Basic College Writing Tips
Welcome to College: Say Goodbye to the Five-Paragraph Essay
Many students learned in high school to write what is commonly known as the five paragraph essay. This handout is designed to help you see the weaknesses of that syle of essay and to help you learn to write something more complex that that formulaic essay. The Five Paragraph Essay consists of (surprise!) five paragraphs that follow a very structured format. The first paragraph contains a one sentence (or maybe a two sentence) thesis statement, which is followed by three sentences that briefly describe what will be discussed in the three body paragraphs. These three sentences are sometimes referred to as the pathway, since they show where the paper will go. There may then be a transitional sentence to the next paragraph, which discusses the topic of the first pathway sentence. The next two body paragraphs develop and detail the next two pathway sentences. The conclusion, the fifth paragraph, restates and summarizes the arguments of the essay, sometimes beginning with the phrase, In conclusion.
The strength of the five paragraph essay is that it is highly structured, and fairly easy to teach. It provides a very formulaic style of writing that many students find helpful. However, once you reach the college level, the weaknesses outweigh the strengths. The five paragraph essay encourages students to engage only on the surface level without attaining the level of cogency demanded by college writing. In its broad, overarching style, it has a tendency to encourage overly general thesis statements that lead to poorly developed and unfocused papers. And its formulaic nature makes it prone to produce papers with stilted organization. Not to mention that it is next to impossible to write five pages of one without repeating yourself. The only time the five paragraph essay may be useful in college is when you are writing answers to brief essay questions on exams. In timed situations that do not allow you to come up with a complex organization, the five pragraph essay format can be helpful to structure your ideas if you are easily overwhelmed by the number of points you have to make.
So, if you're not allowed to write the kind of essay your high school teachers taught you, what exactly else are you supposed to write? The easiest thing to remember is that with a few sentence level changes, each pathway sentence from a traditional five paragraph essay would make a great working thesis for the kind of argumentative, thesis-driven paper that you are asked to write in college. Heres an example in answer to the prompt, What fundamental change would improve high school education ?.
High school education has several problems which must be solved to prepare Americas youth for the challenges of the 21st century. Overcrowded classrooms mean that students do not receive the individualized attention that they need to succeed. Increasing rates of crime are making students afraid to come to school, and preventing students from concentrating while they are there. In addition, the lack of technological resources like state of the art computers is preventing students from being competitive in the workplace after graduation. These problems all mean that some students are falling behind.
When students fall behind, they need the attention of an instructor one on one to catch up. Because classrooms are so crowded, teachers are overworked. As a result. . .
High schools across the country are bulging at the seams. As increasing numbers of Americans realize that education is necessary to attaining the American dream, our schools grow more crowded. At the same time, budget cuts have caused schools to cut back on the number of teachers. As the number of teachers has dropped, and classrooms have become more crowded, the quality of education in our public schools has declined. With a higher workload, burnout among even the best teachers has increased, and fewer people see teaching as the desirable profession they once did. Solving the problem of overcrowding by strictly limiting class size to 20 students would allow more students to get the instruction they need to become productive members of society, which is the most important goal of high school education in America today.
Can you see the difference between the two parargraphs? Let's take a closer look:
|5 Para Essay||College Essay|
|High school education has several problems which||Solving theproblem of overcrowding would allow more|
|must be solved to prepare Americas youth for the||students toget the instruction they need to become|
|challenges of the 21st century.||productive members of society whichis the most|
|important goal of high school education in America today.|
|This thesis states the obvious. It is so general that||This statement narrows the topic down to a specific problem:|
|just about anything you threw into the essay could be used||overcrowding. It also states why overcrowding is a problem.|
|to support it but you would end up with a very unfocused||The sentence implies that overcrowding is preventing at least some students|
|essay. Also note the use of vague wording ||from getting the education they need to|
|several problems. Finally, a college paper must take a||become productive members of society, which the thesis|
|position that a rational person would disagree with.||itself identifies as a primary goal of high school education.|
|What rational person would not agree with this sentence?||There are lots of rational people who would choose another|
|problem as the worst obstacle facing high school education.|
|There are also lots of rational people who would argue for a|
|different primary goal of high school education.|
Many students when transitioning from the 5 paragraph essay to the college essay express concern about what else to put in the introductory paragraph. Certainly, the five paragraph essay gives you a clear formula for what else to include in the introduction. However, to excel at college writing, students need to think about the function of the introductory paragraph. Introductory pararaphs are designed to give readers a preview of the essay topic and introduce the writer's point of view on the subject. You do not need to have one sentence in the introduction for each paragraph in the paper. You simply need to give enough of an overview of where you are going to give readers a sense of the overall arc of your argument. An introduction is kind of like a movie preview--it tells the reader enough that he or she knows what to expect, but it does not give a scene by scene breakdown of the movie.
Even though a more complex essay will not have a one to one correspondance of setences to paragraphs, readers can still make a good guess about what will be included in that kind of essay. Here is what an outline for the essays that follow each of those thesis statements and introductory pararaphs might look like:
|5 Para Essay||College Essay|
|1. Overcrowding interferes with instruction.||1.The primary goal of a high school education is to make all students, not just a certain select few,|
|2. Increasing crime makes students afraid/unable to work.||into productive members of society.|
|3. No tech resources means not prepared for work force.||2. As jobs become more competitive, more people need and are seeking an education.|
|4. Conclusion||3. Budget cuts mean fewer teachers in schools, which reduces the quality of classroom instruction.|
|4. Teachers get burned out when classes are overcrowded.|
|5. In overcrowded classrooms, too many students get lost or slip through the cracks.|
|6. Conclusion suggesting what the result of solving the problems might be for society.|
Obviously, the second essay is going to come out longer and more complex than the first. This seems counterintuitive to many students at first glance. You would think that an essay with three main points would be longer than one with one main point. The difference is that the college essay asks you to ask more probing questions--to examine the hows and whys behind each point and push your analysis further.
On Friday morning at the NCTE Annual Convention, I sat in a session that featured Tom Romano, Mariana Romano, and Linda Rief. My hands failed me that session. I simply could not get all the ideas down in my notebook fast enough. One after another, each teacher spoke to the importance of giving kids the space, time, and agency to write what matters to them.
Write What Matters. Too much of the writing students do in school doesn’t matter to them, at least not in any personally meaningful way. And by that, I mean that the writing doesn’t mean anything to students beyond the immediate, beyond the class they’re taking, beyond the teacher who is evaluating them, beyond the points they’re collecting. It’s because the writing doesn’t matter to them that I’ve seen and heard of students who simply drop their essays into the recycle bin as they walk out of class the moment they’ve gotten their grades.
Part of the reason writing doesn’t matter to most students is because they know, as we do, that the assignments we give are contrived, and that there is no assignment more contrived than the 5-paragraph essay. I’ve written about the tyranny of the form on Moving Writers here and here. And while I’ve committed myself to freeing myself (and my students) from under the form’s weight, I continue to struggle with the how.
Students—especially my 9th graders—still need a framework for organizing their ideas. So last year I taught them the Aristotelian structure, which is the classical arrangment of argument. My 9th graders came in from middle school with an understanding of the 5-paragraph essay; my job was to move them beyond it.
In the Aristotelian model, I explained to students, there are five partsversus five paragraphs. I first came across this model in my own rhetoric courses, then again when I began teaching AP Lang & Comp. It wasn’t until last year when I came across Ray Salazar’s provocative post, “If You Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay, Stop It!” that I realized I could use the classical arrangement for literary analysis and response.
So I took Salazar’s advice and stopped teaching the 5-paragraph essay for literary analysis (and in general). Instead, last year, my students wrote three 5-part essays for the following texts: Much Ado About Nothing, Lord of the Flies, and Things Fall Apart. The result? Well, they were about as good as I expected them to be, especially at first—which is to say, they were not very good at all. I could tell that students were confused. I couldn’t blame them, though. After all, it was my first time teaching this new form, and my own inexperience was clearly reflected in their writing.
But then something happened. I started to hear my students tell me things like, “This way make so much more sense to me” and “I could have written my social studies paper this way, too.”
Isn’t that the key? Transfer. Writing that matters is writing that can transfer across task and context. What I also appreciate about the 5-part essay is that the organization is driven by questions:
- Introduction: What brought me to this piece of writing? What inspired me to write?
- Narration: What needs to be clarified before I continue? What background or context does my reader need to know? What’s the backstory? How did we get here?
- Confirmation: What supports my point-of-view? What evidence allowed me to arrive at this argument?
- Refutation: What are other ways of seeing these ideas? How are they valid?
- Conclusion: All that said, what are the benefits of seeing these ideas from my point-of-view?
Below are a few of the resources I used to help teach the difference between the 5-part, classical arrangement model and the traditional 5-paragraph essay:
By the time my students wrote their third essay in this form, I could, for the first time, actually see their thinking on the page in a literary analysis. The funny thing about the 5-paragraph essay is that it’s actually not set up to be an argument (or, I might argue, for deep thinking). For years, I told students to make sure that their thesis statements were “arguable,” but what did that even mean?
More often, students’ thesis statements were expository in nature, and then students spent three paragraphs telling me how they were right this way, this way, and finally, this way. Making a statement and then explaining in three different ways how that statement is true is somewhat dishonest as far as argument is concerned. What true argument does, and does well, is consider multiple views, weighs and wonders, looks at things by stepping back and zooming in. For me, the most powerful part of my students’ essays was the refutation. Unless students could honestly articulate and explain how other points-of-view were valid, their arguments weren’t really arguments.
Real-World Text Structures
While the classical arrangement worked well last year, I’m so excited to add in real-world text structure models for my students. At another NCTE panel—a tribute to the work of Tom Newkirk—retired teacher and author Gretchen Bernabei shared how she was inspired by Newkirk’s challenge to find “teachable alternatives” to the 5-paragraph essay.
In her books, The Story of My Thinking and Text Structures from the Masters, Gretchen reveals and analyzes the varied, multiple, and rich text structures students can use to organize their own writing. To see the power of using text structures to inspire writing that matters, at her roundtable on Saturday, Gretchen asked us to write one sentence—one sentence about something we have learned about teaching or from our classrooms. Here was mine:
Sometimes students are the best teachers.
Gretchen then asked us to think about how that sentence could lead to an essay. Then she gave us various real-world text structures (she had them cut up on slips of paper) and asked us to choose 1 or 2 that would work for the sentence that we had just written. Here was one that stood out to me:
“Where would your sentence fit?” she asked us. It so happened that my sentence fit most naturally in the third box. Then she asked us to write one sentence that would fill in the other two boxes, or parts, of the text structure. Ultimately, here was mine:
- I used to think that teachers had to have all the answers.
- But over the years, my experiences with students have shown me time and again how much I don’t know, and that admitting how much I don’t know has been humbling and powerful.
- So now I think that there are times that my students are the best teachers.
This is what Gretchen calls a “kernel essay.” It’s small writing, but writing that has so much room to grow and move.
Here are other text structures that might have also worked for my sentence:
I love the ways in which using these text structures can open up students’ writing and thinking. Every NCTE conference, though I come home with many takeaways, there are often one or two key moments that make my jaw drop and think, “Of course. Why didn’t I think about that before?” Learning about these kernel essays was one of those moments.
I can imagine following these steps with my students:
- Generate multiple sentences that describe a key observation (claim) they want to make about a topic (or piece of literature)
- Narrow down to 1-2 most compelling sentences (the ones that are “itches needing scratching”).
- Browse various text structures, with each text structure on a separate slip of paper. Students can play around with the possibilities, deciding where their sentence might best fit.
- Fill in the other parts of the text structure. Afterwards, or simultaneously, students then study a real-world mentor text that uses this text structure (Gretchen’s book Text Structures from the Masters includes mentor texts for 50 different text structures).
Since my students are also completing an Article of the Week (a la Kelly Gallagher), I hope to have them go back and then identify (or create) new text structures based upon those readings. Gretchen, herself, shared that her students started to find new text structures the more they read and wrote. (And because Gretchen, like so many teachers I know, is so generous, you can find more about kernel essays and text structures on her website here).
By collecting real-world models for organization, students can start to see the varied and rich ways that their ideas can be expressed—that their writing no longer needs to be tied down to 5 paragraphs. How do you use text structures in your own classroom? How do you get students to move beyond 1 or 2 templates to see the richness of writing in the real world?