by Michelle Tremmel
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:
- Writing for audiences beyond the classroom, like letters to U.S. soldiers or to the editor of, for example, StudentNewsDaily
- Project-based writing, like multigenre research compositions, first introduced in schools by Tom Romano
- Cross-curricular writing like scientific poetry
- School and community connected writing opportunities
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.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.