The Five Paragraph Essay – a Personal History


I was a freshman in high school before I heard the phrase “five-paragraph essay.”

My freshman English teacher, Mrs. Rinderle, asked us about our experience with the form.  All she heard was crickets.  We had never written a five-paragraph essay before.  The majority of us had gone through the Catholic school system, attending one of two Catholic K-8 schools in the county.  None of us knew what Mrs. Rinderle was talking about.

Mrs. Rinderle, a first year teacher, was aghast.  How could all these honors students, who had received what was supposed to be a top-notch private school education, not know how to write a five-paragraph essay?  It had to be remedied.  For the next several weeks, we worked on structure, following the formula for introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

What out teacher failed to realize and failed to ask, was that we had been writing multi-paragraph essays for years.  We knew how to write, had won essay contests and speech contests, proved over and over again that we could supply a solid thesis and line of reasoning in our writing.  But all Mrs. Rinderle was concerned about was out ability to fit what she felt was the standard form of an essay.

After freshman English, I pretty much forgot the five-paragraph essay existed.  I moved on to higher Englishes and majored in Literature, never thinking about that form again.

Then, I became a teacher – a teacher in the age of FCAT.  Suddenly, not only was I re-introduced tot he five-paragraph essay, I became a slave to it.  The goal, I thought, was to teach the students to pass the FCAT, which preferred a five-paragraph response.  As the backlash against FCAT gradually led to its replacement with the Florida Standards Assessment, the test writers also recognized a need to eschew the dreaded five-paragraph essay.

But something so deeply ingrained in teachers is hard to dig out.  Common Core, the predecessor to the Florida State Standards, were first introduced to English Language Arts teachers in 2010, and one would hope that by 2017 my high school juniors would be coming to me no longer chained to the five paragraph requirement.  Instead, I receive a “fusillade of question marks” (Carson) from students asking me how many paragraphs they need to write, and panic in their eyes when I answer “how ever many you need to to answer the question.”

There are growing pains with any new system, and hopefully one day I can simply write the phrase “multi-paragraph essay” without the term leading to panic and confusion – or better yet, just ask them to write an essay, having faith that they know that all complete thoughts should be a separate paragraph.  For now, however, I take each small victory as it comes – when I get an exceptional three paragraph essay, or a beautifully done six paragraph one.



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