flexible and is reflected in much of real-world writing (like this post, for example!).

    My initial thoughts: The writing process is definitely messier. Everyone is in a different place in their writing as they generate their own essay questions and ideas and then consider the best way to organize them in writing. What I noticed immediately is that instead of making the lesson about the form, I was teaching them about how to think through their ideas. The focus became their ideas rather than the format. Again, it’s been messy, especially since this is my first through with them, but I’m already looking forward to the next essay because I know they’ll already be contemplating their ideas for writing as they read.

    Thanks for writing this!

      • Actually, that’s one of the things we think about. Each part isn’t necessarily 1 paragraph. You might write an intro that is 2,3, or 4 paragraphs by itself. Likewise, the confirmation part could by 3, 4 or 6 paragraphs. The point is to think logically about the purpose of each part and decide how (and if) you can apply that to your ideas. The link below has more info, and I’ve adapted it for literary analysis.


      • And of course, while I teach and show my students how the classical arrangement may be reflected out in the real world, they also know that it is, again, only one of many possibilities. The key is exposing students to many examples of mentor texts.

  2. Why is the 5 paragraph essay so reviled these days? It serves an organizational structure that is beneficial to many students who need a guided format. Intro: hook, bridge, thesis–why change it? It is the road map for the reader and writer. If the thesis has three points (that triad thing that we are wired to), it takes at least one paragraph per point to prove or discuss, which leads to the conclusion–we all need closure.
    So are we suggesting a new model of composition but just labeling the format something different even though there are still five paragraphs of writing?

    • Right. The 5-paragraph essay and other formats are examples of scaffolding, a pedagogically sound teaching tool. In a perfect world, my sophomores will have mastered the craft of developing a central idea in writing (with organized, focused, and coherent support, consisting of relevant examples and their own reasoning) before they come to me. Then I can unfetter their voices, which must have been stifled all that time by academic structures, and allow them to choose, using their good judgement as seasoned writers of analysis, the most effective format in which to develop their claims. The reality is my students’ first experience with analytical writing is oftentimes their freshman year. With my 42 minutes of reading and writing instruction a day and the awareness that they will write essays in college, I am making the best judgement call I can. This call is based on my assessment of their writing, and they still need structure for organizing their ideas around relevant points.
      I do build in a few opportunities for writing more authentic texts (an advice column for Holden Caulfield, for example) and doing more evocative writing throughout the year, but ultimately, my emphasis is on writing organized analyses of texts. When the standardized test prompt says “Write an analysis that compares and contrasts Dr. Frankenstein and his creature and Prospero and Caliban…[using] specific evidence from both passages” or when my nephew’s college freshman comp class asks him to write an essay analyzing three literary non-fiction texts, I am not sure how much unfettered freedom I can offer my students. They don’t obtain these skills in the span of a mini-lesson.

  3. The 5 paragraph essay has advantages 1) easy to learn 2) easy to teach 3) easy to evaluate. I’m sure there are more advantages.

    Most students need the 5 paragraph essay to learn the basic building blocks of essay writing. Some students don’t learn it at all and probably struggle through high school. It’s tragic too.

    But that’s not even the most tragic of cases. Most tragic are the students who never needed it, could communicate without it, but are forced into it by a well-meaning teacher. Still others learn it, but never learn to write beyond it, until they leave high school and realize that nothing in the real world is written that way. Those cases are tragic.

    So what should a teacher do? 1) assess writing early 2) allow students who are “beyond’ it to work beyond it 3) teach it (or some other system) to those who need it 4) move “beyond” it as soon as students demonstrate basic knowledge of it.

    Or, just let students read great writing (a lot), encourage them to write like it (a lot), and then stand back and assess what happens (a lot).

  4. So, this is an important discussion. I really did think the 5-paragraph essay had been torched and buried long ago. However, during my last writing unit I found that’s exactly what I was teaching. This is what happens when you feel compelled to follow a script, even when you know better! So, how not to do this or how to teach this as one of many ways to write an essay? That will be part of the classroom research I am planning to do this semester as I plunge into our next unit on argument writing with research. By teaching the 5-paragraph essay as one way, though not the best way, to write essays I can cover myself AND still teach my students well. I will be writing alongside my students, which will be an eye-opener. I am hopefully going to stay one step ahead…I am planning to blog about it starting this week, so if you’d like to start a conversation with me come over to my blog at ateachersruminations.blogspot.com. This comment may well be my first post about this topic. Thanks, Brian for getting the conversation started.

  5. Hi Brian!

    I’ve written a response over at the TESOL Blog, “defending” the 5-paragraph essay. Though I disagree with your premise, I do so with great respect for what you’re doing here, as I hope I conveyed in my post. You’ve shared some great ideas for authentic writing here, and I’ll be reading more in the future!



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