Five-Paragraph Essay as Life Skillz???

Having taught in high school classes under the dark cloud of the WASL, Washington state's high-stakes standardized tests, I took particular interest in this article in the Central Kitsap Reporter. Midway through the piece, this passage jumped out at me (the following emphasis is mine):
“The kids see after awhile they’re (WASL tests) all alike,” Chapin added. “Once they’ve learned the form, they just have to sit down, get organized and do it.”

Next door in Andrews’ class, students were learning how to construct a five-paragraph essay while listening to a lively lecture on how this writing formula is used by professionals in the working world.

“Having a small class aimed at helping these kids is absolutely necessary,” Andrews said.

“It’s easier to focus in a smaller class because there’s no distractions, you can get the information easier,” said Chase Connolly, a junior.
As one of our in-house rhetoricians would say: WTF?

I mean, the five-paragraph essay "helps" students produce more words in timed writing situations, it "helps" students write easily gradable stuff, and in a few ways it encompasses evidence-based argumentation—but never before today have I encountered the claim, in print, that the five-paragraph essay is a "writing formula ... used by professionals in the working world."

Now, why isn't that "lively lecture" on YouTube? (For "lively lectures" that are on YouTube, click here.)

In other possibly more important news, viewers from around Sneezopolis have been writing in to say that they liked the cough-and-sneeze-into-your-sleeve video; at least a few have taken vows to adopt new coughing and sneezing techniques. Who says a simple quicktime movie can't change the world? To unbury the video a bit, I'll post it again in a click-on format:


  1. Anonymous6:50 PM

    Hmm. Mr. Andrews seems to be the varsity baseball coach at that high school. I could be wrong, but I'm not thinking he has any freaking idea what "professional" writers do or don't do.

    I once had to teach Germans the five paragraph essay for the TOEFL. Look at me: I had and still have no freaking idea what writers do.

    Maybe I should coach baseball.


  2. You know, I've often maintained that our president follows the five-paragraph structure for his speeches. Not the five paragraphs themselves, but the logic. (Here are three arbitrary but loosely related reasons that you should believe what I say...)So maybe there's something to that claim that "working professionals" use it?

  3. Okay, I can see that, Donna. There is also the ubiquitous "tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, tell 'em what ya told 'em" built into the five-paragraph essay. (I call this the "dive! dive! dive!" Navy model of information distribution.)

    I'm just struck when I hear "you'll need this to be a fully functioning adult professional" rationales for disciplinary technologies that seem only and mainly about schooling.

  4. Anonymous1:27 AM

    I suppose another way to look at it is that most people will not be authentic writers in their personal or professional lives--writing for many jobs and purposes is simply about organizing thoughts more or less coherently so that other people know what to do, or what you think, or what you did, etc. So maybe "professional writers" in this case means "people who convey data in sentential form in commercial contexts."

    My dad was a bigwig at a big company for years and years. Actually a scientist bigwig, not a business bigwig. There's a difference there. But, as a scientist, he was always really into efficiency. Well, the Finnish part of him had to do with that too. But he disliked the idea of unnecessarily flushing out data in sentences, so he undertook and succeeded in banning sentential memo writing in the science units at this company in favor of succinct bullet points. So instead of writing:

    The data show an increase in residual tensile force of 25% compared to last year's test.

    You would write something like:

    * 2006 < 2007 25%

    And presume that the articles, verbs, prepositions, and "tensile force" context were clear from context.

    Your next challenge: show how essays can be effectively written as bullet points. :-)


  5. My Summer Vacation

    summer school = .8% OK
    tubing > camp
    camp > broken arm
    tubing > broken arm (not true when tubing with broken arm)

  6. " this writing formula is used by professionals in the working world."

    A popular trope. As if all professionals are the same, as if all professional writing situations are the same. Interesting how composition and, depending where you are, professional writing have believed in this trope for some time. No one seems to stop and ask: where, in fact, is this generic professional writing taking place? What does it look like? Who does it? "Professionals do it!" Ah-ha. I guess I'm not a professional, then. I don't write that way.

  7. No doubt. The one-size-fits all essay is made to correspond with a bogus imagining of a one-size-fits-all view of "being a professional."

    So much simplification; so much complexity lost!