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Alternatives to the 5 Paragraph Essay

While the standard essay format is a useful scaffold, it’s important to teach students other, more authentic kinds of writing as well.

October 9, 2017

There are benefits to assigning a five-paragraph essay.

Its sturdy structure provides students with a safe and organized way to express their thoughts. The introduction enables them to stake a claim with the thesis. The body paragraphs are where they can make assertions and provide the supporting details to prove their argument. The conclusion wraps it all up, reinforcing the main ideas.

Many students need that predictability. They need that familiar structure to develop a thoughtful progression of ideas.

Teachers know what to expect from five-paragraph essays, too. And that’s why they work well—there’s a clarity to them. Both the writing and the grading are neat and orderly.

But the five-paragraph essay isn’t the be-all, end-all of student writing. It’s often reduced to formulas and templates, stifling creativity and originality. A student’s voice is often masked, hidden under monotonous sentences and bland vocabulary.

There are other, more authentic ways in which students can flesh out complex thoughts, experiment with voice, and present a sequence of ideas in an organized way.

Five Ideas for Authentic Student Writing

Stephen King, in his memoir, On Writing, recognized the weight of writing. He understood that each time any writer approaches the blank page, there is an opportunity to craft something meaningful and powerful: “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed.... Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: You must not come lightly to the blank page.”

Here are five ways students can turn a blank page into a powerful expression of their mind and heart.

1. Blogs: Rather than have students write essays about the novels, stories, and articles they read during the year, have them create and maintain a blog. I’ve written about the power of blogging before. Each year blogging is voted my students’ favorite unit, and it’s been the best way for them to break free from the confines of the five-paragraph essay.

While a traditional essay can box students into a limited area, a blog allows them to express themselves as they see fit. Because of the many customization options, each blog can be unique. And that personal space creates the conditions for more authentic writing because it naturally fosters a student’s voice, style, and thoughts.

2. Multigenre research papers: A multigenre research paper communicates a central thesis through a variety of pieces composed in an assortment of genres. The genres run the gamut from a journal entry to a newspaper article, a biographical summary to a pop-up book. Here’s a great introduction to multigenre possibilities.

While each piece in the paper has its own purpose, identity, and style, the whole of the paper is more than the sum of its parts because the multigenre research paper assimilates research, advances an argument, and has an organizational structure just like a traditional research paper. What distinguishes it from its counterpart is its creative versatility. Students must not only choose the genres that best suit their purpose but also display a wide swath of writing skills as they follow the conventions of the various genres.

3. Infographics: It’s easy to look at infographics as collections of images with some facts or statistics. A better way to see them is as organized distillations of complex ideas told in a bold and powerful way.

Infographics can be created to show comparisons, explain rules or a process, show trends, present a timeline, and so much more. The best infographics don’t just display information—they take the reader on a well-crafted journey, using visuals, research, and concise writing to arrive at an enlightened conclusion. The New York Times has a useful introduction to teaching with infographics.

4. Debates: Debates incorporate a broad array of skills that are foundational to the Common Core State Standards. In my AP literature class, I’ve had my students formally debate who is the true monster in Frankenstein, Victor or his creation, and in my public speaking class they’ve tackled topical issues such as “Should college athletes be paid?” and “Has Christmas become too commercial?”

I love the way debates naturally enable students to read critically, write persuasively, listen attentively, and speak forcefully, all within the same unit. They write out opening statements and closing arguments, and must anticipate what their opponents will say and have talking points written out so that they can offer convincing counter-arguments. It’s cool to see them edit their writing, especially the closing arguments, on the fly in reaction to what transpires in the debate.

The Guardian has a brief guide to getting your students debating.

5. Parody/satire: In order to create an imitation or exaggeration of something, you must possess a keen awareness of its style, format, and effect. Parodies encourage students to transform something familiar into something comedic and fresh.

I have my students create modern-day parodies of famous poems. Using William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us,” a student created his own sonnet, “The World Is Too Much With Snapchat.” And inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” a poem about high school dropouts, a student penned “We Still Drool,” about infants still dependent on their parents.

For inspiration, ReadWriteThink has a four-session lesson plan on using the movie Shrek to explore satire.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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