The Five-Paragraph-Theme Blues and Writing for Real

by Michelle Tremmel


Author’s five-paragraph theme, marked by her childhood teacher

Mr. C is the reason I became an English teacher.  Smart, charismatic, funny, and caring, he inspired students over a long career with a passion for and knowledge of American and British literature.  However, one feature of his teaching—the five-paragraph theme—was a mistake even in the hands of an otherwise brilliant teacher.  I’m sure Mr. C meant well—just as teachers who use the formula today with students like Tim Dewar’s fourth-grade daughter do—but I think he was wrong in taking this approach.

He was right in prioritizing writing instruction—giving it a whole semester of the year-long high school junior- and senior-level courses he taught—but the method hurt more than it helped even within his own class.  After weeks of making sure we knew that a college-worthy essay had just five paragraphs and as a bridge to the literature we would study next, Mr. C. had us read a novel, analyze it, and write a five-paragraph theme.  I read James Michener’s Caravans and wrote about conflicting characters in terms of theme development.  I rigidly adhered to the template.  And I was less than successful.

What comments did Mr. C make?  Just three: one that said to space quotations and two on structure, including, “Please reparagraph this, Michelle,” when one of my paragraphs ran a page and a half.  I was confused and thought, but didn’t ask, “But you told us an essay has just five paragraphs.”

Joy and Purpose in Writing

That was 1973.  Forty-four years later, I wonder how he would have responded to my paper, and I am still singing the five-paragraph-theme blues, having fought the template’s rigid lessons ever since.  I also know, from what scores of college students have reported to me (and from students Jennifer Gray interviewed), that it also gets in the way of other writers.

Conversely, students tell me that what interests them in writing is teachers engaging them in real composing problems: Giving choice in topic; experimenting with different kinds of writing for a variety of audiences and purposes; and providing opportunities for thoughtful, in-process feedback from multiple sources—teachers, parents, peers, and others. (See post by  Ken Lindblom for more suggestions.)

And the more students are interested in writing, the more motivated they are to improve, just as my neighbor who spends hours, weeks, and months on his skateboard wants to get better at his skateboarding skills—falling off, sometimes dramatically, but always getting back up and trying again.  He’s interested in skateboarding, is willing to concentrate on that, and has gotten pretty good.  In the same way, if we get our students interested in their writing, they too will develop their writing skills.  From amazing teachers like Donald Graves and Donald Murray, Nancie Atwell, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle, we have a wealth of ideas about how schools can nurture joy and purpose in novice writers and how we can bring authentic writing experiences into our classrooms.

With what we know about motivation and method, one might ask why the five-paragraph theme and similar templates are still taught in 2017 even less elegantly than Mr. C taught me decades ago.

The answer is complicated, but I think one part is that we teachers are overburdened. Also, many of us fear writing and/or don’t much like to write, having gone into English teaching because we love literature and reading.  When I talk to the pre-service English teachers with whom I work and to practicing teachers at state and national conferences, that’s what they tell me.

Another factor is that teaching writing by formula seems to be a matter of cultural literacy, “what every American should know,” as E.D. Hirsch put it, so hardwired into the American psyche and educational system that it’s been difficult to dislodge even though teachers have objected to theme writing as early as 1917 (in an English Journal article by William Hawley Davis) and to the five-paragraph theme specifically since at least 1973 (in a College English piece by Jean Pumphrey).  In objecting, they point out the joylessness and purposelessness of templates, which in the very writers they mean to help,

  •      Undermine writing development,
  •      Cause fear,
  •      Contribute to writer’s block,
  •      Make students want to avoid writing, and
  •      Kill a desire to (continue to) write.

Knowing, though, the creativity and resolve of the many skilled and passionate teachers around the country, I’m confident that we can choose other practices that increase student writers’ investment in their writing in order to make them better writers. We can move from wasting precious educational minutes on writing by template to a wealth of practices that get students excited about themselves as writers.

Real Writing, Not Templates

Instead of filling templates, we can fill our classrooms with reading mentor texts of a particular kind of writing (e.g. a movie review, business letter, This I Believe essay); with analyzing writing features like openings, closings, paragraph breaks, and use of evidence (e.g. facts, anecdotes, quotation, transitions, analogy, etc.); and with experimenting with such features in our own writing.  

While still teaching the writing forms and mechanics needed to meet communication demands of the digital age, we can offer experiences that inspire:

As a writer, teacher of writers, and teacher of teachers, I am hopeful that parents, students, and teachers will advocate for practices like these and lobby against the five-paragraph theme and other container approaches in writing instruction.

I’m hopeful that those unsure about alternatives to teaching writing by formula will read inspiring yet practical books like Katherine Bomer’s The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays that Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them or consult the National Writing Project, which in its own words is “serving teachers across disciplines and at all levels, early childhood through university [through] professional development, develop[ing] resources, generate[ing] research, and act[ing] on knowledge to improve the teaching of writing and learning in schools and communities”—perhaps even applying for an Invitational Summer Institute fellowship at one of its many sites.

Through such rich, transformative experience we can immerse ourselves in writing for real and gain inspiration to take writing for real into our classrooms.  Students in 2017 need and deserve real writing opportunities in school.  They don’t need to become another generation of writers singing the five-paragraph-theme blues.

Michelle Tremmel, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Iowa State University.  Her current teaching includes first-year composition and writing methods for pre-service English teachers, as well as mentoring teaching assistants, and for 20 years she taught middle and high school English.  Among her publications are articles in the Journal of Teaching Writing and Teaching English in the Two-Year College on working with student writers.
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7 thoughts on “The Five-Paragraph-Theme Blues and Writing for Real

  1. Great post, Michelle. Thanks for linking to my earlier one. I’m happy to report that my daughter just completed a multi-genre research paper disguised as a magazine for her sixth grade class/teacher. While there were requirements (e.g. an interview, ads, a history of…), there were no formulas. She still has better writing to do than five-paragraph themes.

  2. And I’m glad, Tim, that your daughter’s being allowed to do that better writing within her in school this year. My preservice English teachers are currently working on their own multigenre research compositions so that they can use their own MG writing experiences to guide their own students when they get out into classrooms and work with younger writers.

  3. I really like this blog, Michelle, thanks for writing it. You make such a good point that templates are so powerfully damaging that even in the hands of an otherwise excellent teacher they still wreak havoc.

  4. Thank you, Michelle, for your perspective.

    I am a skilled, creative, resolute, and passionate teacher who still thinks that in order to prepare for college writing, high school students do need to learn how to write thesis-driven, multi-paragraph, evidence-based analyses of a topic or texts(s). I hope I don’t sound close-minded, but I am wondering if dismissing the type of writing discourse as an archaic “theme” or a “five-paragraph template” throwing out the baby with the bathwater? I have talked with college professors who believe crafting a thesis/claim-driven discussion of a topic or texts over the course of multi-paragraphs or pages is still a crucial academic skill for success in college. Unfortunately, scaffolding all of the discrete skills underlying this kind of discourse (researching/data mining, writing clear and specific claims, selecting evidence, quoting evidence, paraphrasing evidence, integrating evidence, citing evidence, explicating evidence, organizing points, entering the conversation in an engaging manner, etc) takes a good portion of instructional time in a high school English class. Is essay writing as a discourse under the “academic” umbrella really less authentic than a “business letter” under the “corporate” umbrella? Sometimes the audience is just your boss, and the purpose is to explicate your findings to your boss.

    I have to admit that I have spent a good portion of my 40 minutes per day with my honors sophomores, cream of the crop students who are definitely going to college, working on the skills I listed above. Now it’s March and we are pivoting toward research-based argument. I want to mix things up; I don’t want them to write another straight-up thesis-driven “essay.” I am bouncing around the multi-genre project, but some of the genres just seem a little fluffy for my students and the topics under investigation. Also, I don’t have mentor texts for all of the genres, and without exemplars for, say, a recipe, I am a little nervous about how to approach the project to make sure the artifacts they create are substantive, not fluff. I am in a 1:1 district, so my students have a lot of tools at their fingertips. I am wondering if there are resources for teaching the multi-genre project from more recent than 2006. Are your pre-service teachers high school teachers? If so, would you share with me the mutli-genre project that you gave to them? Thank you!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and impassioned comment! Students do need to write essays, and thesis writing is certainly part of that; but if we offer our high school students many, many different real essays as mentor texts and analyze those to see the variety of ways that writers are successfully stating claims and structuring the development of those claims, we don’t need templates. Instead, in a composer’s notebook, students can take notes on various structuring devices, possibilities for where to place thesis statements, etc., play around with those with a topic or topics that interest them, and then pull out the most promising experiments into a full-blown essay that they present for grading. Katherine Bomer’s 2016 *The Journey is Everything*, which I mention in my blog post, is a terrific resource for this approach to essay teaching.

      I’ve taught MG composing to 11th graders (many of whom were college bound), to honor college freshman writers, and now to preservice English teachers (college juniors and seniors), who will teach high school or middle school when they finish their program and student teaching in a year or so; but my students and I haven’t found the work to be “fluff.” For teachers who are worried about student choosing too “light” genres to compose, they certainly can make genre requirements, but I haven’t found that to be necessary. The best resources for MG are still Tom Romano’s books and the very practical guide written by Melinda Putz, my former high school colleague (you might be referring to her work when you mention 2006).

      Here’s the prompt I currently give my preservice English teachers to spur their MG projects:

      “You will be creating a polished multigenre research composition as a way to get hands-on practice with a writing pedagogy first “invented” in schools by Tom Romano and articulated in his 1995 book Writing with Passion —although multigenre writing has existed outside of school for at least 100 years in a book like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example). Here’s a brief outline of this project:
      • Your MGRC can be based on any topic you choose: a person, an issue, or whatever else you’re passionately interested in (and believe an audience you will specifically designate would care about).
      • In its final form, it should contain at least 8-12 separate pieces representing at least 8 different genres of your choice: essays, letters to the editor, research reports, poems, actual interviews, fictional interviews, stories, journal entries, brochures, drawing, advertising–whatever (any genre in any written, oral, visual, or electronic mode). I’ve seen quite a few MGRCs done by primary, secondary, and college students, and when I say whatever, I literally mean whatever.
      • In contrast to a traditional research paper (written in the single disembodied, synthetic voice in which traditional research papers are often written), an MGRC is made up of separate pieces of text, composed in a variety of voices, forms, and points of view with the goal of an egalitarian, multivocal treatment of a topic.
      • These separate compositions work together like a complex collage or montage in which multiple perspectives are presented through a variety of pieces in various genres that, taken together, present both a broad/horizontal and a deep/vertical view of a topic.
      • Your MGRC will include a notes page and works-cited list to document your research. Important: Although much different from a traditional research paper, an MGRC is still a composition based on research—for those skeptical about the process, it is the primary way to “sell” it as part of a curriculum. That means the final product should be informed by a significant research effort, for which you should account in detail on your notes page and list of works cited.

      “Note about possibly using your course notebook for MGRC work: In the notebook you’ve created to capture your thinking and learning in the course, you could—if you want—compose some entries dedicated to your MGRC to help you “think about your thinking and to carry out an audit of the meanings you are making” from your research, as Ann Berthoff puts it in Forming/Thinking/ Writing (26). Writing MGRC entries like these encourages reflection, critical reading, evaluating, interpreting, analyzing, synthesizing, planning, and drafting in a risk-free, expressive way about your MGRC, in the same vein as all the rest of the writing you’ll do in your composer’s notebook (or whatever you decide to call yours): “informal, personal, unpressured words on paper [that seek] to recover information, make connections, and generate thinking . . .” (Romano, Writing with Passion 114).

      “One former student described MGRC notebook entries as “live” because “you can add whatever your wan[t] and it’s an ongoing process or a ‘live’ feed like a television channel” focused on the MGRC topic. The point is to use this writing in the best way for you and your research/composing process. Writing like this is very productive if you use it to speculate about and work through ideas, and it’s also a perfect place to experiment with various genres (to begin rough drafting pieces) that you’re considering for inclusion in your MGRC. One student described this function as a “free super special genre generator.” The idea in using your notebook in this way is not to wait until you’ve completed your research to begin figuring out and trying out genres but to dive right in.

      “As you’re settling in on your topic, you could even write a proposal installment if it helps you articulate for yourself—what you envision doing in your MGRC. If you share this installment with me, it can also be a way to let me in on that vision so that I can offer suggestions, if you like. Such a proposal might contain the following:
      o Proposed topic area you’re exploring and possible topics or questions you hope to address in your MGRC
      o The intended audience (IA) you’re thinking about for your finished project and what you hope to give your IA in the multiple perspectives you report on in your MGRC
      o Articulation of the topic’s relevance/interest for you (what inspires you about it) and why it’s appropriate for an MGRC; what you hope personally to gain from researching and composing in this issue area and for sharing what you gain with your intended audience
      o Previous work you’ve done with this topic or a related one; what new “stuff” you hope to uncover
      o Your feelings about or stance on the topic/issue (if you have one), how strong these are, and if/how holding them will affect your ability to see other perspectives
      o Some genre ideas (as many as you can think of now) that seem rhetorically (because they’re interesting to you and/or your intended audience and/or typically associated with your topic) or otherwise suitable to compose for your MGRC
      o A metaphor for thinking about how your MGRC will hold together (“I want my MGRC to be [like] a _______.”)
      You also could create a personal MGRC project schedule to keep yourself on track in completing this long-term project.”

      I hope this helps.

      Best wishes, Michelle

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