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Friday, February 22, 2008

A Partial Defense of the Five-Paragraph Theme as a Model for Student Writing

by Tina Blue

Almost anyone who has taken an English class in junior high or high school is familiar with the formulaic five-paragraph theme. Although most college instructors loathe the five-paragraph theme, I believe that it has its uses. In fact, I like to think of it as a set of training wheels for novice writers.

Like training wheels, the five-paragraph theme needs to be abandoned once it has served its purpose. Unfortunately, too many English teachers don't allow their students to "put away childish things" so their writing can mature. Then, when they show up in our college writing classes, we have a devil of a time teaching them to go beyond the mechanical structure that has been relentlessly imposed on them for so many years.
The five-paragraph theme is the standard model for student writing at an elementary level, and its elements have been incorporated into the rubrics that are used to judge student writing in the state-mandated assessment tests that are common now throughout the United Sates. I know this because I used to work part time for a company that scores those writing tests, and I have seen and applied the rubrics used by several states.
The five-paragraph theme consists of an introduction, three developmental paragraphs, and a conclusion, and the content and structure of each part is also defined by formula.

The typical introduction of the standard theme is what I call a roadmap or outline introduction. In it, the student states a clearly defined purpose or thesis and then presents the three main points he will develop in the body of his essay. Here is an example:
There are many ways to create jewelry, accessories, and works of art with beads. The three best-known beading techniques are stringing, looming, and bead-weaving.
This sort of introductory paragraph is obviously formulaic, and it does not point toward a high level of complexity in the essay that will be developed from it. Yet for an inexperienced writer, having to identify precisely what his main point is and what its main developmental subpoints are can serve as excellent practice in clear, organized thinking. A simple formulaic structure is better than no structure at all, and it provides a base that more sophisticated patterns can be built on later--provided of course that neither the teacher nor the student makes a fetish of the formula.
A more awkward version of the roadmap introduction is the "announcement" introduction:
There are many ways to create jewelry, accessories, and works of art with beads. In this paper I will describe the three best-known beading techniques, which are stringing, looming, and bead-weaving.
No teacher should allow, much less encourage or require, his students to form the habit of writing in this awkward and self-conscious way. Not only is it jarringly ugly, but it is also a habit that the student will have to unlearn when he has to write at the college or professional level. In the real world, no one writes like that.

The next step in the five-paragraph theme is to write a paragraph developing each of the three main points outlined in the introduction. Each of these paragraphs is supposed to have a topic sentence, which states the main point of the paragraph, and each topic sentence is supposed to come at or near the beginning of the paragraph:
(1) Stringing is the simplest method for creating beaded jewelry.
(2) Looming allows the beader to create much more complex objects and designs than she can achieve by simply stringing beads together.
(3) Bead-weaving is an advanced stringing technique that can produce objects and designs as complex as those achieved by looming, but without the use of the loom.

In the five-paragraph theme each of these topic sentences would govern a single paragraph.
One obvious problem with this requirement is that some topic sentences seem to need more than a single paragraph's worth of development. The antipathy most college instructors feel toward five-paragraph themes is at least partly caused by the fact that the pattern encourages students to oversimplify their topics and to remain at the most general and superficial level of development.
The obvious cure for such oversimplification is to permit the use of paragraph blocs. A paragraph bloc is a series of two or more paragraphs developing a single topic sentence that is too complex to be handled in a single paragraph of reasonable length.
For example, the second topic sentence (about bead-looming) seems to call for at least two points of extended development. First, the loom itself needs to be described; second, the kinds of objects and designs one can produce on a loom must be described.
The other two topic sentences don't have the added complication of referring to a tool that needs to be explained at some length, so one paragraph would probably work, unless the essayist plans to go into a lot of detail. But the loom seems to demand its own separate paragraph, even though it is clearly part of the point about bead-looming.
A simple outline for that second paragraph might look like this:
(2) Looming allows the beader to create much more complex objects and designs than she can achieve by simply stringing beads together.
a. Description of the loom and how it is used
b. Description of the sorts of objects and designs that can
be produced on the loom

The same sort of oversimplification that is caused by adhering too rigidly to the formula at the paragraph level can also occur at the level of the essay as a whole. What if your topic calls for two or four main points rather than three? Should you leave out something important to fit the topic into the required mold? Believe it or not, some students will do just that (and some knuckle-headed teachers will require it!), not understanding that the nature of the subject is more important than rigidly following the exact specifications of the formula.
Similarly, a subject with only two main points may be artificially and even foolishly padded by the addition of an extraneous and anomalous point, which is about as useful and as aesthetically pleasing as attaching a fifth leg to a horse.

The only other thing that hurts the reputation of the five-paragraph theme as much as such illogically rigid adherence to obviously inappropriate aspects of the structure is the fact that so many teachers make their students tack on a pointless summary conclusion.
The typical summary conclusion looks like this:
As you can see, stringing, looming, and bead-weaving are three different ways to use beads to create jewelry, accessories, and works of art.
Do you see what I mean? A conclusion like that is just plain ridiculous, and it is appalling that students are actually required to write such stuff.
The supposed objective of this sort of conclusion is to make sure the student ties up the loose ends and achieves a sense of closure at the end of the essay, rather than leaving the reader feeling as though something is still hanging in the air. But if the essay is so ill-conceived that it doesn't feel finished when it gets to the end, then tacking on a silly conclusion like that won't improve it one bit.

A Defense of the Five-Paragraph Theme Against the Knee-Jerk Revulsion of the Typical College Instructor
In my department we have what are called grade-norming sessions. We all get together to critique and grade sample sets of actual student writing, to try to keep our grading standards equitable.
I often hear my colleagues sneer in disgust over a paper they have given a "D" or an "F" to, "I hate this. It has twelve paragraphs, but it reads just like a five-paragraph theme!"
But the essays they are so incensed over are often quite competent, and sometimes even well-written. I always argue that there is nothing wrong with an essay that establishes a clear main point and then systematically analyzes or explains each of the important aspects of that main point. Unless the formula is handled mindlessly or clumsily (as, of course, it all too often is), an extended version of the five-paragraph theme will serve nicely to discuss many kinds of topics.
The reason the five-paragraph theme exists at all is that it is a highly simplified model of logical analysis: identify a topic; break the topic into its component parts; examine each part in turn; and then pull the whole thing back together into a unified whole.
It is not a bad thing for students to learn such a model. It is only bad when the oversimplified model becomes the end rather than the means, which happens, unfortunately, all too often in high school and junior high school English classes.

The five paragraph theme is a useful model for essay writing at the elementary level. We should not try to prevent teachers from using this model with beginning writers. On the other hand, students do need to move beyond this formulaic, limited model, and they certainly should not be shackled to the five-paragraph theme by the time they get to college.

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