There is quite an ongoing debate about the 5 paragraph essay. Is it a good thing to teach? Is it stifling young writers’ creativity? Does it teach real writing?

As for me, I started out by loving the 5 paragraph essay: It was predictable, easy to use and so formulaic that I could write a paper in no time at all. My first few years of teaching I taught it or some form similar to it depending on the grade level I was teaching: second graders with 5 sentence paragraphs (topic sentence, 3 supporting detail sentences, 1 closing), sixth graders with 3-5 paragraphs.

But then, I questioned my methods. Was I becoming a horrible writing teacher as I demanded a certain number of this and that in order for students to pass an assignment? So, for a while I decided to downplay my instruction on five paragraphs and give students a looser structure where, after planning with a web, they could group their ideas and begin writing. The problem was that some kids were just not getting it. It wasn’t making sense.

It was at that point that I reminded myself about music and jazz and how it isn’t until you really know the form of something that you can truly be creative. see When You Can Make it Jazz And I remembered how learning about the 5 paragraph essay not only helped me to form a good paper, but, in a sense, set me free to explore and expand a topic.

Now, as a fourth grade teacher, I do fully explain the 5 paragraph essay and the 5 sentence paragraph, but as my young writers start to come into their own, they find their own ways to be free in those structures.

“Can I add another paragraph? Or do I need to only write 5?”
“Of course you can!”
“I don’t have that many details for this. Can I only put in two supports?”
“If it works in your piece. Let’s look.”
“I have so many things to add. Can I add them all?”
“Well, let’s see, you need 5 paragraphs. What is necessary for your paper? Can you form a whole other paragraph with some of your ideas? Or do you need to generate more information?…”

This allowance for conversations is great. And many of them come about because students know the expectations – the structure. And from there, they are free to expand their ideas. Most of all, though, it is a frame of mind I have created for myself. I have created a structure for them, but am free to push them into better writing.