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…”
- “[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.