Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

It’s here! After two years of hard work, our ultimate collection of arguments against the five-paragraph essay hit the physical and digital shelves this week. Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay (University of Michigan Press) is an edited volume that makes the case for moving away from the five-paragraph essay by suggesting classroom practices that lead to purposeful, meaningful writing instruction from elementary to graduate school.

The book started out as a popular panel at TESOL 2017, but it was a much more complex process than just writing up the papers we presented. We expanded the scope, both in terms of authors and topics, and really focused on the changes we recommend in practice. We wanted to write this book not only for the anti-5PE choir (in which we all sing loudly) but also for teachers and administrators who are hesitant about or resistant to these practices or who sense that the five-paragraph essay is inadequate but aren’t sure what to do instead.

As Ann Johns and I wrote in the conclusion, we don’t expect this one book to be the death knell of the five-paragraph essay. We need new textbooks and teacher handbooks (we’re working on both – watch this space!). But Changing Practices is an important step forwards, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done here and thankful for the amazing authors who contributed to the volume.

You can read more about the book, including the table of contents on my website, and purchase the book directly from the publisher or as a Kindle ebook.

What do you think? Write a comment or contact me to follow up!

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

6 thoughts on “Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay”

      1. One of our goals is to get the book into the hands of the people who mandate the 5PE. We don’t think they’re bad people or bad teachers — the (misuse) of the 5PE most often stems from a genuine desire to help students, but they are mistaken.

    1. “What I have lived for,” Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography (1951).

      Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

      I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.

      With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

      Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

      This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

      ________ Wretched? Really? Something is wrong with your understanding of the meaning of “wretchedness,” or something has gone wrong with your understanding of well-written prose.

      1. Thanks for sharing this piece — although I can’t imagine you’re suggesting that this is typical of 5PEs that our students are taught or produce! The fact that an excerpt from Russell’s autobiography has 5 paragraphs and makes three points does not mean that this is the only — or even a desirable — form to teach. I could post countless pieces of good writing here that are clearly not five-paragraph essays: the existence of a single counter-example is hardly a license to continue the status quo of teaching a simulacrum of real “essay” writing. As you’d see in our book, the issue isn’t the “essay”, not is it the number of paragraphs: it’s the reduction of all writing to a supposedly universal form and the lack of awareness of situation. Neither of those apply to Russell’s essay but they certainly apply to every pedagogical implementation of the 5PE I’ve seen.
        But again, thanks for sharing a rare example of some sort of 5PE in the wild. (There’s another one in the musical “Hamilton” that Chris Tardy analyzes in her chapter!)

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