Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay

How to Break Essays Up into Smaller Parts for Students?

The prospect of writing an essay can be daunting for many students. Break the 5-paragraph essay down into parts by working with an outline and writing gradually.

Few sentences inspire more dread in high school English classrooms than “we’ll be writing an essay about this book.” Because many essay writers feel intimidated by essays, assigning them with a single due date simply leaves more room for procrastination and plagiarism. Demystifying the classic 5-paragraph essay by building it gradually and using formative assessment to evaluate students’ work along the way not only makes the process more positive and helps students feel more confident about their work but also improves the quality of the final essay.

Emphasize the Thesis

Draw a courtroom analogy to help students understand the power of the thesis. A lawyer comes prepared with a central argument and evidence to support it; if she lacked either, she’d fail to convince the judge or jury of her position. In the same way, students should have a clear thesis written before beginning their essay, and they should treat the paragraphs as “evidence” to support what they’ve said.

Begin your thesis lesson by having students write argumentative essays on different controversial topics: should uniforms be required in school? What is the value of an open-campus lunch policy? Should homework be assigned over the weekend? As students debate the issues, they will begin to realize that it’s not enough to answer these questions with a simple “yes” or “no”—they’ll realize that a good thesis alludes to supporting reasons. Such a lesson lays the valuable groundwork for writing a literary thesis.

Work with an Outline

After different student theses have been workshopped in class, move to an outline. If students are unfamiliar with the general structure of an essay, mapping it visually on the board is helpful. An outline helps students structure their thoughts prior to writing and avoids the classic “blank screen syndrome”—when confronted with an empty page and few organized ideas in mind, most people resort to blabber.

A solid, detailed outline includes the following elements:

1. Thesis

2. Topic Sentence #1

  • Quotation #1 and explanation of significance/meaning
  • Quotation #2 and explanation of significance/meaning
  • Quotation #3 and explanation of significance/meaning

3. Topic Sentence #2

4. Topic Sentence #3

Encourage students to work on outlines in class and explain that a good outline cuts actual writing time in half. To help students find good, content-centered quotations, consider providing a list of key quotations or having students work together to “hunt down” quotations that help prove their thesis. It is also helpful to point out quotations that do not help prove a thesis.

Write Gradually and Edit in Class

While this process might take up more class time than simply assigning an essay one day and not seeing it until the due date, working in class helps model the writing process so students can actually see it pay off. The more teachers see of student writing along the way, the better able they are to catch errors early on, and the easier it is to grade the final piece.

From their outlines, have students work paragraph by paragraph. Perhaps students can write one body paragraph for homework and e-mail their paragraphs to the teacher prior to class, or come with printed copies the teacher can photocopy. After receiving student samples, the teacher can select a mix of exemplary pieces and those that need more work. In general, the more models students receive, the more likely they are to understand what is expected and what characterizes good writing.

Writing a paragraph, a night is manageable for most students, and editing in class each day gives them valuable input on how to improve their writing. Students can be given a small amount of points simply for completing the work on time, and this low-stakes grading frees many students to write. They will be assessed more stringently when the final product is due, and hopefully, by the time they get to that point, the daily modeling will leave no room for grading mysteries.

Encourage Creativity and Originality

Many students hate essays because they view analytical writing as dry and uninteresting. Give students opportunities to insert creative voice into their writing; paragraph openers, introductions, and conclusions are great places for such originality. Encourage the use of opening “hooks,” and give students models to work from: anecdotes, descriptions, statistics, rhetorical questions, and interesting facts. Students can also draw sentences from more creative pieces written about the book and put them to use in the analytical essay. Such creativity allows for further ownership of the essay and makes the writing process more enjoyable.

Revise and Polish

Allow students the opportunity to revise their drafted paragraphs with ample access to revision checklists and rubrics. The more aware students are of grading criteria, the better their essay will be. Even published authors continually revise, relying on editors for feedback and advice; students should be taught that this process is not only normal but also conducive to the best writing.

When students have polished essays and turned in final copies, allow time for sharing—perhaps students will be asked to share their essays with a principal or other teacher. Perhaps they will have to read a small portion of their essay aloud in class. Some kind of performance or publishing component adds validity to the essay process and again works to help students feel confident in their writing ability


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