When I started, I taught writing as I was taught. I did pull in some stuff from college, like awesome 5-3-1 rubrics with points and weights and six-trait writing. Heck yeah. But accordion style paragraphs? Yep. Fact/Quote/Shocking statement hooks? Uh-huh. Five paragraph formulaic writing? Oh yes. Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes.
I mean, I made this whole detailed outline students would fill out with complete sentences, and then all they'd have to do is string it together. I was convinced this outline could slay poor organization and vanquish it forever. But we just broke up. It's okay. I was the breaker-upper, not the breakee.
Because when we first got together, I had this image of a graph in my mind. It came from a teaching writing class in college, so I don't feel too bad about this. But the idea was that students had to start writing with a formula and then through experimentation could move away from the formula into more independent and innovative styles.
And maybe formula to a certain extent is good. If students are writing a literary analysis essay where they're quoting a text, they should know that quoting evidence as the first or last sentence isn't typically done. Maybe even give them a formula for the body paragraphs: transition, main idea, set-up the quote, quote, explain the quote, restate main idea/transition. Sure.
But a formula for a full narrative essay? Or placing restrictions on the number of paragraphs a student can have? Oh no you didn't2!
We all3 wrote five paragraphs essays in elementary school. And middle school. And probably, for many of us, in high school. But that doesn't fly in college, does it? Nor, I would assume, in business reports, or a firefighter's emergency response logs, or any number of other real world writing situations. Instead, the length is dependent on the information to be presented. So let's teach students how to do that.
I was headed in that direction after taking the writing workshop class at PSU last spring, but two professionals finally convinced me that Essay Outline and I had lost the love. Kimberly Campbell and Kristi Latimer presented at the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) Fall Conference, and at this year's NCTE Conference.
Here's an excerpt from their conference handout4, if my brief tirade wasn't enough to convince you5:
The Myths of the Five Paragraph Formula
Myth: The five-paragraph formula is an actual form.
The five‐paragraph essay, “speaks a logic that is important to challenge precisely because this logic perpetuates the commonsense myth that the five‐paragraph theme is an actual “form” and that “forming” in writing is simply slotting information into prefabricated formulas rather than a complex process of meaning‐making and negotiation between a writer’s purposes and audiences’ needs” (Brannon et. al, 2008,16)
Myth: The formula is just a starting point; it’s a necessary first step that supports students in moving to more sophisticated writing.
Studies indicate that for most students, they never move beyond this formula. “The FPT (five‐paragraph theme) formula may assist students with proper formatting of papers, but it appears to fall short of helping them offer a cogent discussion of their thoughts. Worse, strict adherence to the FPT may actually limit students’ development of complex thinking” (Argys, 2008, 99).
Myth: It is a helpful tool for students who struggle with writing.
Struggling writers need support in developing their ideas and finding structures that allow their ideas to be understood by a reader. “[B]ut repetitively following the same direction for writing every essay will not help these writers advance beyond a kind of ‘successful’ codependence on teachers who have agreed in advance that this sort of formulaic essay will be what they reward” (Wiley, 2000, 65).
Myth: It prepares students for standardized tests.
Although the prevalence of the five‐paragraph formula can be linked to the increase of standardized writing assessments, studies indicate that the formula does not lead to high test scores. For example, a study of the Delaware student testing program found that essays with no organization earned low scores; essays that followed the five‐paragraphformula (FPT) earned middle range scores (score of 6 on a 2‐10 scale), but every essay that earned a high score (8 or better) “used other than the FPT organizational scheme” (Albertson, 2007).
Myth: It prepares students for college writing.
College professor, Elizabeth Rorschach notes that when she reads the five‐paragraph formula her students rely on, “I find myself terribly disappointed by how shallow and unthought‐out most of the five‐paragraph essays are (2004, 17).
Myth: Teaching the five-paragraph formula is teaching writing.
Donald Murray drew on his own years of experience as a writer in asserting that the fiveparagraph formula “had little to do with the exciting, mucking‐about process of real writers (Romano, 2000, 74).
A study of high school students and academic writing confirms Murray’s assertion in finding that the “fill in the blank” structure of the five‐paragraph essay “did not allow students to do what real writers do, develop compositional goals, make plans to reach those goals, and address rhetorical and pragmatic concerns that develop during composing, or to practice making strategic decisions as writers must do” (Kane, 2005, 194‐95 in Argys 2008).
So who's my new girlfriend, and how do I teach an essay now? That is a post for next week.
1. Teaching in general, not teaching at a specific school. Go back.
2. But yes, yes I did. My first year. And my second. And my third. Go back.
3. Assumption! Go back.
4. You should read the whole thing. Really. Go back.
5. And it shouldn't have been. Go back.