Taming the Beast: ELLS and the Five-Paragraph Theme

P1040079The question came from an English teacher at the conclusion of an after-school workshop I’d conducted at one of the high schools I serve: Why do my ELL students have trouble writing essays in English (besides having a limited vocabulary)?

One of our students from Mexico, who had just spoken to my colleagues about the ways in which teachers can help English Language Learners navigate the culture of an American high school, unlock the English language, and facilitate learning the content of their classes, attempted to describe the difference between writing an essay in school in Mexico and writing an essay in English class here in America. “Well,” she said, “we have more like summary.” Considering her current limitations in English, she did pretty well, but had she known the term “five-paragraph theme,” she might have been more precise.

The question rang a bell with me, though, and I remembered a session I’d attended in 2004 at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference in San Francisco where the message from the speaker was this: The written discourse pattern in Mexican Spanish is different from English. We need to explicitly teach our ELLs the organizational pattern of written English.

A few days after my workshop was over, I went on an internet search to find the scholarly work behind that 2004 statement, and aided by our high school librarian, whose help was indispensable, uncovered the research that informed it. I’d tucked the information away 11 years ago because, unlike the states on the edges of our country, my district in rural Indiana had a tiny ELL population in 2004 and no program at all for these students. I myself had no ELL students at that time. I had attended the ELL  sessions at NCTE because I wanted to help my district establish such a program.

What I learned from reading the research was this: Patterns of language and the expectations for written discourse differ from country to country. That seems obvious, of course, and broadly speaking, we know it intuitively because of any cross-cultural experiences we may have had and academically because of the linguistics classes we took in college.

However, what I wanted to know were the practicalities: the precise differences between written discourse in English and written discourse as learned in school in Mexico—or, even deeper, in the pattern of social discourse generally in Mexico. The author of the article is explicit about those differences but cautions that the study is limited to Mexican Spanish and studies in secondary schools in Mexico. Puerto Rican Spanish, for example, shares some characteristics with Mexican Spanish language patterns but is not entirely the same. Furthermore, the characteristics of written Spanish demonstrated by Hispanic students born, raised, and schooled here in the States are not the same. The research article addresses the discourse patterns of secondary students in Mexico. But that’s entirely relevant to my colleagues: In my district, few of our ELL students are from anywhere else but Mexico, and many of them come to us as high-schoolers or middle schoolers. Thus, the findings reported by the researcher are pertinent to my district and my colleagues.

 So here’s what I learned. (If I spoke Spanish myself, perhaps I’d have known all this, but I don’t, so the specifics were revelatory.) In written Mexican Spanish, the vocabulary tends to be “fancy” and “flowery”; the tone, “formal.” Sentences are generally longer than English sentences, often characterized by what English teachers would mark as run-ons—that is, two sentences joined by a comma (i.e., comma splices). The long sentences these students produce in English may seem like a jumble of compound-complex constructions, the word order may seem unusual to an English teacher, and the ideas, repetitious. That’s because an acceptable sentence pattern in written Mexican Spanish is to state an idea, follow it with a comma, and then repeat the idea using synonyms. There may be frequent or lengthy deliberate digressions, following which, the writer brings the reader back to the main topic. English teachers would mark such a digression as “off-topic.” It doesn’t adhere to the organizational pattern we teach in most American schools—introduction, three supports, and a conclusion (in short, the five-paragraph theme), pictured here in my favorite, definitely irreverent, graphic by Boynton. I call it “The Beast.”

Boynton's Beast
Boynton’s Beast

Such an essay would be unusual in written Spanish in Mexico because the writer’s mission is more likely explanation than an evidence-based essay in which the writer enumerates his points. In essays in secondary schools in Mexico, according to the research, students rarely use enumeration (e.g., 1, 2, 3; first, second, third; at first, then, finally) as an organizational strategy. In short, what constitutes a logical essay is different in Mexican Spanish than it is in English.

On top of all that, English speakers tend to be blunt and to the point. We are linear in our presentation of information.  Spanish-speakers, not so much. In fact, following a straight-line way of organizing information can be interpreted by Spanish speakers as rude. So, a Spanish-speaking student writing in English could be struggling not to offend—especially difficult if you have a limited vocabulary and little understanding that the five-paragraph theme approach is the preferable style in English. Furthermore, the researcher pointed out, direct and unelaborated prose in Spanish can be dull; such a writer can even sound childish. Having internalized that, Spanish-speaking students from Mexico could be struggling not to be boring or sound juvenile. They might not realize that their English teachers would applaud brevity and welcome direct statements.

For English teachers, the message is straightforward: It is extremely important to explicitly teach the structure of English composition to our ELL students: i.e, the five-paragraph theme format–or, if they are younger, the five-sentence paragraph. Scaffolds for this format abound, and providing a simple worksheet for organizing information might be more powerful than one might think in terms of supporting ELL students.

Of course, English teachers have been offering graphic organizers and outlines for this kind of writing for as long as I’ve been in the classroom and probably for years before that. It’s nothing new. What we may not know, especially if we don’t speak Spanish, have never been to Mexico, or haven’t thought about it, is how important it is to be explicit. To compare and contrast the written discourse conventions of English and Mexican Spanish for our ELLs, to be clear about our expectations, and to analyze their written work, looking (if they are from Mexico) for these particular differences and pointing them out. Not because the five paragraph theme is better or that it is always the best way to express ideas, but because the ability of ELLs to communicate in the format that is widely taught and widely expected in this country is paramount for their success.

Our ELLs may not be from Mexico. We may not know the precise variations from English that their language conventions dictate. Nevertheless, just as we know that there are cultural differences from country to country, we need to recognize that differences exist in discourse patterns, too. We need to remember that it takes a long time to unlearn a pattern you’ve been taught from an early age. If a student doesn’t “get it,” even after several tries, the problem is not a deficiency. The problem is unlearning what’s been second nature. Writing reveals patterns of thought; those don’t change overnight.

So, no matter how you feel about the five-paragraph theme (and English teachers either love it or hate it–in both cases, for good reasons), it’s a scaffold for writing that will help non-native English speakers understand the way written discourse is structured in English. Like all scaffolds, it can gradually be removed, but for beginners and for ELLs with low English proficiency, it can be the support that enables success.

Help your students tame the “Beast.” Here are some links to useful graphics and outlines that you can use to scaffold the five-paragraph theme:

https://goo.gl/mNiYK3  (Many graphics)

https://goo.gl/2MQN47 (Many worksheets and outlines)

Read the original research:

Montano-Harmon, M. 1991. Discourse Features of Written Mexican Spanish: Current Research in Contrastive Rhetoric and Its Implications. Fullerton, CA: California State University.



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