I was asked to switch from third grade to fourth grade this year. I'm enjoying the change, but one of the realities I'm facing is the increased emphasis on writing instruction. Third graders learn how to write paragraphs, while fourth graders learn how to write with paragraphs. Consequently, I've turned to the five paragraph essay: an effective, flexible starting point for young writers.
Like it or not, the five paragraph format is effective. There's something appealing about introducing a topic, expanding on it in three, detailed paragraphs and finishing with a succinct conclusion. If you can give three good reasons for holding an opinion, then you’ve got something. If you can’t, then you don’t. As there was no way I could come up with three good reasons why my mom should let me play with the lawn darts after my trip to the emergency room, the darts stayed hidden. Understanding the five-paragraph format is a useful tool for anyone with an opinion or an agenda.
It’s flexible. Not only does it work as an essay, but it also comes in handy when writing short stories. You introduce the characters and setting in the first paragraph, throw in a beginning, middle and end and wrap up the story with a fifth paragraph and boom: you’ve got yourself a story. Other uses come quickly to mind: fairy tales, pourquoi tales, even the standard three-part joke can trace its roots to the five-paragraph format. Once you’ve mastered the five paragraph essay, the sky’s the limit.
Although teachers and assessors may tire of the five-part, formulaic pablum put forth by fourth graders, working with young writers is a challenging endeavor. Good teachers know how to use scaffolds; and the five-part format is just that. Think of it as a literary algorithm. Or better yet, imagine John Coltrane or Andre Previn in their youth, banging out “Hot Cross Buns” and “Ode to Joy” while their parents patiently endured those tough times, knowing their future virtuosos had to master the basics before they could conquer the world. Like it or not, kids are not born knowing how to write.
There’s no shame in teaching the five paragraph essay. Not for me, anyway. Writing is easily the most complicated thing we teach. Students need a place to start; something they can grasp and understand and then improvise on. It's time to give the time-honored five-parter it's due.