For years, English professors who taught incoming college students have bemoaned the five-paragraph essay. You know the one I mean: an introduction that introduces three main points, followed by three paragraphs reiterating those three main points, and then a final paragraph restating those three points. It’s perhaps a good exercise for inexperienced writers to learn to organize their thoughts, but it continues to be taught long after it’s served that purpose. Further, it’s possibly the world’s most boring thing to read. I take that back–probably user agreements are the most boring:
This User Agreement (this “Agreement”) is a legal agreement between you and Happy Reader Communications, Inc. (“Happy,” “we” or “our”) providing, among other things, the terms and conditions for your use of the Happy Reader sites, (collectively, the “Service”)…
Yet the five-paragraph theme is a close contender. I love cartoonist Sandra Boynton’s classic depiction: Boynton 5 paragraph theme
The real problem isn’t really this essay’s ability to suck the life out of any topic. Instead, the five-paragraph essay is miserable because nothing of interest can happen it. By the end of the first paragraph, the reader knows everything that the essay offers. There are no surprises. Imagine if Game of Thrones began with a synopsis telling us when and how each of our favorite characters was going to die. Moreover, the format of the essay makes it hard for the reader to avoid huge, unsubstantiated generalizations, such as “Since the dawn of time, our ancestors huddled in a cave despised the five-paragraph essay” or “I think it’s safe to say that everyone, from the smallest preemie in its isolette to that 115-year-old Japanese woman who was just in the news, hates the five-paragraph theme.” And those are just two of the problems with this form of essay. And it’s not the only form of poor writing that K-12 education sometimes encourages.
Why are bad approaches to writing sometimes taught in high school? Teachers presumably want to offer the best caliber of education possible, but they are hampered by some constraints they can’t control. Of these, the most pernicious is standardized testing. Standardized testing depends upon standardized formats, and teachers who want their students to excel on those tests need to encourage their students to master those formats. With writing, that means getting students to produce something with attributes that can be graded mechanistically. And students good at pinpointing those attributes can achieve high scores even if the actual content of the writing itself is ridiculous. Consider the following example:
The author of this classic work was not a student but Les Perlman, an MIT professor on a crusade against standardized writing tests. The automated grader at ETS gave this essay a perfect score. And what does Perlman think about the five-paragraph essay? According to a piece by Joanna Weiss at the Boston Globe, “it’s a staple of what Perelman calls ‘McLearning’—easy to evaluate and master, and not especially compatible with actual thinking.”
You can read Perlman’s essay writing tips for students here: http://www.actoutagainstsat.com/essay-tips.pdf