Thursday, December 18, 2008

Topic: The Five-Paragraph Essay

10-second review: “We” educators do not conform to the formulaic five-paragraph essay.

Title: “The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education.” Lil Bannon, et al. English Journal (November 2008), 16-21. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary/Quote: “This format [the five-paragraph essay] is one of those school-created ‘things’ that persist, much like the ‘modes’ of discourse. They persist because they have been enshrined in textbooks and tested by the testing establishment, even after scholars in composition have documented the irrationality of their use for over 30 years.” p. 17.

Summary/Quote: “Students learn that writing means following a set of instructions, filling in the blanks. Such writing mirrors working-class life, which requires little individual thinking and creativity combined with lots of monotony and following orders. It’s obvious what training the five-paragraph essay is really practice for.” p. 18. [RayS.: We’re training the five-paragraph essay? Tsk.]

Summary/Quote: “Students who spend their primary, middle and secondary school years rehearsing the five-paragraph essay end up blaming themselves for not getting it right, or hating writing, or believing they aren’t measuring up.” p. 19.

Summary/Quote: “Students who do not conform to the five-paragraph-essay indoctrination, whose thoughts do not easily lend themselves to the five-paragraph-theme format, learn quickly that they and those ideas do not belong in that classroom.” [RayS.: How do the authors recommend that they organize the expression of those ideas?]

Comment: I’m almost inclined to think that these authors sat around a room thinking up what ideas will shock the reader most. The effect is good rhetoric, but distorted thinking.

1. The five-paragraph essay is a format, a model of organization, a model of the tried and true guide for the organization of expository material, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them.”

2. Following the model means an introduction that can be several paragraphs in length and often is.

3. The thesis is not limited to a single sentence, but can be a paragraph or more in length.

3. Not all paragraphs have topic sentences. A string of paragraphs will begin with a topic sentence, but the ensuing explanatory paragraphs might be separated for reader comfort. [RayS.: unlike the paragraphs in this article that go on and on in “writing-project-lack-of-control.” The paragraphs in this article are interminable.]

4. The final paragraph summarizes, and concludes with a memorable idea.

5. The five-paragraph essay is a model for organization; it is not an ironclad format limited to five paragraphs.

6. The authors of this article criticizing the five-paragraph model of organization use the five-paragraph model themselves in this article. It has several thesis sentences, albeit at the end of the second interminable introductory paragraph, topic sentences and an interminably lengthy summarizing paragraph.

7. For God’s sake, stop using “we writing teachers” when you mean “you” writing teachers. Don’t include me in your sweeping assertions about the five-paragraph-essay model.

8. The authors claim that the five-paragraph model is deadening for writers with ideas. Freedom of ideas is a result of teacher encouragement and has nothing to do with the organization of those ideas. RayS.

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