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Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: Expand the Possibilities of the Genres You Teach

My Understanding of Essay, Then…

I did my student teaching in a classroom where all students were handed a hamburger graphic organizer and were taught to fill in all parts of the burger if they wanted to create a “good essay.” The kids seemed bored as they dutifully wrote sentences to fit inside of the graphic organizer. Their essays were lackluster, but they followed the formula, which was supposed to help them do better on “the test..” 

When I began teaching personal essay in my own classroom, I was insistent that all of my fifth graders had three body paragraphs to support their thesis statement they wrote in the introductory paragraph because they were supposed to write five-paragraph essays (which I’ve now come to realize is an artificial construct). After a couple of years of teaching personal essay, I got better at helping students collect a variety of information (e.g., anecdotes, quotations, observations, statistics) to help them prove their thesis statements. Students would cull through their patches of thought folders for each of their “body paragraphs” on drafting day. They’d toss aside evidence that didn’t support their topic sentence. Then, they’d string all of their patches of thought together into one body paragraph. As a result, many students’ body paragraphs went on for a page or two since each paragraph contained a variety of information that proved their topic sentence (which was one of the three supports for their thesis). 

As a New York City public school teacher, I attended Calendar Days hosted by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In November 2004, I attended a session preparing NYC teachers to teach personal and literary essays to students. While the personal essays were five paragraphs and the literary essays were four paragraphs, it was the first time I ever heard someone talk about essay in ways that made them seem — dare I say it — fun to write. I soaked up as much as I could from that day of professional learning and taught my students to embrace essay writing without the use of a hamburger chart. All of my students collected patches of thought to prove a claim, which helped them produce essays about topics that were meaningful to them as people. They may have still been formulaic, but my students were invested in their writing.

My Understanding of Essay, Now…

Through the years, I’ve come to understand that essay writing is writing to think (Hoagland, 1976).  Michel de Montaine was a philosopher who wrote in the countryside during the French Revolution. He called his attempts at writing essaying (or trying). In French, the word essais means trial. To write an essay is merely an attempt, or a trial, at exploring a topic.

It can be challenging to wrap our heads around essay being more than something that has a thesis statement one is trying to prove to someone. If we adopt the original meaning of essay in classrooms, then we are going to be able to teach kids to develop ideas on the paper that reflect their thinking about a topic.

Katherine Bomer offers a working definition of essay in her book, The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them (Heinemann, 2016):

Essay writing is writing to think.

Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay Structure

It’s a big leap for a writer to shift from proving something using topic-centered paragraphs and concluding sentences to growing provocative ideas with complexity and depth.  

If my 2020-self could provide some professional development to my early 2000s-self, I would encourage students to break from the five-paragraph structure. Just because two pieces of evidence are related doesn’t mean they should be in the same paragraph! Here’s a chart I’d share with my early-career self to help teach kids about reasons essayists use paragraphs. 

Of course, like anything else, I’d tell my early-career self to make sure kids knew the rules before they broke them. That is, once a child understood paragraph structure, I’d encourage that child to get inventive with the way they used paragraphs in their essay writing. 

So, how do we, as adults, move beyond the five-paragraph essay mindset? 

I’ve come to believe it’s necessary that teachers immerse themselves in different kinds of essay writing. First, we have to find essays that move beyond the formulaic five-paragraph essays we’ve written and taught for years. Here are two places to look:

  1. The afterword of The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer contains essays written by adults. Some of my favorite essays to study alongside teachers from the afterword of Bomer’s book are “What I Want to be…” by Randy Bomer, “Querencia” by Georgia Heard, and “Tattoos: Marked for Life” by Deb Kelt. In addition, Bomer introduces readers to “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle in her book. It’s also an exquisitely crafted essay to read and study alongside teachers.
  2. Breakfast on Mars and 37 Other Delectable Essays: Your Favorite Authors Take A Stab at the Dreaded Essay Assignment edited by Rebecca Stern and Brad Wolfe contains a variety of personal, persuasive, and literary essays that can be used as mentor texts with students. The go-to essays I suggest for personal essay are “Raised by Wolves” by Sarah Prineas and “A Good Lie” by Laurel Snyder. For literary essay, I’m partial to “Princess Leia is an Awesome Role Model” by Cecil Castellucci and “When to Say No to Breakfast” by Brad Wolfe.

I advise immersing yourself in essay writing with the titles listed above prior to teaching an essay-writing unit to students so you can envision what the end product of a journey of thought essay looks like. As you’re reading, jot your favorite lines down. Note features you admire. Reread with different lenses. Then, talk with your colleagues — who also want to change the way they teach essay — so you can process essays you’re studying together. 

Once you’re done immersing yourself in several essays, you can dive in and write one yourself. Or, if you’re studying with other teachers who want to move beyond the five-paragraph essay, then consider doing some shared writing with your colleagues. This will allow you to experience the way essay writers need to think (and write to explore) in terms of structure. In addition, it will give you a way to figure out how you might use shared writing as a launch point for doing writing-to-think work with your students. Once you’ve written a few shared pieces with colleagues, you can write your own essay, which you’ll be able to use as a mentor text with your students. 

TIP: The first time you write an essay that reflects Bomer’s definition of essay (above), don’t think about standards, learning progressions, or the lessons you might teach. Pick a topic you wish to explore in your writing that holds meaning and value to you. Then, write about it, just as the authors of the above-mentioned essays did in their essays. It’s okay to try to do this kind of work and feel as though you’ve failed at it the first few times. That’s called being human. After years of being trained to write an essay in a formulaic way, it takes time to retrain ourselves to write differently. I promise you, as someone who has written a few non-formulaic essays, it is possible to retrain yourself to write an essay that is meaningful and provocative, but doesn’t necessarily win an argument in the end. I find I’m still doing things like making use of transitional phrases, but I’m no longer worried that every paragraph begins with a topic sentence, has three detail sentences, and ends with a concluding sentence.

There will be times in our students’ lives (e.g., standardized tests) when they will need to write formulaic essays that ask them to make a claim and prove it over the course of a few well-structured paragraphs. However, if we’re going to prepare students for those kinds of tasks, then it’s important to teach them how to essayer, or try, to grow new ideas and understandings in their writing. We have to push beyond the five-paragraph formula so kids aren’t doing formulaic writing. When we move beyond the five-paragraph essay, we free our students to “explore, explain, and express” (Bomer, 2016, 22). If we can teach students to think through an idea across several pages so as to come to a new understanding, then we’re teaching them a valuable life skill.

I’m curious…

What thinking have you done about moving beyond the five-paragraph essay? What are you planning to read to move help you move beyond the five-paragraph essay with your students?  (Next on my to-be-read list is Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner.) What will you do to take the next steps to change the way essay is viewed among your colleagues? Please share your reflections below.

Giveaway Information

  • This giveaway is for a copy of each of the following books: Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre by Matt Glover and Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing by Ralph Fletcher. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Craft and Process Studies and Focus Lessons, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 9th at 6:00 p.m. EDT. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, February 10th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – EXPAND THE POSSIBILITIES. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

Stacey Shubitz View All

Literacy Consultant. Author. Former 4th and 5th Grade Classroom Teacher.

33 thoughts on “Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: Expand the Possibilities of the Genres You Teach Leave a comment

  1. The five-paragraph essay debate has always been a heated one among my colleagues. Five-paragraph essays do exist “in the wild,” but they aren’t the only option; forcing our students to use them–just like any arbitrary writing rule–often does more harm than good. I’ve enjoyed this post very much!

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  2. Delightful post. Essay.
    I, too, get caught in the tension between structure–the five paragraph essay somewhere in grades 4-6–and development of voice–breaking the five paragraph essay structure somewhere in grades 6-12. Fundamentally, something is wrong if we have to break what we teach. I suspect we teach what’s wrong because it’s easier to grade. To test. SBAC, SAT, and AP writing sections are perfectly designed to encourage five paragraph structures. Even my state licensure testing priviledged it.
    It’s killing student voice.
    But I see here I’m starting to go on. Sauntering. Essaying. Which is not the best structure for a comment box. 😉
    Thank you for the inspiration!

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  3. Thank you for shedding light on this important topic. It’s true that school seems to be the only place that the 5-paragraph essay thrives. Thank you for all the helpful resources that will continue to help educators grow their understanding and stretch beyond the formula.

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  4. Our district is just starting to adopt the Lucy Calkins Units of Study where the five paragraph essay abounds in grades 3-8. With this foundation, and all of the state testing requirements, the hope is that as students enter 7th-12th grade that five paragraph structure can be expanded and manipulated in ways you have mentioned in this post. We are starting a book study with the John Warner book and are hoping he can leave Charleston and pay us a visit (we are in the upper part of South Carolina)– his book left the staff with so many questions, yet inspired much needed conversations! Thank you for the wonderful visuals that I can share with the teachers!

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  5. Wow! I love this idea! What a better writer I would have been if this was the instruction. Excited to see how this generation of writers changes the world!

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  6. So powerful, Stacey, on so many counts. I think foremost is the sharing of your own progression as a teacher of writing- I remember those hamburger organizers! I think of how many students dutifully comply with such things … but what a world of difference there is between compliance/checklists and creativity/real communication. Being shown how to communicate your own thoughts, your own ideas, things that matter to you in a way that impacts others is immeasurable in the spectrum of learning AND LIFE. It’s both craft and creative freedom; parameters are removed vs. enforced. I could go on – just thank you for this labor-of-love post. I have Warner’s
    Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and have used it in summer writing pd for teachers at all grade levels; this book is mighty, inspiring, and true. One of my favorites on how to revise the way writing is taught- and empowering tge writer.

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  7. As a literacy coach, I was just having this conversation with 5th and 6th grade teams. They were discussing whether or not to use “I” in an argumentative essay, and how they might break away from the formulaic style of writing. Great timing!

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  8. I have tried to design my 7th grade writing class so that kids have choice in topics and genre. Unfortunately, because of curriculum restraints and lack of time to develop solid writing lessons/units, I end up giving up by November. I would happily move away from the 5 paragraph essay! And I love this post which has validated my thinking! Back to the drawing board…right after I finish the argument essay unit.
    Jenningss@ripon.k12.wi.us

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  9. Thank you!! As a mentor teacher for first year colleagues, I too have seen many hamburger anchor charts, stop lights, structured outline scaffolds, and more. I appreciate the idea of learning about traditional five paragraph essays while giving students the “permission” to explore writing as a means of sharing thought. The chart showing reasons to change paragraphs is brilliantly compiled.
    I will be sharing your terrific insights!

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  10. Really like the “Reasons to Start a New Paragraph” chart. I’m in the middle of the Research Based Argument Essay Unit of Study, which somewhat implies the 5 paragraph essay structure. However, I always tell my writers that they are in charge of their writing and need to determine how many paragraphs they need to completely share their argument. I think this new chart will help immensely. Thank you!

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  11. Our district has the goal of moving away from formulaic writing, so I love the content of this article. I’m thinking about how to weave this into instruction with my first graders. We’ve never asked them to write 5 paragraph essay, but we seem to be giving them writing instruction that sets them up for that. The hamburger graphic organizer sounds so familiar! We want to support kids in their understanding of how to organize their writing and what makes a paragraph. Our kids are so busy making their ideas fit into our pre-made graphic organizers, that I’m afraid they’re losing the voice and genuineness in their writing.

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  12. Focus Lesson is amazing!! Would love to add Craft & Process Studies to my teacher library. We’ve spent the first half of the school year deconstructing and dismantling the idea of the 5-paragraph essay. Students are all too eager to let go of that worn & tired structure too. Thank you for this post…so many writing gems to use!

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  13. We do the five paragraph essay at my school just to give kids a structure. They always ask, “How many paragraphs do I need?” I tell them, “As many as you need to get the job done.” Which meets with groans.
    Thanks for the graphic, which has added a few new starts for me!
    Keep up the good work!

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