Why Is The Five-Paragraph Theme a Problem?

Almost every high school student learns to write the Five-Paragraph Theme.  Its basic structure asks students to write

  • a one-paragraph introduction with a thesis that highlights three points
  • three body paragraphs, each elaborating on the points listed in the thesis
  • a conclusion paragraph that restates the thesis.

The problem is that most college professors hate the Five-Paragraph Theme.  Here’s a story that illustrates why.  I had a student come to me for a conference to plan her 10-page research paper.  We discussed her topic and came up with about six ideas that she needed to research.  She developed an insightful and sophisticated thesis.  I felt we had done good work.  As she left, she asked “How am I going to fit all of this in five paragraphs?”

Of course there was no way she could meet all of the requirements of the assignment in five paragraphs, but that model was so ingrained that she couldn’t think outside it.

The Five-Paragraph Theme offers an easy model for teaching and learning about writing. It can even be a good starting point—however, it is totally inadequate for longer and more sophisticated writing.  Students need to learn it as a starting point for writing and then build on the paragraphs to expand their thinking and development of ideas.

Given the workload of many high school teachers, it’s easy to understand why the Five-Paragraph Theme is popular.  A teacher who has 100 students throughout the day would have to grade 1000 pages each time a 10-page paper is assigned.  Five paragraphs generally take up only one and a half to two pages.  An even better reason is that it’s easy to teach—five paragraphs with a clear structure and content makes an easy to describe and define assignment.  Also, it’s easy for students who are often frustrated by the abstract and varied guidelines of writing.

 

The trick, which the best teachers know, is to teach the Five-Paragraph Theme as a starting point and then teach students how to build it up to meet the more sophisticated demands of college and professional writing.

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