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The Life and Death of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Providing authentic structures for struggling writers
by

Margaret Thornton

on 28 September 2015

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Transcript of The Life and Death of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Foundation
If It Ain't Broke...
Introduction
Background
Conclusion
Core
We can create for students a new model that will help them if they feel stuck on any sort of writing on demand assignment, but still gives them room to grow as writers:

1) introduction
2) background information
3) confirmation
4) refutation
5) conclusion

Also, this nifty model still has five PARTS, so kids can feel some consistency.
Where did the five paragraph
essay come from? And who
decided it was a good idea?
Five-paragraph essays provide
a comfortable way for students
who struggle to create an
argument, but these arguments
lack counterclaims and
authenticity for the writer and
the audience. Authenticity drives
student engagement, at least in
our classrooms.
The Life and Death of the
Five Paragraph Essay

The introduction is the most dreaded part of writing a paper, especially for less confident writers. A lot of teachers pressure students to hook the reader in one sentence. Mentor sentences of opening lines from novels, essays, and other real-world writing can help kids see different approaches to introductions. Lots of less conventional writing use introductions: cookbooks, how-to manuals, travel guides, brochures, even food packaging (guess who is hungry!) have introductions that tell the reader what they are about to experience.

The introduction tells the reader what the premise is of the writing. To avoid students writing expository essays all the time, the thesis needs to include an opinion statement, which they will develop in the later paragraphs.
What do readers need to know the understand
the student's claim? Are there important terms to define or make clear? What's important to the writer about the topic? Why should the reader care about about this topic?

In persuasive writing, this step is often overlooked or underdeveloped. In research and expository writing, students often focus only on this type of information.

A helpful metaphor with struggling writers
is to compare their papers to a house. You can't put on the roof before the second story and so on. Have the students explain why their background information is relevant.
We often focus on opening with a hook
like a story or an example. Have students experiment with closing
with a story. Try starting the writing process by having students brainstorm a story that illustrates their argument. They can position this story at the end of their paper and know what they're working toward.
Rethinking Thinking
in the ELA Classroom
What sort of essays are we
writing now?

The Virginia DOE has encouraged teachers to move away from the five-paragraph model, but all of the recently released anchor papers followed a THESIS-REASON-REASON-REASON-CONCLUSION model.
Like a lot of Western thought, we can blame this one on Romans. Cicero suggested an argument have five parts: 1) introduction 2) background information 3) confirmation 4) refutation 5) conclusion. This suggestion morphed into the five-paragraph model we've watched kids muddle through for years.

Confirmation
During the confirmation step, student explain why their thesis is correct using specific evidence. What type of specific evidence is dictated by the audience and type of writing for the assignment--a research paper and a newspaper editorial probably have different types of evidence.

A typical five-paragraph essay would have three body paragraphs of confirmation or, maybe, two confirmation body paragraphs and one with a counter argument. With a five-part essay, students (and the teachers designing the assignment!) are free to play with that format.
Refutation
It's hard for students to understand why we include a refutation. They've been told their entire academic career to stick to their thesis and now they have to argue against it? But refutation is one of the key points of argument, which appeals to the reader's emotions. It might be helpful to find a review or article where the author has an underdeveloped refutation--students tend to be sensitive to a know-it-all author giving his or her opinion!

Have students brainstorm with a peer about holes that could be found in their arguments. Why wouldn't an argument work? Then, have the students answer their classmates' questions. They've just written their refutation section. Give them sentence starters like "Some people might argue..." or "Others would say..." to help guide their thinking.
Final Thoughts
- A five-part essay does not have to follow a set order. You can have multiple introductory paragraphs. Your refutation can come first, your background can come last. You can tweak it to fit your needs.
- A five-part essay is wholly dependent on the assignment and audience. It simply provides a framework for organization within an assignment.

The five-paragraph essay serves a purpose for students, especially those who struggle with writing, but the rigidity of the form inhibits writing growth. With a five-part essay, students can learn the pieces of a good argument and apply them to different, real-world forms such as cover letters, reviews, editorials, and recipes, as well as academic writing.
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