This post answers the question "What is or is not an essay?" posed by a local bookstore for a contest. I submitted an entry not to win (which I did not), but rather because this question reminds me to re-examine the writing assignments commonly given to students in the US education system. As educators, we must continuously ask "is this (still) working?" Here's my entry:
"5" is not a Magic Number.
Ever since I learned how to write a 5 paragraph essay in high school I have bemoaned its existence. I wondered about its purpose and its attraction for teachers. Did it provide teachers with a simple answer to give a student when their millionth student asked them about the length and format of their paper? Did "5" sound long enough but not too long? The 5 paragraph essay includes one introductory paragraph, 3 supportive example paragraphs (which support the thesis stated in the introduction), and a concluding paragraph. What is so magical about this structure? It certainly will not improve the quality of a student's essay.
Currently, most high school students will learn how to write a 5 paragraph essay and will continue writing in this genre if they attend college. However, training students to stick to 3 examples will not prepare them for graduate school or future jobs. Neither require the mastery of the 5 paragraph essay. Students writing process may be affected by their fixation on "3" examples. The fixed and confined structure may affect their research, reflections, analysis, and conclusions. If a student can present a convincing argument with 2 examples or needs 6, why not? How much time do teachers feel they must spend on teaching students this form of writing when this time could be used for other types of writing?
"5" tries to fit student's thinking and writing about a subject into a neat, little box of "5". What a shame to miss out on a student's words because they went over "5".