32 The Training Wheels Need to Come off of the 5 Paragraph Essay

Mallory Helmes

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably learned how to ride a bike. Before getting on said bike you probably have fond memories of your parents trying to strap a helmet that you didn’t want to wear onto your head and then when they brought out the elbow and knee pads you really lost it. They then probably placed you onto a bike that was adorned with training wheels and let you fly down hills and whip around sharp corners until one day they were like ok now time to try without the training wheels. You then probably proceeded to fall off of your bike multiple times scraping your knees, wishing you hadn’t fought the knee pads, until through trial and error you eventually got the hang of it. But why did you have to endure the many scraped knees in order to finally master riding a bike? It’s because you didn’t learn what was truly needed to ride a bike in the first place.

Those training wheels on your bike taught you how to use the pedals but they never taught you the balance that was needed in order to keep yourself steady while riding. If you couldn’t master the steadiness that was required, then oops down you went and the knowledge you had of how to work the pedals turned out to be essentially useless. Similar to the five paragraph essay format that we learn in school, it can start out to be useful like a pair of training wheels, but as time goes on the format doesn’t teach you what you truly need to know outside of a classroom setting.

The wheels of the 5PE go round and round

The 5 paragraph essay (5PE) is something that we are all probably too familiar with but just in case you needed the refresher the format of the 5PE is: Introduction paragraph which always includes a thesis statement, three body paragraphs that support the ideas presented in your thesis, and a conclusion paragraph; the pretty little bow that ties everything together.

Most defenders of the 5PE would argue that the format is a way to provide students with a foundation that they can build upon. Josh Boldt, who teaches writing at the University of Georgia, explains “The five-paragraph essay isn’t all bad. The value lies in its usefulness as a teaching tool and as an entry-level organizational strategy for young writers. It works great as a foundation upon which students can later build. Incorporating outside research, crafting topic sentences, and using transitions are all strengths of the format.” The metaphor of laying down a foundation or building a house is an idea that is popular among 5PE defenders. Byung-In Seo, a teacher who works with remedial students, uses the metaphor of building a house to share her support for the format. She explained that providing these students with an organized format not only allowed them to then make use of their creativity but also allowed them to excel in writing and reading. It is true that the 5PE can be an excellent set of training wheels in which students can get started out on but, when do the training wheels finally come off when it comes to writing so students can succeed outside of the classroom?

Writing in the real world, it’s like going down a hill blindfolded

The first time that the 5PE format starts to dissolve is when students enter college and the dissolving only grows from there. While college professors have abandoned their training wheels a long time ago, you’re still riding with them because you don’t want to fall off of your bike. No teacher has taught you how to balance on your own yet. Josh Boldt (mentioned in the last section) further explains that while the 5PE format does have it’s strengths he has seen firsthand how suppressive the format can be for his students. “I’ve had students ask which points should be cut in order to trim the body paragraphs down to the requisite three. I’ve also seen many page-long paragraphs jammed full of topics, a clear sign that the student is trying to force the information into the proper formulaic structure.” Kim Zarins, professor at Sacramento state, calls herself a “survivor of this form” and expresses how she feels that the 5 PE is “fatally flawed” and takes away from students’ voices. If it is known that the 5PE format dies the moment you leave the classroom then why is it a method that is still being used today? Why are students made to believe that the training wheels that they have grown so accustomed to will always be there to catch them if they fall? Tricia Ebarvia, a high school teacher, was able to provide some insight into these questions.

One reason that Ebarvia provided for why students keep on the training wheels for so long is because when it comes to grading the 5PE it makes life easier for teachers, “It’s much easier to check if a student’s essay fulfills a template than it is to approach each student essay as its own unique piece of writing, with its own form, structure, purpose, and voice.”

Ebarvia also admits that the 5 paragraph essay was all that she knew when she began teaching therefore, she was a big advocate for enforcing it in her own classroom, “For years, I taught the 5-paragraph essay to my ninth-graders. And I was good at it. I think one reason I taught it for so long was because it was all I ever knew as a teacher. Let’s face it, teacher preparation programs don’t generally do a good job at teaching writing instruction. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my graduate program, and while I learned a lot about education as a whole, two methods classes aren’t enough to teach anyone about what it really means to be a writer or to teach writing to others.”

Of course, I have no experience in being a teacher and having to deal with the task of grading but I can understand how having students writing in the same formulaic response would allow for more efficient grading for teachers. I also can understand teaching what you know. If I was told my whole life that the sky was purple then I would teach my students that the sky is purple. But easy grading techniques and not exploring other options are allowing generations of students to ride around blindly until it’s too late for them to see the errors of the ways in which they have been taught. It is also creating generations of students who are lacking creativity.

An essay written on a ballet slipper

We will be taking a brief intermission from the training wheels metaphors to bring you the very real example of an essay that was written on a pair of ballet slippers. This example is brought to you by Jody Shipka and before you ask no, I do not have any affiliate codes to give a percentage off on a pair of ballet slippers.

In 2001, Shipka hosted a workshop called “Writing in Many Modes: Writing as a Way to Learn.” At this workshop she showed an array of texts that included “print-based texts, texts featuring words and images, as well as object-argument or 3-D texts.” She encouraged participants to ask questions throughout the workshop but it wasn’t until she brought out a pair of ballet slippers where a student had written a research-based essay on them, that someone finally asked a question. “A teaching assistant in the history department, interjected, ‘I have a question. So where did she put her footnotes? On a shirt?’” Shipka stated that this question was not really a question but instead a way for this man to show his discomfort with the way this text was presented. She further revealed that this was not the first time the ballet slippers received this kind of reaction. Some examples of reactions included: “How is that college-level academic writing?,’ ‘How can that possibly be rigorous?,’ or ‘How can allowing students to do that possibly prepare them for the writing they will do in their other courses?’”

The pink ballet slippers

The reason why I bring up this example is because it perfectly demonstrates the idea of a student showcasing their creativity and then that creativity being shut down by other educators. It not only proves the discomfort of creativity but also just how much value is placed upon structure and format. The 5PE teaches students conformity and that there is only one right answer when responding to something. This does not translate into a real world setting where there are almost always multiple solutions to a problem. Tricia Ebarvia (mentioned in the last section) stated that she was guilty of giving her students templates to write in causing her to become a victim of her own success. “Fit your ideas into this fill-in-the-blank, I encouraged them. No wonder when I started to teach 11th and 12th grade students that they struggled with writing and thinking beyond what the teacher required. They relied on the teacher to tell them what to do and how to do it. And generally, they produced writing that fit the criteria I outlined. I became the victim of my own success.” I remember the infamous word webs that my teachers would assign to me before I was allowed to begin my writing. Your focus would be circled and placed in the center of your paper. You then would draw lines outward from the circle with your main points and ideas that were supposed to map out everything you were about to write. I remember being frustrated with this technique when I was younger thinking why can’t I just start writing now? Why must I use this template in order for my writing to be good? I eventually gave myself over to the web getting trapped within it and was drained dry of thinking about the creativity that would help myself get out of it.

In order for students’ creativity to flourish we need to move away from always using the rigid 5PE format and show them that there is more than one way to solve a problem. That a template organizer or a word web can be helpful but is not the only way that good writing can be produced. That students can be creative and maybe write a whole essay on a pair of ballet slippers.

So now to answer the question that this essay has been leading up to all along…

When should the training wheels come off for the 5 paragraph essay?

The truth is, I don’t know. This isn’t an exact science where I can say at this age the training wheels of the five paragraph essay must be taken off and teachers must start teaching you how to balance on your own, because technically even though those training wheels weren’t teaching you exactly what you needed to know they still helped you learn to ride the bike didn’t they?

Kristy Olin, who is a high school english teacher, for instance believes that the five-paragraph essay format is useful for elementary school students but she believes once they enter sixth, seventh, and eighth grade that teachers should start to break away from the format. Hogan Hayes, who teaches first year composition at Sacramento State, believes that responsibility falls onto the college professors to explain to their students the reason why they have always written in this format is because of the large number of students and grading their previous teachers had. Meanwhile, Stacey Shubitz (mentioned in the last section), states “If my 2020-self could provide some professional development to my early 2000s-self, I would encourage students to break from the five-paragraph structure. Just because two pieces of evidence are related doesn’t mean they should be in the same paragraph!” In Shubitz ‘journey to break the mold of using the 5PE she even created a chart listing reasons on when to start a new paragraph in an essay.

As you can see there is no single correct answer to this question and the opinions of the 5PE format will always vary, but I can at least share with you what I feel is the correct answer. After doing all of this research and grasping a better understanding of what the 5PE format is, I have come to the conclusion that the 5PE is a bittersweet format. In almost every article that I have brought up the authors have mentioned at least once how the 5PE can be a useful foundation for students even if they were arguing against it. This means that while this format possesses negatives it also has positives. So when do we take off the training wheels and learn to balance? I don’t know if we really ever do. Obviously this essay does not follow a 5PE format, it has subheadings and pictures and the paragraphs break when my thoughts do. But still, having that foundation of the 5PE has helped me in understanding how to introduce a topic, how to transition from one paragraph to the next, and how to conclude a piece of writing. It is my growth as a student and writer that has allowed me to break this mold and understand that I can write an essay that has elements of the 5PE but not be exact to the format. With this being said I do not think that the 5PE is something that needs to become extinct but instead needs to be explained and understood by students that there is a time and place for the format but it’s not always needed in every response they write.

In order for students to understand this, it is up to teachers to introduce different types of writing into students’ lives while also allowing them to experiment with these different styles. Especially as students grow learning how to write in the style of a resume, or trying out journalistic writing, writing a cover letter, writing a paper where they can write in first or second or third person, or even writing an essay like this one where there isn’t really much structure I was just assigned this prompt and I let myself carry it from there, I think will allow students to benefit greatly and allow for writing to seem like less of a chore. Students, bring up this topic to your teacher and see if you can change their mindset. Teachers, be proactive and start instituting this change for the benefit of your students. You don’t have to throw out the 5PE, just explore and let your students know that there are other options out there. That it is ok to leave the training wheels on and use them as needed but that learning to balance is what will allow you to ride that bike all over town.

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Good Ideas About Writing by Mallory Helmes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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