Back to Basics–or, Why We Still Teach the Five Paragraph Theme

P1010159When I was still in elementary school, my mother signed me up for piano lessons. My teacher introduced me to the piano by pointing out middle C and then demonstrating scales—as piano students for generations have been introduced to the keyboard. I didn’t have a natural talent for music or a particular desire to play the piano, and I mostly remember epic battles with my mother about practicing. I didn’t want to.  She insisted. I resisted.  She won.

I learned the basics and played The Happy Farmer at my first recital. The struggle over practicing continued, but eventually, I learned enough to play Für Elise at another recital. My mother clapped for me, but I think the piano lessons stopped not long after that performance.

I was a fledgling piano student no different than the majority of students in my classes have been fledgling writers. They began telling stories and formulating their ideas as long ago as kindergarten where they learned that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Having been taught in the early grades to write one paragraph, they next learned to write three: an introductory paragraph, a body paragraph, and a concluding paragraph. By middle school, that 3-paragraph theme expanded analogously to the 5-paragraph theme.

Yes, you can have more than 5 paragraphs, we more than occasionally have to tell high school students. And you can have fewer. Eventually, sometime during high school (depending upon their readiness or level of achievement), students come to see that no matter how many body paragraphs there are (Look at a high school research paper—there might be as many as 30!), there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The 5-paragraph theme, thus, is a scaffold to help kids recognize the basic structure of a composition. And that’s the very reason why, over the years, some people have denigrated the 5-paragraph theme and its conventions: It’s a formula, akin to paint-by-number.

(Similarly, it isn’t until late in high school that students learn that the thesis statement isn’t always the last sentence in the first paragraph—it might be the first, or buried in the middle of the introduction, or not expressed until the very end of the piece, or even not expressed at all, just implied.)

I agree that the 5-paragraph theme is a formula—one that’s often too rigidly demanded.  But, most kids need something formulaic when they first begin to write. Think of any skill we teach.  We start with the time-honored way of doing whatever it is—swinging a golf club, pitching a ball, drawing a figure, or playing the piano: Time-honored because for most of the population, that method works. It works with writing, too. Most kids leave school able to write satisfactory—at least, serviceable—prose.

When we get the basics right, we can move on and branch out and take risks and, for some few, demonstrate artistry.  But no matter what, there’s still and always a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Actually, my mother’s applause at that recital was probably born of relief. I lost my way in the middle of Für Elise. I simply blanked on what came next.  But no way was I going to quit in front of all those people. I improvised (unaware that nearly everyone else in the room had played Für Elise at some point in their lives and knew immediately what I was doing). Finally, by running the measures I did remember up the scale (and adding a few little flourishes of my own along the way), I restarted my memory and played the piece out to a satisfactory end.

Like most of our students, who never become authors, I never became a pianist—but I do still understand how the piano is played.

 

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7 thoughts on “Back to Basics–or, Why We Still Teach the Five Paragraph Theme

  1. As one of the students who learned the 5 Paragraph Essay as well as how to write a sentence from you, I can attest to the continued utility of knowing these basic mechanics. In fact, some of the writers whose work I now edit could use a refresher in the structure of narrative, rather than the shotgun evidence approach. Thank you for providing the blueprints.

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  2. Thank you, Ethan! Always good to know our lessons have a positive effect. As I recall, you were one who learned early and very well how to embellish the blueprint. I’ll never forget your essay about your suit. I used it as a model for other students for a long, long time. It’s great to hear from you!

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  3. I taught Senior Composition for a number of years in a college preparatory school. All of the kids aimed at a college education, even if a few did not stick for very long. One of the major benefits of the 5 Paragraph paradigm(with appropriate logical or chronological order) was in testing. Creative ability aside, there are times when a student needs to make sure that she or he answers the question. Students who are taking AP Biology, Western Civilization, Economics, or the SAT and ACT must show that they have an opinion and are able to convey evidence to back it up. They have to show organization and be able to communicate in a clear and scholarly manner. Timed tests are easy to misjudge and difficult to grade. God (and college admissions committees) bless the student who can present a clear thesis statement with fully developed supporting arguments, no matter what the topic.

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  4. GREAT article!! Today, I fight the battle of, “Why do we need to WRITE in science class?!?!” And much to their inevitable consternation I can spot a mistaken comma or incorrect subject/verb agreement from a mile away. I am doing my best to support my language arts teachers! Hope all is well. 🙂

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    1. Hi Ashley! Keep up the good fight! Thanks for supporting writing across the curriculum and being the good teacher you are. Thanks for reading my blog and responding. I miss you!

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  5. In second grade, it was the 5 sentence paragraph at the beginning of the year and then trying to stretch it to 3 paragraphs by the end. For some it was easier to accomplish this in prose but for others it made better sense in non-fiction. I was just happy that they were writing.

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