Contented Reader

just point me toward the nearest library

Why I teach the five-paragraph essay

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First of all, ‘five-paragraph essay’ is a name for an essay that isn’t necessarily five paragraphs long.  But I do teach my students how to write an essay that has an introduction that clearly states a main idea, several body paragraphs, each focused on one specific aspect of the main idea, and a conclusion that sums up the main idea.

No literary writing is anything like that.  No one every reads essays or books for pleasure that are structured that way.  The structure screams, ‘I wrote this for school.’

My students do it anyway.  It isn’t the only thing they do, but I expect every one of them to master it.


Because the skills it teaches are important.  The basic concept ‘Have a point, and write about it,’ is not at all obvious or easy for twelve-year-olds.  Someday, they will write good essays.  But first, they have to learn the basic concept that an essay is about something, and that focus is a thing.  Someday, they will build beautiful buildings.  But first, they have to know how to make bricks.

And because most of them, in their adult lives, won’t be called upon to entertain or inspire people with their writing.  A few of them will, and they will learn from their reading how to do it.  But most of them, when they write, are going to be called upon to write when they need to clearly communicate something to someone else.  They don’t need to know how to make a reader laugh, or cry, or change her life philosophy.  They need to know how to explain to the client what they are going to do to fulfill the assigned project, what materials and steps are involved, and how much time and money will be involved.  They need to know how to communicate with their employees, what their expectations are.  They need to send an email that will clearly communicate what the slow-witted and easily bored boss needs to know, before she stops reading and goes back to playing Angry Birds.

They need to know how to clearly state what they are trying to say.  They need to know how to choose the right information to explain that thing.  They need to communicate clearly.  And the ‘five-paragraph essay’ is a good way to learn those skills.

Some of them, some day, will master higher, better forms of writing.  Some of them will learn them in high school and college.  The ones who become great writers will get what they need from their reading.  But all of them need the simple, basic, not-nearly-common-enough commonsense skill of getting their damn point across clearly to another human being.

So don’t roll your eyes and disparage the person who teaches the ‘five-paragraph essay.’  When one of my students is your boss, or your employee, or your tax advisor, you’ll be glad I did.


Written by Contented Reader

November 3, 2012 at 8:53 am

Posted in Opinions


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