Are you feeling frustrated by another 5-paragraph essay assignment? Do you feel as though your creative freedom has been stymied once again by thepowers that be?
Do you want to be free to explore essay organization like the effervescent honey blossom butterfly that you are?
Well, you must break free from the 5-paragraph essay shackles that bind you! Stand up and say, “No! I will not go gentle into that boring essay night!”
ARE YOU WITH ME?!?
No? Too dramatic?
Oh. Well. Are you feeling bored and unstimulated when it comes to 5-paragraph essays?
Well, okay then! You’ve come to the right place, soldier! Let’s learn how to break out of the 5-paragraph essay structure.
What Is a 5-Paragraph Essay?
Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War that it is important to “know thy enemy.”
And since I’m sure the Chinese militant from 500 BC had writers like us in mind when he uttered those words, we shall begin our quest by getting to know our enemy: the 5-paragraph essay.
The 5-paragraph essay structure is a clear and simple way to effectively tackle just about any essay assignment. It is made of five paragraphs, of course.
These five paragraphs are broken down into an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion:
- Introduction: The first paragraph introduces your topic with a hook and includes a thesis statement that outlines the three arguments that you will support and expound upon later.
- 3 Body paragraphs: Each body paragraph focuses on one of your three arguments. Each is accompanied by the supporting facts or quotes that you have gathered to prove said argument.
- Conclusion: The final paragraph in your 5-paragraph essay is dedicated to restating your thesis statement and elucidating your overall message.
So, there you have it. Clear. Simple. Effective. Done. Close your computer, turn on your Xbox.
The problem is that easier isn’t always better, especially when it comes to writing.
Is the 5-Paragraph Essay Enough?
Why try to teach an old dog new tricks or mess with a good thing or fix something that ain’t broken, you ask?
Well, let’s take our breakdown of the 5-paragraph essay structure a step further, which most of you will be asked to do. You can quickly see that although simple is a good description, not many people have ever described it as creative or expansive.
- Hook (1-3 sentences)
- Thesis (1-2 sentences)
- Argument One:
- Topic sentence (1 sentence)
- Support one (1-2 sentences)
- Support two (1-2 sentences)
- Support three (1-2 sentences)
- Argument Two:
- Topic sentence: (1 sentence)
- Support one (1-2 sentences)
- Support two (1-2 sen
Seriously, I can’t even finishing writing that, it is so boring. It looks more like a recipe than the outline of a significant piece of writing. And herein lies the problem with 5-paragraph essays: they don’t push you as a writer or a learner.
And, if you aren’t being pushed to learn, what’s the point in any of it?
Alright, let me be fair. I’ve been a teacher for several years now, and I have taught the 5-paragraph essay, so perhaps I’m being hypocritical. It isn’t worthless. It was designed for a reason.
The 5-paragraph essay allows students who are just learning the ins and outs of writing an academic essay to understand the basic elements that are needed to create an effective paper.
However, once you’ve learned those basic elements, which I’m guessing many of you, my readers, have, then it is simply too simple. There are so many creative and thought-provoking ways to tackle your next essay, why settle for less than your best?
And the truth is, if you are a college student who already understands the basic elements of a strong essay, then the 5-paragraph structure is no longer enough. College professors won’t settle for a basic, repetitive, regurgitation of facts.
Instead, they will be looking at your opinion, how you analyze those facts, whether or not you can convince them to care. So, how can you learn to do this in your own writing?
How Can You Break Away from the 5-Paragraph Essay Structure?
Well, at this point, you may be wondering, if not the 5-paragraph essay, what?
This is where writing gets fun!
You don’t need to be spoon-fed an alternative structure, because you will just end up falling into the same dull routine that leads to the same educational dead-end.
Instead, you must see each new essay as an opportunity to explore the best way to write about a subject.
Students tend to fall into a dangerous mindset after being taught the 5-paragraph essay structure. Instead of thinking about how to structure an essay to fit their ideas and explorations, they begin thinking about how to manipulate what they have learned to fit a certain structure.
E.M. Forster once said about writing, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?”
The same can be said for essay structures.How can I know how best to structure my persuasive essay until I see what I want to argue?
More important than nailing down a specific structure is to learn the important elements of a persuasive essay and how to apply them in your writing in an effective way.
“How?” you ask. Here let me give you an example.
5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Evaluating the Elements of an Essay
You can start learning how to do this by reading. The essays you are churning out in English class do have some real world connections, you know? One of the most classic examples is the newspaper editorial. That’s right, like in a newspaper, remember those?
If anything without an electric current gives you hives, then check out the great online editorials from The New York Times. In them you will find an opinion that is argued and explained in a way that is relevant to the reader. However, you will be hard pressed to find a cookie cutter structure.
Moreover, editorials, much like your high school and college essays, have a strict word limit, so they can be great examples of how to make a clear and convincing argument in a short space.
While reading the editorials, you should ask yourself the questions below. Let’s give it a shot by answering these questions in relation to this editorial titled “New York City’s Libraries Need Money.”
1. What is the issue/argument?
- The writer gets straight to the point, making the issue clear from the title: the libraries in New York City need money. As we begin reading, the essay quickly and clearly argues for giving the libraries the money.
2. How is it structured?
- Introduction: The writer describes the libraries as “old, crowded, falling apart or lacking in things they need to be useful in the 21st century.”
- Thesis: Following this introduction, a stand alone sentence declares that the Mayor “should give them the money, no question.”
- Body: The thesis is now defended in the subsequent paragraphs in three arguments: libraries have been underfunded for years, libraries are where underprivileged people learn, and the mayor should take care of the little people as he does the big businesses.
- Conclusion: The essay is then finished with a short conclusion containing an interesting fact about the amount of people who visit libraries each year.
3. Where does the evidence come from?
- The writer links to a couple of New York Time’s articles to back up certain facts.
4. Are you left asking questions, feeling unsatisfied?
- I’m left wondering who is against giving money to the libraries, and why? I want to hear the other side of the story.
5. Is it convincing?
- This editorial takes a strong, emotional stance. It is hard not to be convinced. However, I couldn’t be completely on board with their argument until I knew the other side of the story.
By taking the time to think about these elements, we can see what works and doesn’t work in this essay. We also notice that it has many of the same elements as a five-paragraph essay without the albatross of its structure.
When you ask these questions while reading others’ work, you develop an ability to see these same things in your own writing. After a while, you won’t need some generic essay structure to develop your ideas; they will flow naturally. And when they don’t from time to time, you’ll be able to recognize the reasons and remedy it.
Check out this video from Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor from The New York Times.
He lists seven important pointers for writing an editorial, all of which apply to your persuasive essay. They are:
- Know your bottom line
- Be concise
- Give an opinion or solution
- Do your research
- Write clearly
- Every writer needs an editor
- Be prepared for a reaction
Beyond reading editorials, I encourage you to check out the example persuasive and argumentative essays at Kibin.com.
Not all of the essays you find there will be grade “A” essays, and that’s the point. When you finish reading an essay, think about how you feel and ask yourself the same questions that I listed above.
Just like a creative writer must read a lot to develop an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, you must do the same when it comes to your essay writing. Once you do, you will find it much easier to critique and revise your own writing.
What to Remember as You Remove the Training Wheels
First and foremost, all of that time that you spent writing 5-paragraph essays wasn’t a waste. You learned valuable tools, like developing a clear argument and backing up your ideas with research, while mastering the basic elements of structure.
Much like training wheels on a bike, this time was well-utilized. However, there comes a point when you outgrow them.
As you move forward, remember having a defined structure before writing isn’t always the way to go. Instead, keep in mind that a string of connected ideas is what holds your essay together. As long as they are connected throughout, your essay will be engaging and worthwhile for the reader.
After reading all of those editorials and argumentative essay examples, I’m sure you’ve noticed a few keys to a strong persuasive essay. You must:
- Have a clear opinion and take a side. If you don’t form an opinion and take a side, your essay will have no point.
- Be able to back up that opinion with research. This could include facts and figures as well as quotes from experts. But, they better be appropriate, accurate, and cited correctly.
- Get to the point. Don’t waste time with broad strokes. Be concise and get to your opinion and/or solution quickly in your paper.
- Make sure your ideas are well-connected. Less important than a cookie cutter structure is keeping your ideas flowing from one to another. Let the subject matter and your ideas dictate your organization. Check out this handout from UNC on how to rethink the organization of your essay.
Also, remember that writing is a collaborative process. Bounce your ideas and opinions off of friends and family when you get a chance. See their reactions. Their responses won’t necessarily change your opinions, but they might influence the way in which you present your arguments.
Moreover, as Mr. Rosenthal from The New York Times suggests in his video, every writer needs an editor. Take the time to hand your essay over to an experienced editor to give you an honest appraisal of the effectiveness of your argument.
Last, but not least, enjoy the process. Your reader isn’t the only person who should learn from the essay.
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When I look back to my first experience teaching five paragraph essays to fifth graders, I can remember how terribly unprepared I felt. I knew that the five paragraph essay format was what my students needed to help them pass our state’s writing assessment but I had no idea where to start. I researched the few grade-appropriate essays I could find online (these were the days before Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers) and determined that there was a structure to follow. Every essay followed the same basic structure. I taught the structure to my students and they did well. I have been teaching five paragraph essay structure and everything that goes with it for a lot of years now. I hope that after you read this blog post, you will have a good understanding of how to teach and grade five paragraph essays.
Start with Paragraphs
We always start with simple paragraphs. Yes, this is basic, but if your students cannot write excellent paragraphs, their five paragraph essays will be train wrecks. Trust me! We spend a while cementing paragraph structure:
I give students topics, they come up with their own topics, we write together, they write with a partner or independently, the more variety, the better. We have fun with simple paragraphs. Then, it’s time to move on to organization.
Organize and Write the Body Paragraphs
Please refer to my five paragraph essay organizer below. The three body paragraphs are absolutely crucial to the success of the five paragraph essay. Some teachers have trouble teaching the structure of five paragraph essays because they start with the introduction paragraph. Always teach the body paragraphs first! The body paragraphs are where the bulk of students’ ideas will be written AND the topics of the body paragraphs need to be set for students to write a thesis sentence. So, once your students have planned out their three body paragraphs, it’s time to write them out on paper. I had a teacher say to me once, “What’s the point of just writing parts of the essay? They need to write the entire five paragraphs to get all of the practice they need.” I understand that point. However, think of it as building a house. Should you test out the foundation and make sure it’s sound and sturdy before building on top of it? Absolutely! That’s what we’re doing here. The three body paragraphs are the foundation of the essay. Ask students to write out their three body paragraphs just like they have practiced…Topic sentence…Detail 1…Detail 2…Detail 3…Closing Sentence. I “ooooh and aaaah” over their three paragraphs. Students are on their way to five paragraph essays, so be sure to build their confidence.
Teach the Introduction Paragraph
I have to say, this is my favorite paragraph to teach. The introduction paragraph is what draws readers into the essay and makes them want to read more. We start with what I call a “hook.” The hook captures the readers’ attention and can come in many forms: asking a question, making a bold statement, sharing a memory, etc. After the hook, I ask students to add a sentence or two of applicable commentary about the hook or about the prompt in general. Finally, we add the thesis sentence. The thesis sentence always follows the same formula: Restate the prompt, topic 1, topic 2, and topic 3. That’s all you need to write an excellent introduction paragraph! I do suggest having students write the introduction paragraph plus body paragraphs a couple of times before teaching the closing paragraph.
Teach the Closing Paragraph
In the conclusion paragraph, we mainly focus on restating the thesis and including an engaging closing thought. With my students, I use the analogy of a gift. The introduction paragraph and body paragraphs are the gift and the conclusion paragraph is the ribbon that ties everything together and finishes the package. When you talk about restating the thesis sentence, tell students that they need to make it sound different enough from their original thesis sentence to save their readers from boredom. Who wants to read the same thing twice? No one! Students can change up the format and wording a bit to make it fresh. I enjoy teaching the closing thought because it’s so open to however students want to create it. Ways to write the closing thought: ask a question, personal statement, call to action, or even a quote. I especially like reading the essays in which a quote is used as a closing thought or a powerful statement is used.
Example of a full five paragraph essay:
Let’s Talk About Color-Coding!
Who doesn’t like to color? This is coloring with a purpose!
Training your students to color-code their paragraphs and essays will make grading so much easier and will provide reminders and reinforcements for students. When students color-code their writing, they must think about the parts of their paragraphs, like topic sentences, details, and the closing sentence. They will be able to see if they are missing something or if they’ve written something out of order. Color-coding is a wonderful help for the teacher because you can skim to ensure that all parts of your students’ paragraphs and essays are present. Also, when you are grading, you can quickly scan the paragraphs and essays. Trust me, you will develop a quick essay-grading ability. I start color-coding with my students at the very beginning when they are working on simple paragraphs. I add the additional elements of the color-code as we progress through our five paragraph essays. This is the code that I use:
Let’s Talk About Grading Five Paragraph Essays!
Imagine a lonely, stressed teacher grading five paragraph essays on the couch while her husband is working the night shift. That was me! Seriously, guys, I would spend about ten minutes per essay. I marked every little error, I made notes for improvement and notes of encouragement. I reworked their incorrect structure. Those papers were full of marks. On Monday, I proudly brought back the essays and asked students to look over them and learn what they needed to fix for next time. You can guess what happened… there were lots of graded essays in the trashcan at the end of the day.
I decided that my grading practices had to change. I needed my weekends back and my students needed to find their own errors! This is my best advice:
- STOP correcting every error! Your students are not benefiting from marks all over their writing. They need to find those errors themselves so that they will remember their mistakes and change their writing habits.
- Do a quick scan of each student’s writing as soon as it’s turned in to you. If there are major problems with a student’s writing, call him/her over individually and show him/her what needs to be fixed or put the student with a competent peer editor who will help them fix their mistakes. If you have several students who are struggling with a skill, like closing sentences, do a mini-lesson on this topic. You can do a mini-lesson with a small group. However, I prefer doing mini-lessons with the entire class. The kids who need help will get it and the rest of your class will receive a refresher.
- It’s ok if there are some small spelling/grammar mistakes. If the errors are few and they don’t take away from the meaning/flow of the essay, I don’t worry about them. Our students are still learning. Even your brightest star writer will have a few spelling/grammar mistakes from time to time. Don’t discourage students from writing because of some small errors. Students who receive papers back with markings all over them don’t think, “Oh boy, my teacher has made it so easy for me to make all of these corrections.” They are thinking, “What’s the point in writing? I must be a terrible writer. Look at all of these mistakes.” If your students are taking a standardized writing assessment, the structure and flow of their essays will be worth much more than perfect spelling.
Need more help?
I created this five paragraph essay instructional unit for teachers who are new to teaching five paragraph essays OR just need all of the materials in one place. “Teacher Talk” pages will guide you through the unit and this unit contains all materials needed to help students plan, organize, and write amazing five paragraph essays! Click here to check it out:
I have a freebie for you! Click on the image below to reach the sign up page. You’ll receive three original prompts with five paragraph essay organizers AND two lined final draft pages!
Once your students are good essay writers…
These task cards will help your students stay sharp on their five paragraph essay knowledge. Students will review hooks (attention-getters), thesis sentences, body paragraphs, topic sentences, closings, and more. Each card contains a unique writing example!
I suggest using these task cards as a quiz/test, scoot game, individual review, or cooperative group activity.
Click on the image to view these task cards:
Filed Under: Writing