Overview: The five-paragraph essay is a helpful tool — here are ideas for teaching it! Note: Contains referral links.
In one of my articles about high school writing, I shared the story of when my eldest daughter took the ACT and got a poor score on the writing portion. I was flabbergasted at the time. I read the essay myself, and it didn’t seem so horrible to me. She had great grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure — what was their problem?
I have since come to realize that the ACT (and SAT, for that matter) writing scorers are looking for a very particular type of essay — the five-paragraph essay. And no matter how well your child writes, if they don’t craft their ACT/SAT essay as a five-paragraph essay, then they are going to get a low score, too. So it’s a good idea to get your teen familiar with it before they need to take those tests.
WHAT is a five-paragraph essay?
It is a composition that is written with — you guessed it — five paragraphs: an introduction which states a thesis, then three supporting paragraphs, then a conclusion. So a five-paragraph essay is a persuasive essay, because the writer states an opinion about something and then proceeds to back it up. It follows the standard formula that we’ve all heard many times: tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em (introduction), then tell ’em (body), then tell ’em what you told ’em (conclusion).
WHY teach your kids to write a five-paragraph essay?
1) I’ve alluded to one answer to this question already — your kids will need to know how to craft a five-paragraph essay in order to score well on the writing portions of the ACT and SAT. Do I agree that it seems silly that the scorers can’t judge any other type of writing? You bet. Do I understand the myriad problems with relying on test scores for deciding a student’s adequacy for college entrance? Totally. I am not here to debate all that stuff today but just to face reality. It is what it is, y’all. Most colleges still require these tests, and if you want scholarship money for your genius, you will want him or her to do well on them.
2) I also have come to believe that the five-paragraph essay is a very valuable tool for teaching writing in general. It is short and doable, so the student feels less intimidated and more motivated. It is also possible to fit a LOT of solid writing education into the formation of a five-paragraph essay — or into several/many of them over time.
Because while it sounds simple, it is actually a little more complicated (ouch! it hurt to use that word! Because you know that I am “too lazy for complicated!”) than just throwing together five paragraphs. Within the essay the student must learn how to execute each paragraph with specific elements and literary techniques. This means that in learning how to create a five-paragraph essay, they can learn how to write WELL. They can then use that skill in all types of writing, whether it be research papers, fictional writing, lab reports, etc. etc.
Having said all this, I think I can predict your next question:
HOW do I teach my kid to write a five-paragraph essay?
In my posts Homeschool High School Writing Help and Homeschool ACT and SAT Practice, I detail what we did to help my second and third high schoolers get a better score on the writing portion of their college entrance exams than their older sister. And they both did — and they will not let her forget it, lol. Check those articles out to see the resources we used for them.
But since starting in Classical Conversations this fall, I have found out that there is another, BETTER way to tame this five-paragraph essay beast, and that is to start earlier than high school. My 12-year-old in Challenge A is learning step-by-step how to write a persuasive essay in the five-paragraph format by using the writing curriculum called The Lost Tools of Writing. And I have to say that I am very impressed with how they do this.
First, LTW uses quality, engaging literature as the basis for the content of the essays the students will write. Students find an issue in the book they are reading and form an opinion about it. This becomes their thesis statement; and events, characters, or themes in the book become their supporting arguments. Can you say “teach them literary analysis without them even realizing it?” :-)
Second, LTW assigns several essays over the course of the year, with each one being more complex than the last. The first essay is nothing more than a skeleton essay. By the third essay they have learned how to construct a thesis and find supporting arguments. Currently (in October) the students are working on finding attention-grabbing opening sentences. They will also gradually add other various literary devices such as parallelism and alliteration, among others.
While LTW is not the easiest curriculum to use (and you know I prefer that they require little prep or effort to understand — can’t claim that about this one), I have to say that so far it seems to be a very effective means to teach the five-paragraph essay. Which means that by the time #5 has reached the age to take those nasty tests, she’ll have been writing these essays for several years. Which further means that she’ll totally blow her sisters’ scores out of the water! Muahahaha…
UPDATE: LTW is great for older teens, too
Since writing this, I have seen LTW used successfully with upper high schoolers, as well. It may seem a bit basic at first, but the older students progress faster through the program and are more inventive with how they use the various elements in their essays. I think this curriculum is a great way to get ANY kid in grades 7-12 to feel better about writing.
Another solid option for older teens is WriteShop. This one won’t seem like it’s talking down to them like LTW might. Both WriteShop I and WriteShop II are amazing for high school writing, but I believe it is WriteShop II that teaches the five-paragraph essay. See my complete review of WriteShop here (includes two videos): WriteShop I & II for High School Writing.
It’s been five years since this article was originally written. The daughter who used LTW in 7th and 8th grade was preparing to take her ACT Written portion for the first time this past spring, and guess what she did? She pulled out her LTW notes! She reviewed the essay structures and the different techniques, and then she took the test.
And my prediction was correct! Her score was a 9, y’all. That’s the score that is recommended to aim for in order to get accepted to Ivy Leagues. Yup! She is not going to an Ivy League, but that’s how well the Lost Tools of Writing prepared her for that test! Woot!
So even after this many years, I’m still a fan!