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PILLAI: It is time to retire five-paragraph essays

Column: Unboxed

Five-paragraph essays should no longer be the standard for students, but rather a stepping stone into more complex composition. – Photo by

It all starts with a letter. When we are toddlers, adults guide our clumsy fingers as we grip a pencil and scribble a letter of the alphabet. Once we pass this milestone, we form letters into words, which we associate with illustrations. “A” is for “apple,” “B” is for “balloon” and so on. 

Soon, we begin assembling these words into sentences that capture our thoughts. We start to understand that these sentences unlock bigger ideas, so we write paragraphs for short stories, book reports and cute back-to-school reflections titled “My Summer.”

To create a larger piece of writing with a cohesive beginning, middle and end, we learn how to write the five-paragraph essay. We compose our very first piece to respond to a prompt posed by our teacher, and from there, our writing skills usually flatline. 

Five-paragraph essays are neat vessels for us to package often nonsensical ideas into one large piece. In our introductory paragraphs, we provide some background information that the teacher already knows and write a three-part thesis statement.

Each body paragraph is an offshoot of that thesis, and while writing these paragraphs is probably the most productive exercise of this whole process, these three entities tend to be disconnected. Then we end with a grand conclusion that summarizes the whole essay (against our teacher’s protests) and offers a platitude as the last sentence. 

Zachary M. Schrag, a professor of history at George Mason University, argues that five-paragraph essays amount to building blocks or training wheels that prepare students for more complex compositions.

It is true that five-paragraph essays teach students how to develop a well-supported argument or structure their thoughts, but they limit students’ potential beyond the middle school level. Enforcing discipline rather than deep thinking, these essays create the false expectation that every nonfiction piece that students read should adhere to a rigid format. 

In reality, authors experiment with structure in news articles, books and opinion pieces. For example, they might offer their thesis statement immediately or pose a rhetorical question at the very end. If a student were to do either of these things, they could expect to discover heavy red circles and point deductions on their papers. 

Perhaps our education system is preparing students for the business world, where long and impeccably formatted proposals, emails and whitepapers are the norm. Five-paragraph essays are excellent precursors to these types of writing, which essentially amount to sentences that could be replaced by lists and bullet points. 

As a high school student, my literary analysis essays overflowed with ideas that I tamed to fit the five-paragraph or six-paragraph mold. I wanted to write about the caste system described in "The Kite Runner" and the sacrality of names in "Beloved." I wanted to discuss Kate Chopin’s commentary on the emptiness of motherhood in “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” Yet these ideas strayed outside of the prompt and therefore stayed out of my essay. 

There are many factors that make students dread writing (captious grammar rules, style guides or avoidance of writing in the first person, etc.). Five-paragraph essays often solidify that fear because we face tangible repercussions when we deviate from the template. When we enter college, some professors may tell us to toss the five-paragraph mold but our minds have been held captive by this format for so long that we become helpless. 

Suddenly, we have to adapt to a world where thesis statements do not have three points and introductions can contain more than one paragraph. This world seems frightening and confounding when it actually should be liberating. 

Rather than writing five-paragraph essays in high school and college, we should be writing essays that follow a flexible structure. Thesis statements should offer a single debatable claim without requiring students to include three supporting points. Whenever we introduce a new idea, we can begin a new paragraph.

Body paragraphs should provide reasoning and evidence to support the thesis statement, so body paragraphs could adopt any form. They could be an explanation of several steps of logic, an anecdote that strengthens the main argument, or a counterargument. 

When we write essays, we should practice using the same intuition we apply when learning new languages. To do the latter, we try saying different sentences and listening to fluent speakers to start understanding the language’s idiosyncrasies, which cannot be found in a textbook. When we write, we should experiment with new structures based on what we have already read to determine what works and what does not. 

With this mindset, we can start creating essays that actually tickle the reader’s mind and offer insight into a new or unique perspective. Those essays will be far more fun for students to write — and for teachers to read.

Preanka Pillai is a Rutgers Business School junior majoring in marketing and business analytics and information technology. Her column, "Unboxed," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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