Monthly Archives: November 2017

Five Paragraphs in Defense of the Essay

A couple of years ago, Brian Sztabnik published a post at the Talks with Teachers blog called “Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay”. It began by pointing out that the most popular posts at Edutopia that year had not been five paragraph essays. “Not a single one is five paragraphs. Not one has paragraph after paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence.” Instead, argued Sztabnik, they were “authentic”, and this, he proposed, provides a much better model for student writing. In response, Robert Sheppard wrote a post at the TESOL Blog, defending the genre and the exercise. It’s a perfectly cogent effort, and I agree with much of what he says, but he, too, did not write a five-paragraph essay. In this post, I want to take up Sztabnik’s implicit challenge and write a five-paragraph essay in defense of the five-paragraph essay. Like Sheppard, I want to argue that the genre does not preclude authenticity, nor stifle creativity. Moreover, the ability to compose oneself in five coherent paragraphs is a valuable skill that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and, indeed, to test.

Sztabnik’s concerns about the genre follow naturally from his concerns about standardized testing. “By its very definition,” he reminds us, “to standardize means to make something conform, to make homogenous. And since what gets tested gets taught, all originality, creativity, and authenticity has been sucked out of student writing to standardize it for an exam.” There is no question that the five-paragraph essay is a standard form and that if you’re going to test it you should teach it. But when we require a native Dane to write in English we are not demanding inauthenticity; we are offering them a new language in which to express themselves authentically.  By its very definition, we might say, prose demands conformity. But to demand that students express themselves in an essay is not to demand they stop being themselves. They are to be themselves in a particular way under particular conditions, that is all. It is difficult to be yourself while mastering a complex body of knowledge about literature, history, society, or cosmology. Coherent prose, we might say, simply helps us to overcome this difficulty without “losing ourselves” in the details.

By a similar token, when we teach music students the arpeggios needed to play the prelude in C major of the Well-Tempered Clavier we are not destroying their creativity. Rather, we are inviting them to experience a way of doing something that achieves a particular range of effects; we are giving them new skills to express real emotions. With those skills in (as it were) hand, they can be as creative or uncreative as they like. Being skilled does not make it more difficult for them to express their creativity, it only makes it easier to accomplish particular creative goals. Do we imagine that developing the skills of drawing hands and faces somehow stifles the creativity of the artist? Do we imagine that the painter is hindered by understanding how paints can be combined to produce particular colors, and colors to produce effects like the play of light on the surface of a lake? Likewise, to teach someone to compose a coherent paragraph, and then a series of them to produce a compelling argument, is not a way of restricting a creative impulse. It’s range of things we can do with such an impulse.

The five-paragraph essay, I will insist, demonstrates a valuable skill. The genre is useful in itself for the organization of short presentations or the individual parts of longer ones. It is entirely possible to write a full journal article as a series of five-paragraph essays, at least as a first approximation. Once the five-paragraph version of an argument, or part of an argument, exists, the writer, having invested a measured amount of effort so far, can decide whether further efforts to produce a more “interesting” version is needed. (Note that I do not say a more “authentic” or more “creative” version. The writer may have been as a authentic and creative as can be within the allotted time and space.) Often, a series of good, clear paragraphs is all that the occasion demands. Each will have set down what the writer believes along with the grounds on which the reader, too, should believe such things. Each paragraph will have supported, elaborated or defended a well-defined claim, affording the reader an opportunity to engage with that claim and demonstrate its rightness or wrongness. It makes the conversation of scholarship among learned people possible. It makes learning possible. Students who learn how to represent everything they know in coherent prose paragraphs will not regret the time spent developing that ability.

We can all agree that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and to test the skills students need to become knowledgeable people. Knowledgeable people, when faced with a situation that falls within their domain of knowledge, are able to make up their minds efficiently and accurately about what is going on. They are able to converse intelligently about their reasons to think one thing or another about a particular matter. And they are able to write these thoughts and those reasons down in such a way that other knowledgeable people can help them think even more effectively about the question. The five-paragraph essay demands that students organize their thoughts in a way that opens them to reasoned critique by other thinkers, similarly organized, and, as I have argued here, there’s no reason to think that these cannot be entirely authentic and creative thoughts. In order to “conform”, the students must make decisions about what to say and discover their basis for saying so. And they must then present these decisions in clear and coherent prose. In short,  the five-paragraph essay represents the very skills that it is the responsibility of schools to teach and to test.

What Makes Students Write Better?

I attended the annual symposium of the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Internationalisation and Parallel Language use (CIP), which, as always, gave me a lot to think about. There was an interesting presentation about the importance of feedback, for example, which led to a no less interesting discussion. Nina Nellemann Rasmussen and Janus Mortensen had done a survey of their writing students which found, not surprisingly, that students found it generally useful to get feedback and more useful to get feedback from their teachers than from their fellow students. Someone asked the very relevant question of whether this showed in the students’ work, or whether this was just a matter of the students’ perceptions. The study had indeed only measured the students’ own perceptions of the utility of the feedback.

This led me to propose that we imagine a large-scale randomized controlled trial. Suppose we take a cohort of 600 students and divide them randomly into three groups (A, B, C). All three are given the same lectures and the same final essay exam. All three groups are given a pre-test to set a baseline against which to measure improvement, and are given deadlines to submit work throughout the semester, but while one group (A, the control) is merely given a pass/fail on the submitted text, the other two are given feedback. In group B, the students have to give each other feedback, while in group C they receive feedback from the teacher. After the final grades are given, the final test is compared with the pre-test and are evaluated for signs of improvement. The question is, in which group will we expect to see most improvement?

I think group C will marginally outperform group B, but B and C will significantly outperform group A. It’s possible that four groups would be needed to test whether giving feedback itself improves performance. (This raises the possibility that group B would outperform group C because the act of giving feedback is actually worth more than receiving “qualified” feedback from a teacher.)

In other words, I believe feedback is important. But I’m actually not so sure that it has to be very “expensive”, i.e., that it has to be provided by teachers. I do think students value teacher feedback more than peer feedback. But I guess I’m saying I think this may be an overly generous valuation. Even if it is worth a bit more to the student (in terms of actual improvement) it may not be worth the cost of the teacher’s time given to all the students. 80% of the value, perhaps, can be provided by peers.

I actually think the point goes deeper. I deliberately gave group A submission deadlines that are not strictly necessary (since they are neither getting nor receiving feedback) in order to remove the confounder that the regular writing practice implies. (If one difference between group A and the other two is that B and C wrote more during the semester, the comparison won’t tell us anything.) Another 80% (of the improvement independent of giving feedback), I suspect, comes simply from practicing. Finally, I think a substantial proportion of the improvement can also be predicted from characteristics of the students themselves (though this would ideally have been controlled for by randomization).  This leaves writing instructors with the following somewhat unhappy hierarchy of what improvement in writing depends on:

  1. Character
  2. Practice
  3. Feedback
  4. Instruction

In other words, I think we might be spending too much time trying to figure out what to tell the students about writing, not enough effort figuring out ways of getting them to write and seek feedback from their peers. Instruction should be organized around these student-based activities. The efforts of instructors are wasted if the students are not writing a great deal and devoting time to reading each other’s work. We have to remember that writing instruction is ultimately a species of coaching. It’s not what you tell the students that matters but what you can get the students to do.