What do students think about the five-paragraph essay?

by Jennifer P. Gray, Ph.D.

Do you ever wonder what students think about the writing assignments they do for school? Lately, I am hearing about how assignments fit into Common Core areas or how assignments match up with general education requirements, and I’m curious about the students’ perspectives. What do the students think about our assignments? How do they experience them, and what are the lingering effects from our assignments?

To get a better sense of what students think about their writing, I interviewed several first-year writing students at college for a qualitative study, and asked them about their past and present writing experiences. Not surprisingly, every single one of them talked about the five-paragraph essay.

Much of the published work on the positive aspects of the five-paragraph essay focuses on the support for developing structure and the solid beginning model that the format provides (Seo, Smith). The research focuses on the results of the format or why teachers might use the format.

There’s not much research about what students think about these assignments; many people might venture that few people care or that no one should listen because they are just students. However, much of what the students had to say about the five-paragraph essay showed that the format left a major imprint on their ideas of what writing could be and should be. Commentary about this format was not just about learning a potential structure; there were lingering effects from learning this format over and over. Students didn’t know how to do much else.

The students attribute a lack of creativity, agency, and risk to the dominance of the five-paragraph essay in their writing histories.

To better understand the students’ perspective, I have included some of the language from the students here. Each quotation is from a student in the study mentioned above. Here are some of their comments about this format and their writing histories:

  • “I was really frustrated by the format. It was their three paragraphs…”

Photo of a notebook with red writing

  • “[I]t was definitely about a certain format, looking a certain way, you should explain things but it was more for our, to help us, organize it, they said that it should be at least five paragraphs, there should be an intro, a body of three paragraphs and then a conclusion. And that really did help for a while, until you started, until I got into 12th grade, and I thought I want to say this but it doesn’t go with any of these things, so I was so confused when she said just leave it out, and I was so upset because I didn’t want to leave it out, I thought it was important to me, but I had to leave it out because even in 12th grade they still wanted you to follow a certain format.”
  • “To me a really good paper that is an example of is when I’m sitting there it is almost a book—oh what is next, I want to read the rest of this paper, it’s like you want to read it. It is just an exciting paper. And that is what a good piece of writing is to me. It is not necessarily follow the structure or format. That could be a good paper in a way for following rules, but a good piece of written work is not the structure of the paper but what the words and the story actually tell you, what the paper is.”
  • “It was a set thing. Five paragraphs. The introduction, the body, and the conclusion. You’d have a sheet of paper, and it was the same sheet of paper with the lines, every time you took the test it would be a prompt and most of the time the prompt was like, something like, what is your favorite something, or something simple. You just had to—it wasn’t like you had to study for it, you just had to know the beginning, the middle, and the end. Your sentence structure had to be decent, your punctuation and verb agreement. It really wasn’t anything we learned, it was just I’m going to show you how to take this test.”
  • [The five-paragraph essay] “kinda stays with you.”
  • “It kind of bothered me and made me mad because I was passionate about writing and I loved writing, and then he [the English professor] tells me that you can’t be creative anymore. It has to be research and recite. The type of papers we did were five-paragraph paper[s].”
  • “It’s been like being brainwashed.”
  • “Okay, I’ll just give you what you want. It is not really the best I can do, but I’ll give you something.”
  • “[U]se your brain not just your formats.”

As you can see from these comments from the students, many of them checked out of the writing process and merely performed for the teacher. Their descriptions about their writing lack enthusiasm and engagement; instead, they reflect obedience and resignation. That is not the kind of writer I want in my classes; I want to see students actively engaged with their work, finding value and importance in the work.

In addition to talking about the five-paragraph essay, many of them discussed what they would like to write about. These ideas can help teachers consider other options besides only relying on one format. Students had their own ideas about what they wanted to write about and how this writing could be used to develop themselves further as writers. Here’s what they said:

  • I like it when the teacher “wants to know what we think about stuff and not just this or what the right way to do that is.”
  • I would like “a lot of random, off the wall things. Which is kind of fun because you get a chance to write about things you don’t get to write about in other classes.”
  • “It’s really like it is surprising how much more you can think about something when you just write something down and then just step back and look at it. It helps out a lot instead of trying to visualize the whole thing at once.”
  • “I would love to creative write.”
  • “I think that just having an idea and being able to get that down in a way that is understandable and relatable that makes you a writer.”
  • [Personal narratives] “can be way more academic than an argument paper about something a lot of times you don’t even care about. I think it challenges your mind a lot of times to write personal narratives in a more creative writing.”
  • “I just like to write if it is something I like.”

These calls for other types of writing besides the five-paragraph format reflect a desire for engagement and choice. Students want to choose their topics and make the writing experience something valuable to them. Students want to write in multiple formats.

Dr. Adam Banks, speaking at the College Composition and Communication Conference in March 2015, declared that “The essay is dead,” and many of our students would agree with him. Our students are calling for other formats. The so-called real world is calling for other options (how many jobs require five-paragraph essay reports?).

Students are urging us to include more personal and relevant options, and they understand that the message must still be “understandable” to others.

So what now? What do these few voices do to change how we view writing? I know they are not as powerful as large groups such as the required components of Common Core. The students wouldn’t be heard over that noise. However, I would call for more listening on our parts. I ask:

  • What do our students need?
  • What is happening to them as writers?
  • What changes are happening in their views of writing?

We won’t know unless we ask; I resolve to continue asking and encourage you to do the same.

Dr. Jennifer P. Gray is an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Center at the College of Coastal Georgia. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and she has taught writing courses (8th grade through 6000-level) for more than 19 years. She earned her PhD in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in composition studies from UNC Charlotte. Her dog, Katie Baker the beagle (a.k.a. the Bakinator), is her favorite writing companion.

21 thoughts on “What do students think about the five-paragraph essay?

  1. Interesting research! I will add another anecdote that involves my oldest son. He was fortunate enough to have wonderful writing instruction throughout his K-12 years and didn’t actuallly encounter the 5PT until his first year in college. After having received a low grade on his first writing assignment b/c he had NOT written a 5PT, he called home to ask me about the “genre.” I explained more than he wanted to know (I’m sure) and suggested that he needed to be rhetorical and meet the needs of his audience (his instructor) by using the formula (thus saving his grade). His response: “I get it, but it’s still a stupid way to write.”

  2. In my work with college students, I’ve heard similar comments. Writing for them had become the filling out of some one else’s form. This is especially true for students trained to write for AP exams. But the worst consequence of teaching the 5-paragraph essay I’ve seen happened to third graders. After a semester of learning how to write in five paragraphs, they were completely flummoxed when asked to write a letter to Santa. Could they only ask for three things? Fortunately, this became the catalyst for the teacher to re-think her approach to teaching writing.

    • Thank you for your feedback. It’s disheartening to hear the students talk about their experiences. Many students explain that they are required to pay more attention to the number of sentences/paragraphs/points than the actual content they wish to share. The content is not as important as the number of sentences/paragraphs/points.

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  4. I had a first year college student sincerely ask me how she could write my six page paper. “Won’t my paragraphs be too big?” After a little back and forth, I realized she thought she still had to have five paragraphs.

  5. I’m convinced that the over teaching of the five-paragraph theme has rendered some students incapable of comprehending satirical or ironic essays, or arguments in which writers begin with the opposing side and then refute those points. Too many students expect to find “the thesis sentence” in the first paragraph. –P. Dunn

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  7. I am a first year 6th grade ELA teacher. It appears that most of your student comments are from high school or college students. What are your thoughts on teaching the 5 paragraph to younger students who are justing beginning to write longer essays? Is teaching this format a good thing or a bad thing? Would love your thoughts on this.

    • Hi Leigh Anne,
      Thank you for your question!
      I like to use variety combined with mentor texts. This way, writers can have multiple options in their toolboxes for approaching writing assignments because they have seen variety (they are not locked in to one approach alone), and they understand how to figure out what is a good (and possible) approach by reviewing mentor texts (including their classmates’ attempts, my attempts, and other attempts, such as published student or professional writing). During class, we can review mentor texts to dissect them and determine what works and what does not. The students become the audience in this manner, and then they can take that skill into their own writing as they think about what their audience needs or might see.
      The damage the students in the study talked about was not having options and not knowing how to figure out another way besides the five-paragraph format. While the format itself is not evil, a dominance and overuse of it can be harmful if students don’t learn any other options. If students write to the five-paragraph format, and content is not as important as the number of paragraphs/sentences, then students can become automatons, performing the task passively without engagement.

  8. When I was Director of the Oakland Writing Project, our guest author and writing teacher, Stephen Dunning would have the young ELA teachers taking the workshop raise their right hands and take a solemn oath never to perpetrate the fraud of teaching kids the 5-paragraph theme. When I taught Honors 9 English, I told kids we would go beyond that format, and one student looked at me and said, “Then I don’t know how to write.” It was like de-progamming a cult fanatic. Content should dictate the format, not vice versa. What real writer writes a 5-paragraph theme?

    • Hi Barbara,
      Thank you for your comment. I have had similar experiences in my first-year writing classes. When I tell them we are not writing five-paragraph essays, they will say, “Well, what are we going to do?” They panic.
      It is surprising how many students do not have experience outside of this format.

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  10. Interesting! I just finished reading a set of reflective letters from students in my developmental English course in college. Most of them thanked me for teaching them essay format because, as they said, either no one had ever directly taught it to them, or they had never understood the format. They found that the essay format of thesis statement, support, and organization helped them to get their point across and eliminate rambling. Although some disliked the fact that they could not be creative, I explained to them that audience is important. To help with this concept, the students wrote for a variety of audiences and a variety of purposes. The 5-paragraph essay was only one of a number of formats.

    However, let’s face up to the facts, when students are in college they need to know how to write academically, which means arguing a point (thesis) and writing about new ideas, even those they find boring.. Always writing about what one likes does not encourage growth in students’ writing skills.

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