The anti-5PE Campaign Hits the Big Time!

[Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay] is a thorough look at the research and practices surrounding the use of the five-paragraph essay, particularly as it has been employed in second language writing instruction, though I believe it speaks to all writing classrooms.

John Warner, Inside Higher Education, 5/21/19

John Warner (author of Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities) interviewed Ann Johns and me last week about our new co-edited volume Changing Practices for the L2 Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay (available from the University of Michigan Press or as a Kindle e-book). You can read the full interview over on his blog on Inside Higher Education. We had a lot of fun jointly composing our answers to his questions by email (thanks, Google Docs!), and I think we’ve set out many of the arguments we and our contributing authors make throughout the book. Our goal in Changing Practices is:

Available now from the University of Michigan Press or as a Kindle e-book

dispelling the myths of universality (everyone writes five-paragraph essays and has always written them), transfer (the training-wheel syndrome), scaffolding (it will help them later), and generalization (all students write essays in all their classes).

John takes a slightly different approach to the the five-paragraph essay in his book, viewing it as a symptom of many other problems in the US education system. I definitely recommend reading the book: he has an interesting background as a composition teacher, and he makes important points about the larger picture of writing in schools and, particularly, universities. In our volume, we’re not really trying to kill the five-paragraph essay (which I jokingly called graphicide on Twitter recently!) but rather to encourage teachers and curriculum designers to change their practices, even if that means starting by revising just one assignment from an “essay” to a genre.

Take a look at the interview and let me know what you think!

Author: Nigel Caplan

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

2 thoughts on “The anti-5PE Campaign Hits the Big Time!”

  1. It would be interesting to see you and John engage with some defenders of the 5PE. I understand that my perspective is too foreign from the US context to take seriously, but surely there must be someone worth arguing with over there?

    For example, I recently stumbled on Matt Johnson’s suggestion to subject the 5PE to genre study in his high school classroom. I get the sense Matt is generally sympathetic with your project, but he seems to be more willing to coexist with the form. He can see the value of all his students knowing what it is. So can I.

    Properly speaking, of course, the 5PE isn’t a “genre”; it’s an exercise. But, as Jonathan Mayhew recently suggested to me, it’s the shortest form of the expository essay, which is a genre. In his book, however, John suggests that writing instructors should “get out of the ‘essay’ business entirely” (p. 155), which reminds me of Adam Banks at 2015 CCCC declaring the essay “genre emeritus”.

    You jest about graphicide; I’m only half-jokingly worried about a genrecide. When John sees a 5PE he feels he is looking into the ghoulish eyes of the undead. “It needs to be retired, and by retired, I mean killed dead, double-tap zombie-style, lest it rise again.” It’s frankly dehumanizing.

    Students should obviously not be taught that the 5PE is all there is to college writing. If there are teachers and administrators who need to be told this, I’m happy to help you get the message across. But I don’t think the 5PE constitutes a genre apocalypse. Students can be taught the 5PE and to appreciate the rhetorical situation. In fact, I have found that the 5PE is an effective way to teach them specifically the rhetoric of the academic situation.

    1. Thomas, I’m not interest in an argument, but I’m happy to discuss the positions I’ve taken. The idea of having students write, analyze, and critique 5PEs is worth exploring: Chris Tardy sets out a similar assignment sequence in her excellent book “Beyond Convention” and in her chapter in our book. And she and I would both strongly agree that the 5PE is not a genre — in fact, I think it’s vital to differentiate between mode (compare/contrast, description, process, etc.) and genre. I’d also like to see less use of the term “essay” — not because there’s anything wrong with writing and assigning essays if the assignment is actually an essay, but because I see the term used reflexively to mean “any piece of student writing,” and the research shows that this can lead students to miss the intended genre.
      The problem in both our experience and in the research in the US, as we make clear in the book, is that when the 5PE is taught, it is almost always the only type of writing that’s taught. Of course, that doesn’t have to be the case, but it usually is. And that’s not good because it leaves students with a highly limited literacy.
      I understand the idea that the 5PE teaches exposition/argument, but I’ve found that you can teach all the important skills (development, argumentation, counter-arguments, focus, structure, cohesion, coherence) without ever mentioning the 5PE and without using such a strict template. But it may be possible to teach argument well in a 5PE without sacrificing a focus on content, meaning, and situation. I’ve never seen it, and our textbooks certainly don’t do it, but it’s not for me to rule out. In general, I stand by the contention that there is usually something better you can be doing than teaching the 5PE, but I don’t know everyone’s teaching context. Certainly in the intensive English program where I teach, we shouldn’t be teaching it at all, based on all the evidence.
      I also don’t use the rather provocative and emotional language of “killing” 5PEs and turning students into zombies. I know why John does it, but that’s not my style and it goes against my purpose. I learned a lovely saying a while back: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. In our book and in this blog, I’ve tried to persuade teachers to try something new, genre-based writing instruction, thus changing their practices away from the exclusive teaching of the 5PE (which is the dominant form of writing instruction in many US classrooms and programs). Every claim in our book, I believe, is backed by research and/or theory — we chose to appeal to logos and ethos over pathos! We are going to follow up with other publications that guide teachers in more depth in enactacting genre-based instruction in their classrooms. I hope that clarifies the bigger picture behind our work. Thanks for engaging! ~ Nigel.

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