How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

At the core of John Dewey’s pragmatism and progressivism is Dewey’s contrarian view of “scientific”—the warranted assertion [1]. For Dewey, and in the context of teaching and learning, a warranted practice would be based on a substantial, diverse, and appropriate body of evidence, including how theory looks in the unpredictable real world.

Although the term “best practice” is much sullied, the rightful use of that term certainly approaches Dewey’s vision for education—how we practice in daily teaching what we are able to know from a range of evidence from experimental/quasi-experimental quantitative research to classroom-based action research.

However, Dewey’s faith in scientific education as warranted practice suffered from his own skepticism about prescriptions, templates, and mandates; Dewey viewed education as a perpetual experiment and refused to dictate for any classroom what he discovered as warranted for his classroom.

As a result, in the early twentieth century and throughout the history of universal public education, progressivism has been rarely practiced but often vilified and misunderstood.

Even during the accountability era when prescriptions and mandates have become the norm, some have sought ways to promote “best practice” in the Dewey tradition of warranted practices—offering what teachers should increase and decrease in their practice.

But probably the best example of Dewey’s warranted practice emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the National Writing Project (NWP) and the call to teach writing authentically, to merge the practical experiences of writing with writing instruction.

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Former NCTE president Lou LaBrant wrote:

By the term “creative writing” we are, however, emphasizing the degree to which an individual has contributed his personal feeling or thinking to the sentence or paragraph. This emphasis has been necessary because too frequently the school has set up a series of directions, to this extent limiting what we may think of as the creative contribution: the teacher names the topic, determines the length of the paper, and even sometimes assigns the form. For the purposes of this paper I shall, perhaps arbitrarily, use the term “creative writing” to include only that written composition for which the writer has determined his own subject, the form in which he presents it, and the length of the product. (p. 293)

As a true progressive, LaBrant made this argument in 1936—about four decades before the rise of the NWP and workshop approaches to writing instruction.

Not to be hyperbolic, but no one listened to LaBrant, and despite a brief bit of momentum by the NWP, the accountability era effectively killed authentic writing instruction.

Thus, the 5-paragraph essay, writing templates, prompted writing, and scoring rubrics have mostly dominated writing instruction in the U.S. for about a century.

Throughout, however, a substantial body of evidence from researchers, scholars, and practitioners has concluded that the 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing remains efficient but corrosive to writing goals in the following two ways:

  1. The 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing produces bad writing and (even worse) bad (and lazy) thinking—the entire world of expression and thought reduced to making grand claims supported by three points.
  2. And despite advocates’ claims that the 5-paragraph essay is an entry point or foundation for authentic writing, the evidence shows most students never make the transition.

Ironically, Dewey’s resistance to templates and prescriptions resulted in his being mostly ignored but also was a harbinger for the enduring allure and negative consequences of templates and prescriptions.

Many English teachers are not writers themselves, and have had little or no experiences as students in writing workshops or authentic writing experiences.

The 5-paragraph essay approach to teaching writing, then, is efficient and lends itself well to assigning writing, responding to writing, and grading writing—all of which have supplanted both authentic writing goals and Dewey’s call for warranted practice.

During the accountability era, teachers are under enormous and ridiculous pressure to have students score well on very bad tests, and are increasingly placed in classroom environments that do not allow authentic practice. Often, when teachers embrace efficiency over authentic, warranted practice, we should not blame the teachers as much as the larger contexts within which they work with little to no professional autonomy.

As a public school teacher throughout the 1980s and 1990s in South Carolina where we embraced accountability, standards, and tests early and with missionary zeal, I taught in and struggled under these reduced circumstances.

But I also contend that we can commit to warranted practice, we must commit to warranted practice—and the consequences will be positive for students and likely even within the reductive world of standardized test scores.

Instead of templates and prompts, I invite students to investigate and interrogate a wide variety of texts, to read like writers.

With each text, we try to determine the type of writing, developing genre awareness and building a toolbox of names for types of writing. Next, we identify the conventions that define that type of writing before asking how the writer both conforms to and also writes against those conventions.

We stress that writing is about purposeful decisions—not rules, or templates.

We also begin to highlight what modes (narration, description, exposition, persuasion) the writer incorporates, where and why.

We also identify the focus of the piece (I do not use “thesis”) and explore how the writer’s craft accomplishes that.

Instead of introduction, body, and conclusion, we analyze openings and closings as well as claimsevidence, elaboration (explanation, synthesis/connection, transition).

And again, we are building the students’ writer’s toolbox—but I do not do the writer’s work for the student in the reductive ways the 5-paragraph essay does.

Ultimately, the 5-paragraph essay fails as warranted practice because templates eradicate all the decisions writer make, and students are simply practicing how to be compliant—not to be writers.

The practitioner’s voice calling for authentic writing instruction reaches back a century, and we remain in a contentious battle between traditional and efficient practice versus authentic and warranted practice.

Today, those of us calling for the long overdue end to the 5-paragraph essay and arguing instead for warranted practice are echoing LaBrant from 1947, lamenting:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods. (p. 87)

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. …[L]et us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

 


[1] See from Dewey ‘s Epistemology: An Argument for Warranted Assertions, Knowing, and Meaningful Classroom Practice, Deron R. Boyles:

In place of such a traditional account, Dewey crafts a new version of epistemology—one that has as a key element the notion of warranted assertibility.22

Warranted assertions replace justification in the traditional syllogism while at the same time imploding the syllogism itself. Where justification served a correspondence theory of truth in the traditional account of knowledge, warranted assertions merge truth and inquiry together in such a way that correspondence to an external world is no longer the point. The point, instead, is the interdependency of truths and the processes of inquiry: the temporal satisfaction of solved problems in a world that is not set apart from the knower’s use(s) of the world or place(s) in that world. In this way, idealists and realists are misguided when they describe epistemology as way of determining knowledge.23 “Knowledge” is not the focal point of epistemology for Dewey: “knowing” is. “Knowledge” represents the end of inquiry but, according to Dewey, it is also often supposed to have a meaning of its own—disconnected from inquiry. The result is that inquiry is subordinated to the fixed end called “knowledge.”24 By “knowing” Dewey means inquiry in a world that is not static. He means inquiry into things “lived” by people. He means experimenting with solving problems such that the action entailed in the solving of problems is inquiry itself and warranted in the assertions made about the solved problem when it is solved (where “solved” is understood as temporal and a portal to further inquiry). Accordingly, in the “living” of life, problems will be faced and solved—often in serendipitous ways—such that achieving “justified true belief” (as traditional epistemology expects) is not useful. As Dewey put it:

[Warranted assertion] is preferred to the terms belief and knowledge [because] it is free from the ambiguity of these latter terms, and it involves reference to inquiry as that which warrants assertion. When knowledge is taken as a general abstract term related to inquiry in the abstract, it means “warranted assertibility.” The use of a term that designates potentiality rather than an actuality involves recognition that all special conclusions of special inquiries are parts of enterprise that is continually renewed, or is a going concern.25

9 comments

  1. Nigtingale

    When I taught college freshman English Composition, the students always wanted to know how long the essay had to be. In high school evidently the goal of most of their essays had been to fill x number of words without much concern about what they had to say or how to say it. Often by the time I had crossed out the unnecessary words, the essays might have one meaningless paragraph left. Also, I found that they couldn’t write a logical argument no matter what form the essay took.

    As a high school student, I generally disliked math classes until I took geometry where we didn’t do math problems but rather logic problems where we had prove theorems. I loved the class and did very well, but I also learned more about writing logically than I had in any English class. I used to advise all my students to take geometry to help them understand how to write logical essays.

    When my daughter was in high school, she showed me an essay that she had written and asked what grade I would give her on it. She was dismayed when I told her I would have given her an F and why. Rather than rewrite the essay, she turned it in as she had originally written it, after all it did meet the required page length. I was horrified. However, I was more horrified, so much so that I took her out of public school for a year. At a middle school in Nashville, when the students went to the library for the first time the teacher and librarian both directed the students in her class to the elementary section and told them they had to choose books from there. I didn’t believe her until she brought the book she had checked out home. Indeed, it read like a first grade primer. She, if not a good writer, was a good reader. At the time, at home, she was half way through my copy of LOLITA. I spoke to both the teacher and the librarian and both told me that all their students read on an elementary level. Such assumptions by school staff will never improve students’ abilities to read or write. They were probably absolutely bored, if not insulted, by what they were asked to read. Furthermore, generally, the more one reads well written books the better writers they become.

    When I was in high school besides our regular English text books, we were required to read one other book a week from a list for college bound students and then gave either an oral or written book report on what we read. In 7th grade we had already read Homer’s ODYSSEY, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK and PILGRIMS PROGRESS. Now students read what is considered Young Adult Fiction which doesn’t challenge the young readers as they could and should be.

    As always, I found your essay thought provoking.

      • Nigtingale

        WE didn’t do regular math problems with numbers. We would have to learn theorms and then prove them by choosing and arranging statements that would result in a proof. Geometry taught logical argument. I wish I could think of an example of something we had to prove but it has been to long. My mother used to teach math. If she has a geometry book, I’ll see if I can find an example for you. Its hard for me to explain now after more than 30 years, but my writing improved imensely after taking that one class, moreso than after any of my high school English classes. I think it was probably a lot like the Ancient Greeks study of logic.

      • Michael Paul Goldenberg

        Just letting you know that I am a skeptic on the notion that studying mathematics in terms of logical structures (definitions, axioms, theorems, proofs) is either necessary or sufficient for becoming adept at making sound arguments in natural language. The idea that “kids today are weak at writing good argument papers because we don’t stress traditional proofs in geometry like we used to” is, on my view, full of holes, and to such an extent that given that it’s often made by certain mathematicians, it undermines and defeats itself.🙂

      • Nigtingale

        Being weak in geometry doesn’t make them poor riders, but I believe being good at it can help them be much better writers. I have no evidence but my own personal experience. I do hope to offer you an example of how it helped me soon.

  2. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    I “taught” writing at University of Florida for a few years in the mid-’70s as a doctoral student in English. It drove me crazy and led me in part to realize I didn’t want to be teaching English for the rest of my life. One of my greatest frustrations was how hard it seemed to be to get students to do anything that was remotely readable. I tried to leave things loose. I didn’t want five-paragraph essays. I exposed them to Peter Elbow. Despite repeated awards from the English Dept. for my teaching, I knew that I knew nothing about teaching writing and ultimately left the field to those who (I hoped) had a better idea than I did.

    In particular, I despaired at getting students to write anything about literature (and I included movies, rock lyrics, etc., as part of that mix). I tried to use the lyrics of the not-quite-yet-famous Bruce Springsteen as a focus, but for nearly everyone, that didn’t seem to help. The biggest problem other than the predictable weak mechanics was the struggle students had to be specific, to look at anything closely, to keep their eyes and minds on the “text” as a necessary part of talking about the artwork.

    Now we have Common Core talking about things that don’t all sound so bad to me, even if I wouldn’t trust anything from David Coleman as far as I can throw a grand piano. At least from my experience, close-reading of texts is a starting point for effective, meaningful literary analysis. And I think that could be done with (some) non-fiction (consider, as a quick example, the essays of Tom Wolfe and some of the other New Journalists) effectively if students had some notion of and commitment to actually looking at text and how it works. I certainly don’t buy the silly notion (promoted by the likes of E.D. Hirsch) that there’s a single right or best reading of a given text, fiction or otherwise. But there has to be some grounding of writing in the words or whatever comprises the art one looks at.

    I learned as a freshman in college the notion of picking a single tree, not the whole forest, and pretending that there would be further opportunities to write about different trees (even though one had no plans to do so). If a writer did justice to both the tree and possible readers of writing about it, if the reader could see something s/he might otherwise not have seen in looking at the forest from which that tree was selected, then the “critic” will have done something of value and integrity. And yet, even looking at just that sort of writing with my students, they seemed to miss the point. They wanted to know the “right” interpretation, the one I believed was “the correct one,” so they could feed it back to me (in my literature classes). And in the basic composition classes, it was often worse, with students asked to write about texts of their choosing talked in such vague generalities as to say virtually nothing (and badly at that).

    Having long moved on to focus on mathematics education (where we have our own crosses to bear and sins to atone for), I still wonder how anyone manages to teach the “average” high school or college student to write just about anything at all. I feel like I’ll never really know. Your comments here are thought-provoking, and I am not surprised that there have been voices crying in the wilderness over the decades while the standards movement and the testing lunatics and all the other mind-numbing twits have undermined Dewey and his successors. It’s been little better with mathematics. At 66, I continue to be amazed at how few Americans seem willing to think much at all.

  3. Norah

    I am very much in favour of that authentic and warranted practice. There is far too much prescription in much of what goes on classrooms. We need greater flexibility. Most of us have seen similar atrocities as those described by Nigtingale. Fortunately there are some gifted teachers too. They are the ones who see their students first, and think outside the textbook.

  4. guitarsophist

    I quite agree. And Dewey has been much misunderstood.

    I have a blog post on my “Teaching Text Rhetorically” blog about the Roman six-part speech as an alternative essay model. It’s still a formula of sorts, but it has rhetorical concepts built in and it addresses opposing viewpoints, both of which are part of Common Core assessments.

    https://textrhet.com/2016/07/28/the-roman-six-part-speech-as-an-essay/

    Another post discusses using Ken Bruffee’s Descriptive Outlining process as a way to teach form by analyzing published texts and applying the same process to your own texts.

    https://textrhet.com/2016/08/11/descriptive-outlining-and-arrangement/

    Ironically, it may be Common Core that kills off the five-paragraph essay.

    I am going to put a link to your blog on my blog. It seems we are interested in similar issues.

  5. Pingback: The Five-Paragraph Essay – Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter

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