You Can Teach Writing

Drop the term, keep the pattern called

the five-paragraph essay.

You'd never it guess it from listening to some English teachers, but the term five-paragraph essay doesn't refer to documents exactly five paragraphs long. In fact, the term doesn't have anything to do with the format of finished documents.

It actually refers to a pattern for planning and developing content regardless of

  • how many paragraphs are in the final work, or
  • whether or not the final work is an essay, or
  • whether the final product is presented as an argument, a narrative, or an informative/expository text.

The five-paragraph essay pattern can even be used to plan works that are not presented as written documents.

Oddly enough, expository nonfiction writing is the place your least likely to find the basic five-paragraph essay format. It shows up most frequently in oral presentations.  Perhaps instead of blaming those five paragraphs for producing boring writing, you should be criticizing them for producing PowerPoint® presentations.

Understand what patterns do.

You may be familiar with clothing patterns, woodworking patterns, recipes, or document templates. Each of those is a kind of pattern for making certain kinds of products.

In writing, as in other creative endeavors, a pattern is a guide that can be adjusted within reason.

A pattern indicates the:

  • parts required in the finished product

  • relationships of the individual parts

  • general appearance of the finished product.

Users learn, usually through through trial and error, which pattern adjustments are reasonable and which are not.

The classic five-paragraph essay pattern

The classic essay pattern has six elements that you probably think of as the basic ingredients of expository nonfiction writing:

  • thesis statement
  • a reason or reasons for believing the thesis is true  
  • evidence to support those reasons
  • beginning/introduction section
  • middle/body section
  • ending/conclusion section

Here's how the pattern looks presented in an outline-alternative format:

The five-paragraph essay pattern laid out in a grid.
Basic 5-paragraph essay format.

The pattern is a valuable planning tool for writers.

The five-paragraph essay pattern has some five important benefits for students learning to write.

  1. It is easy to understand.
  2. It is easy to memorize.
  3. It is easy to assemble.
  4. It provides a structure that will let novice writers practice the writing process until they develop writing competence.
  5. It provides a structured way to think about nonfiction topics.

Students are likely to regard benefits 1, 2, and 3 the most valuable. However, the last two bullet points are the most important in terms of teaching expository writing.

Reasons 4 and 5 explain why the five paragraph essay has survived despite centuries of mangling by well-meaning, but misguided, English teachers — and why it's the teaching pattern you need to use today.

The pattern has additional uses for teachers.

The thesis and support pattern has additional benefits for teachers. The pattern:

  • is easy to use within disciplines other than English
  • makes creating discipline-specific writing prompts relatively easy
  • provides a structured way for teachers to plan their presentations
  • is easy for teachers to to use in planning their own writing
  • is easy to recognize in discipline-specific materials*

*Academic journals seem to attract writers who got stuck at the essay pattern stage. In an academic journal, five-paragraph essay format usually stands out like a live hog at a hotdog eating contest.

Don't say five paragraph essay.

The term essay has no meaning to the majority of people currently alive on planet Earth. Instead of the term essay, use words such as document or text. All of your students will recognize those terms, as will most of your school administrators.

The goal of expository writing is always to explain some idea, perspective, or opinion so that the reader thinks the writer has evidence to support that idea/perspective/opinion, even if the reader doesn't agree with the reasons or doesn't think they are sufficient.

Drop the label five-paragraph, too. Don't give students the impression that their goal is a quantity of words. A specific word count may restrict how much writers can say, but a word count should never to allowed to appear to be the goal of writing.

Say thesis and support instead.

Thesis and support is a descriptive name for both a pattern of writing and a process of writing. The process is embedded in the eight essential writing strategies I teach my students and am teaching you here at yctwriting.com.

It is entirely possible to use the thesis and support process as a structured way to think about a nonfiction topic without necessarily formatting the text in the thesis and support pattern.

In fact, that's what you want to have happen.

Begin by teaching pattern and process together.

When you teach expository writing, begin by having students use thesis and support to produce documents that exhibit the pattern as well as the process. That simplifies things for students.

If you try to make students use the process without the pattern initially, however, you'll have little success. Using the process without the pattern would be like trying to have a baby walk before it crawls.

You don't want to remove challenging material. You want to limit the amount of challenging material you present at one time.

Ease competent students to using just the process.

My rough guess is that 90 to 95 percent of all nonfiction writing can be done using thesis and support process and pattern: The process +pattern combination underlies most journalism and most workplace writing.

As students move beyond writing competence, give them opportunities to use the familiar thesis and support process to produce works that modify the standard pattern.

The easiest modification to build into writing prompts is having students replace some or all of the supporting evidence for a body paragraph with a narrative. The expository essay continuum suggests essay types — familiar to you but meaningless to your students — that include narrative.

Facts about the writing pattern and process

Make a point of telling students:

  • The thesis and support pattern + process combination works 90-95% of the time for writing ordinary people need to do.
  • When the thesis and support pattern doesn't work for your purpose, you'll know before you write more than four sentences.
  • The thesis and support pattern can be adjusted within reason to fit the content you need to present.

These facts rarely matter to most students, but to a few they will matter intensely. Give them a rationale for what you're teaching.

For the 5 to 10 percent of expository writing for which the thesis-and-support pattern isn't an appropriate output format, going through the thesis-and-support process will help writers see before they've written more than four sentences that their usual pattern won't work.

In all my years of teaching first year college composition, I've had exactly one student who found the topic he wanted to write about was not suited to presentation using the thesis and support pattern.

Before you ask, he made the discovery that the normal pattern wouldn't accomplish what he wanted after he had written just four sentences., and I let him to do what he had figured out would work.

What to read next

Now that you know about the slight of hand we're going to use to transform the boring five paragraph essay pattern into a useful writing process, you can learn how to teach that process, which is explained in instructional strategy 6.

If you reached this page via a search engine, you may wish to start from the beginning to see what you missed. Here are your choices:  HOME page. Instructional strategies. IS1 Teach required writing. IS2 Aim for competence. IS3 Align objectives to goal. IS4 Plan 3/4 point finish. IS5 Teach 1 writing pattern. IS6 Teach 1 writing process. IS7 Individualize remediation. IS8. Do daily writing practice. IS9 Give fast feedback often. IS10 Require full documents. IS11 Assess for competence. IS12 Wait for writing skill.

Content on this page was first published 2008-04-12 by Linda Aragoni on you-can-teach-writing.com. She posted this version to yctwriting.com on 2018-01-01. 


Terminology trouble?

A glossary on this site lists terms that bewilder students (and some teachers). It suggests alternatives that don't create as much confusion.

You can access the glossary from the FAQs page or from a link cleverly titled Glossary at the bottom of each site page.

If you run across any terms at this site that don't seem to mean here what you think they mean, the glossary is a good place to see if I'm using them in a specialized sense.