Regular readers are well-familiar with my campaign to move beyond the teaching of the five-paragraph essay. For this reason, I was thrilled to be introduced to a new book, Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay edited by Nigel A. Caplan and Ann M. Johns.
The book is a thorough look at the research and practices surrounding the use of the five-paragraph essay, particularly as it has been employed in second language writing instruction, though I believe it speaks to all writing classrooms.
It spoke to me very strongly, at least. Even as someone who has written his own book on these issues, I found myself being introduced to new perspectives and research. It’s a resource I know I’ll be turning to in the future. I asked the editors, Nigel Caplan and Ann Johns, a few questions about the book for the benefit of others who might be interested in their work.
John Warner: Regular readers have been subjected to my objections to the five-paragraph essay for years, but I think it would be useful to hear the perspective of others, so. What’s wrong with the five-paragraph essay?
Nigel Caplan and Ann Johns: Where to start? We feel the biggest problem with the five-paragraph essay as it’s typically taught in North America is that it’s not situated. As we say in Changing Practices, “good writing serves the author’s purpose in a specific context and addresses the audience for which the text is written, employing the appropriate genre for the situation.” The five-paragraph essay is just a form: it doesn’t encourage the writer to consider their role, purpose, audience, or context. The student simply has to fill in the blanks and replicate a formula that is presumed universal. But this doesn’t produce good writing. In fact, we don’t think we can define “good” writing because what’s effective in one context, say a blog for Inside Higher Education, would not be successful as an academic journal article, and vice versa. The five-paragraph essay prepares students to write another five-paragraph essay, but that’s not what they actually need to write.
JW: I write about this in my book, in response to the argument that the five-paragraph essay is a form of “training wheels” for writing other things, but training wheels in reality prevent nascent bike riders from practicing what’s most important about learning to ride, balance. Similarly, it seems to me the five-paragraph essay really only translates to writing other five-paragraph essays.
NC/AJ: Yes, exactly, although in ESL, the training wheels oftendon’t come off: students are told that they won’t always write five-paragraph essays, but they aren’t always taught how to write anything else. What worries us about teaching the five-paragraph essay is that it is fixed: you must have an introduction with a thesis statement, two to three body paragraphs with the same structure, a conclusion that restates all the above, and so on. But we know from extensive research in genre theory and disciplinary discourse analysis that writing tasks from elementary to graduate school are extraordinarily varied and require the kinds of rhetorical flexibility and genre awareness that are discouraged by the fixed form.
In addition, the five-paragraph essay teaches the wrong lessons. It teaches that content follows form, that development is less important than structure, and that there is a single “academic” register with rules for language choices (don’t use “I,” avoid passive voice, and so on), as you say in Why They Can’t Write, John. The research that we and our contributing authors reviewed from across the educational spectrum clearly shows that all students, but ESL students in particular, need much more from their writing instruction. They need to learn how to develop ideas, make and support claims, evaluate sources, select appropriate evidence, write about data, respond to short-answer questions, and reflect on ideas from their classes. They also need to learn how to use language to communicate information, construct the right stance, and connect their ideas logically for different purposes and different audiences. This “rhetorical flexibility” is what we should be teaching in our writing classes.
JW: You note that at the college level, while the five-paragraph essay has largely fallen out of favor, it has been “reinvigorated” when it comes to ESL instruction. Why do you think this is?
NC/AJ: It’s true that in many colleges and universities, instructors are told not to teach the five-paragraph essay. However, teachers of first- and second-year students, like many college instructors in the content areas, still tend to call their assignments, whatever their structures and purposes, “essays,” rather than, for example, naming and assigning useful texts, such as summaries, syntheses, arguments, case studies, and data commentaries. This means that although teachers might not thinkthey’re assigning five-paragraph essays, many of their students are still trying to produce them because they’ve become so ingrained over time. One of Ann’s students said, “My writing teacher still calls what we write ‘essays’ but tells us that we should not be writing five-paragraph essays. What should our textsbe, if they’re still called ‘essays’? Should I just change the number of paragraphs and do what I’ve always done?” Students like this aren’t prepared for the challenges and complexity of college writing.
JW: This points to chapters in your book about how poorly the five-paragraph essay transfers to other contexts, or as your example shows, what transfers creates a dysfunctional process for the students.
NC/AJ: It’s really hard to teach for so-called “high-road” transfer, as Dana Ferris and Hogan Hayes explain in their chapter, and it’s a huge stretch to ask our students to figure out for themselves how to transfer a five-paragraph essay to a biology lab report or a business plan, say. The justification for teaching the five-paragraph essay is that it gives students practice in coherence, cohesion, argument structure, and so on. But transferring those abstract concepts to other situations is difficult if not impossible for novice students.
So why is the five-paragraph essay dominant in ESL textbooks and curricula in high schools, intensive English programs, pre-college writing programs, and some English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses? Historically, the ESL “skills” have been taught in this order: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. In fact, in some ESL programs, writing was thought to be a mere reflection of speaking: if you could speak, you could write. This means that writing, especially academic writing, has traditionally received short shrift, and even today, many ESL teachers aren’t prepared to teach writing as more than the use of “correct” grammar or rigid organization, so they fall back on what their textbooks offer, which is the five-paragraph essay. Meanwhile, first-year composition teachers are rarely trained to work with English learners, and some English departments are reluctant to hire ESL specialists, especially on long-term or tenure-track contracts, again a problem you have discussed that relates to all composition instructors.
A second explanation for the persistence of the five-paragraph essay in ESL stems from what we believe to be good intentions: international students and linguistically diverse domestic students often struggle with college-level writing (as, of course, do many monolingual English speakers!). Understandably, one response is to simplify the task, and the five-paragraph essay is definitely simple — easy to teach, learn, and grade. The underlying logic is that students will learn to write in complex, academic genres later— in the next class or level. But that doesn’t happen. Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, who has a chapter in our new book, found that high-school ESL students who learned the five-paragraph essay produced writing that was deemed “uncritical” or “simplistic,” and so they were placed in another class that taught … the five-paragraph essay! Or students may go into college writing classes and disciplinary courses where they cannot produce high-stake genres because they rely on the five-paragraph essay, like Ann’s student. What was intended to be a scaffold turns out to be a crutch.
JW: That’s an interesting point about the “simplistic” framing. I would argue there is no such thing as a simplistic piece of writing that is in fact fully “situated” as you frame it. When I talk about these issues in front of audiences, I have them write instructions for a peanut butter & jelly sandwich without giving any specific guidance on audience and purpose. The results are almost uniformly unsatisfactory, ignoring all kinds of important things like amounts, the use of utensils, sometimes even core ingredients themselves. This is true of college students and college faculty alike.
NC/AJ: Yes, you are absolutely right: there is no such thing as a “simple” piece of writing. What’s complicated in academic contexts is the variation in the types of in-class prompts and longer assignments given to students. Some are incomplete or open-ended, some are pedagogical (that is, only found in educational settings), and some represent the genres of a discipline or profession. However, all are situated within a classroom with specific instructors who have certain expectations. This means that students need to learn how to analyze context and shape their writing accordingly. They can’t just try to force every assignment into a five-paragraph essay. It doesn’t work.
JW: What do you think we have to change to make the conditions less favorable to the use of the five-paragraph essay?
NC/AJ:We can start by providing training, professional development, and materials for teachers in K-12, ESL, EAP, developmental, and first-year writing courses so that they understand the ways in which they are unintentionally limiting their students by the exclusive teaching of the five-paragraph essay. Of course, we also have to educate administrators and curriculum designers so that they stop constraining teachers to five-paragraph essays. This means dispelling the myths of universality (everyone writes them and has always written them), transfer (the training wheel syndrome), scaffolding (it will help them later), and generalization (all students write essays in all their classes). But we also need to address teaching conditions: teachers who have too many students, insufficient time, and no input into curriculum cannot make these changes in practice.
JW: Lastly, what would you say to an instructor that has been using the five-paragraph essay (in the manner we’re discussing), and is open to changing, but isn’t sure what to do?
NC/AJ: A good place to start is by choosing one “essay” assignment in your course and making it genre-based. For example, if your curriculum requires you to teach “description” so you’re currently assigning a “descriptive essay,” think about real situations in which description is useful, such as an online product review, a real-estate listing, or an entry in art exhibition catalogue. You’ll be teaching the same rhetorical mode and points of language. But your students will find the task meaningful, which will be reflected in the quality and depth of their writing.
We can also assist students to analyze the texts they have written or those assigned in their other classes so they can see how much variation really exists in writing across genres and disciplines. This involves looking at example texts and interrogating them for their rhetorical situation (the role of the writer, the audience, the context, and the conventions), organization (what are the required and optional moves?), and register (what language choices are typical at each stage of the text?). You can practice this with any genre from a restaurant review to a scientific research paper. You are still teaching students to express their ideas, organize their writing, and make effective language choices, but now you’re teaching them to do all of that in different contexts using different genres.
We have specific suggestions for each educational level throughout Changing Practices. Some of them are quite radical, but there are also a lot of ways to “nibble at the edges,” as we write in the conclusion, and make small changes within existing curricula.
Nigel A. Caplan, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute, where he teaches English as a Second Language to incoming international graduate and undergraduate students as well as courses in the MA TESL degree. He is co-editor of Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (University of Michigan Press, 2019) and other textbooks including Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers (2nd edition, University of Michigan Press, 2019). Nigel blogs at www.nigelcaplan.com and can be found on Twitter @NigelESL.
Ann M. Johns, PhD, is a Professor Emerita, Linguistics and Writing Studies at San Diego State University, where she has been teaching academic writing to diverse students and studying writing across the curriculum for 35 years. The recipient of four Fulbright grants, she has made presentations and consulted on curriculum development in 32 countries. In addition to her 100+ articles and book chapters, she is the author of Text, role, and context: Developing academic literacies (Cambridge, 1997), editor of Genre in the classroom: Multiple perspectives (Erlbaum/Routledge, 2002), and co-editor of Changing Practices for the L2 Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (University of Michigan Press, 2019). With Nigel Caplan, she is currently preparing undergraduate writing materials that do not favor the five-paragraph essay.