The Tyranny of Five Paragraphs

by drpoppy

This is the second of my three promised blog posts for the Write-A-Thon for Boston 826. Please sponsor me in this fundraiser for an incredible nonprofit writing and tutoring center serving Boston Public Schools.

In early March, the College Board announced a significant change to the SAT that has gotten a good deal of press: they have made the test’s essay portion, introduced in 2005, optional instead of mandatory. The charge against the SAT essay component has been led by Les Perelman, former director of MIT’s writing program (now a research affiliate), who proved that the essay was flawed by showing that students could ace the essay by eschewing facts and following a formula (make your thesis an answer to the prompt, use big words, write as much as possible, include a quotation in the conclusion, etc). Many high school teachers and college writing instructors applauded the decision to remove the essay from the test, based on its flawed nature.

Last week, I read a frustrating essay by a college writing instructor claiming that the dismissal of the essay portion of the SAT reflected our society’s lack of interest in writing and the development of ideas. Yet it seems clear to me—and to many college writing instructors—that it has been the standardization of essay writing itself that has reflected our society’s lack of interest in writing and stunted our students’ ability to develop ideas. This comes as no surprise whatsoever for college instructors, but as a supervisor of writing tutors, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the observations I’ve made that bolster instructors’ own observations, but from a different perspective.

Each year, around 80 students apply for my university’s writing fellows (undergraduate peer writing tutors) program. I hire about 22 and personally interview between 40 and 50 applicants each year. Most, though not all, of the applicants are first-year students who, if hired, would begin the program as sophomores. As part of the application process, I ask students a lot of questions about their writing backgrounds and processes as well as their definitions of writing terms.

Interestingly, the applicants who received “5” on the AP test—and thus have been exempted from the university’s first-year college writing requirement—generally have a harder time answering these questions than students who took at least one semester of college expository writing. Many of them have difficulty pinpointing any differences between high school and college writing, even though they often submit, as part of their application, high school writing samples that have weaker thesis statements, shallower analysis, and less effective uses of outside sources than their counterparts who took at least one semester of college expository writing. (Last year I had to explain to a student that the reason her application was rejected in the first stage was because the high school writing sample she submitted contained plagiarism in the form of inadequate paraphrasing.)

Far more troubling, though, is the way many students describe certain elements of the essay. When asked to define a thesis statement, many students explain that the thesis should be an answer to the question asked in the prompt, but when asked what they would do if there were no prompt, the students fumble. Most students “define” a thesis statement in vague terms (it’s the “essence” of your paper, or the “main idea” or the “heart”), but what bothers me much more are the extremely specific but short-sighted definitions. For many students, a thesis statement must be “three-pronged”; in other words, it must include “three main points” the essay will cover. When asked why there must be three main points, most students who answer this way simply say, “I don’t know… three is a good number” or something to that effect. (The answer, of course, is because a five-paragraph essay has three body paragraphs, each of which contains one of the main points mentioned in the thesis.)

Recently, I heard an even more upsetting variation on the magic number three’s role in essay structure. When asked to explain the structure of a paragraph, one student described a paragraph as a mini-five-paragraph-essay: with a topic sentence, three pieces of evidence, and a concluding sentence. Imagine: all paragraphs should be five sentences long.

Many of the students who are able to offer ways they find college writing to be different from high school writing focus on structure: they have realized that you actually cannot write, say, a 10-page paper (or even a 5-page paper for that matter) using only five paragraphs. Some of them are able to articulate that realization and the struggle to figure out what the structure of a paragraph and essay really should or can be once they realized that the five-paragraph model wouldn’t work. Sadly, even some of the students who realize it doesn’t work nevertheless suggest it as a method for the imaginary student they are pretending to tutor in the interview to use if that student is struggling to structure an essay.

What both gives me hope and saddens me are the stories of students who grew to love college writing after hating it in high school. These students describe loving to write when they were younger, but feeling hemmed in by the rigid structure taught in high school. One student explained her frustration over handing in an essay she was really proud of because it felt risky—she felt she had challenged herself with an unusual topic—only to have the essay returned with nothing but comments about the essay’s structure and grammar. These students describe college writing as “freeing”—allowing them to explore topics that interest them and challenge them, that allow them to craft a sustained argument and use whatever structure they feel is the best for what they need to say. Sometimes they even say they can be more creative with their academic writing.

This post is not at all intended as a dig toward high school teachers, so please do not misinterpret it as such. I completely understand the need for high school teachers to teach the five paragraph essay: these teachers are only trying to help their students succeed at the task they have been given, which is to write a structured essay in 25 – 40 minutes. The problem is that too many students walk away from high school thinking that the five-paragraph model is the way to write an essay.  Some of them answer the questions I ask with such confidence, even though their answers reflect a simplistic idea of writing. They are the students who follow the rules, who ace this particular way of doing things, and who are going to be very confused when they encounter an assignment that will not allow them to write this way. And because they “mastered” the five-paragraph model well enough to be exempted from taking a class that focuses specifically on developing writing skills and process, they will encounter this problem in a much less forgiving and process-oriented environment.

I used to view the five-paragraph essay as a harmless tool, a way to teach the basics of structure to a beginning writer. When I taught college writing, I found it to be a rather interesting exercise to “un-teach” the five-paragraph mentality, because it is very strong proof that writing is something you can and should develop and grow with over time. But when I think about how deeply I value process, and how the exam-model does not allow for process, I become more troubled by the formula. And when I hear the stories of the students who felt their creativity, their desire to take risks, their intellectual ambitions were stymied by the rigid, shallow, and arbitrary structure of the five-paragraph essay, I begin to think the model is not harmless, but damaging. When Quentin Miller, the author of the Cognoscenti article bemoaning the loss of the SAT essay, laments that his students do not understand that writing takes time, and energy, and practice, and that they do not need to think of themselves as “bad writers” just because they struggle at it or just because someone, somewhere, told them they were bad at it, he could very well be talking about the many students who have exciting ideas or unusual but valid writing styles that are de-valued by a cookie-cutter way of looking at the complex process of writing.

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