Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

November 6, 2008

On Teaching: Writing roundtable

The five-paragraph essay, according to national experts, is the dominant formula for teaching basic writing. Students, particularly in high school, are taught to conform to a cookie-cutter model in their writing assignments. Students are asked to insert material into a introduction, provide a set of supporting data and present a conclusion. Critics of the model find it constraining and say it inhibits creativity, the development of the student’s voice and the act of thinking while writing.

Is this formulaic style of writing a handicap for new college students?

Or, does learning such a framework help students in the transition from secondary school-level writing to the kind of rigorous academic writing that Pitt and other colleges demand of their undergraduates?

That was the focus of a recent roundtable discussion among 15 Pitt faculty, adjunct faculty and student peers on the front lines of teaching composition in its various incarnations — tutorial, seminar, comp for professional school students, comp for international students and comp for athletes.

The discussion was facilitated by Geeta Kothari, senior lecturer in English and director of Pitt’s Writing Center, and University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

University Times: Do most students enter Pitt having been taught to write using the five-paragraph essay formula?

Ronna Edelstein: Yes, they do come with this background. One of my freshman composition tutorial students said to me just last week that in high school his teachers had equated the five-paragraph essay with the “Messiah of writing.” I just cracked up at that.

I tutor high school students in my free time. I have a student from Mt. Lebanon High School. He had this thick packet that his sophomore English teacher had given him, and 99 percent of it was on how to organize the five-paragraph theme. When I told him that probably when he gets to college he won’t be writing this way, he had a major anxiety attack, because students are very used to that.

If it becomes the only style of writing, then it’s not good. But if it’s just one tool to get the kids to know they need a thesis statement and they need supportive details, then it can lead to good writing.

Ellen Smith: It really comes in handy for many of our students. “Present your knowledge” is something I emphasize. But I think the primary objection is that the five-paragraph essay comes off as if you already know everything you’re going to say, that you’ve already done all your thinking.

In a lot of composition programs and ours in particular we really believe that the writing process is the act of thinking. You don’t really know what you think until you start getting into these quagmires that can’t be completely controlled by a monologue format. I think it’s a cognitive thing for the most part.

Ronna Edelstein: To add on to what Ellen was saying about being able to think on paper: The high school teacher is simultaneously instilling the fear of using the pronoun “I.” Because they’re so afraid of that, students are afraid to express an opinion. You’re allowed to express an opinion, and you’re allowed to argue and disagree with [an author’s] writing, as long as you validate it.

Sam MacDonald: The vast majority of the writing that people do in college and the writing they do over the course of their lives is the five-paragraph essay.

If you go to an economics class and you’re writing about bauxite imports from Guatemala, it’s supposed to be a five-paragraph essay. If you write a memo to your boss, it’s supposed to be a five-paragraph essay. In most cases, what we assume is that people coming in are well grounded. But I also graded advanced placement essays over the summer, and if I had unlimited resources I would put 90 percent of those students in CT (composition tutorial).

They come in and feel like they have this great understanding of a thesis statement and supporting evidence, but they don’t. If you’re going to prepare them for the world, that’s what they’re lacking.

Does that mean that in a high school classroom where one finds a range of talent and interests, a one-size-fits-all approach is an advantage for the teacher?

Tom McWhorter: Well, there are plenty of people who don’t know the five-paragraph formula. They don’t do it well, or it wasn’t taught overtly enough that they know what they’re doing. Yet we have a pedagogical approach that assumes we all write that way to start with.

I frequently run into people from other cultures who don’t have any idea about how to write a paper that’s argumentative. I taught a student from Uganda the five-paragraph formula the other day, because she had no basis for where to start, no idea what I was talking about.

That’s an endorsement then, at least in certain cases?

Tom McWhorter: It is and it isn’t. I agree that it shouldn’t be thrown out. But we shouldn’t assume we’re teaching only people who know what it is.

Pam O’Brien: What I see in freshman composition courses is that a lot of students come in with a pattern they’ve learned. We’re trying to get them to realize they have a voice of their own, they have ideas of their own. We want to see them bring that into their writing.

All of the courses I teach here at Pitt are professional writing courses. I feel like at the upper level my job is to keep that voice going, but also to say there are a lot of templates and formulas. What Sam was saying is true: Most writing in the business world starts with a main point and preview, goes into the details and winds up with a conclusion.

But you need to keep that in mind while you’re keeping your voice, your persona as a writer. If you can bring those two together you’re going to function well in the real world in the field the student is going to go into. They both have a place, and it’s the job of the University to bring those together.

Beth Newborg: The problem is when it’s not an issue for class discussion and it becomes an either-or situation: Either we use this formula or some other one, or we abandon formulas altogether.

I ask students flat-out: “Are you familiar with the five-paragraph essay?” I would say about three-quarters right away know about it or have heard about it or know some model so that they know what I’m talking about. That’s a high percentage.

This is true of students across the University to some degree but I have more evidence from students in the [Swanson] School of Engineering.

Part of the discussion then becomes organizational models and strategic tactics. There are things we use as professional writers and they serve a valuable purpose in communication and in demystifying the writing process for students.

I like that toolbox approach, even realizing that that model is not going to serve every purpose. It’s good for me to be able to say to students: Here’s the way you set up a sentence. Think of a sentence that opens your paragraph in this way, or here are transitions that can be effective. This sometimes hits them with the force of revelation, because the way to progress through an essay, even a five-paragraph essay, seems extraordinarily complex to them.

One of the things that our program at its best strives to do is to make how one writes, the process, a topic of discussion in a composition course. So it’s not, “Say back to me what this author has said.” Or even, “Comment on what this author has said.” Instead, it’s: “What’s are the best, the most meaningful ways to respond to what this author has said?” This becomes a matter of inquiry for students so they have a range of possibilities in which to express themselves.

Do you give assignments that promote that range?

Beth Newborg: Yes. In the classes I teach we tend to do a variety of writing, so it’s incumbent on me to know my students are going into the professional world able to write an effective, efficient memo, for example. At the same time they’re doing writing on more complex questions, such as ethical questions, so because they have a done a variety of writing, students need this sense of a variety of possibilities.

Geeta Kothari: My objection to the five-paragraph essay is mostly that it teaches students that there is a right and wrong way to write. People need to know where a semi-colon goes, but they can learn that as they write. The process happens over the course of four years, not over one semester of composition. The composition class isn’t the only writing course they take.

I find there’s a lot of fear with students about writing. I think they learn that fear in school. I teach upper-level creative writing courses and fear dogs students. These are kids who have chosen to major in writing, yet it’s the thing that makes them most anxious. That anxiety starts developing when they’re really young. It happens when the teacher comes in, as she did in my nephew’s middle school class, and said, “All of you got this wrong.”

Janine Carlock: I agree. I like the formula for the younger students who are learning, because it does supply them a framework. Usually, young students aren’t great writers, so it gives them something to hang on to. But I think what they don’t teach the students is why to use it; what is the point of the formula; who is the audience?

In my ESL (English as a second language) courses, we move from generalizations to specifics. So we teach them that kind of formula just to get them thinking that in America this is the way people write. I think if they understood why, which is so the reader can understand, then they can move away and do different things.

Carol Hamilton: I find that writers often can’t tell the difference between the specific and the general. I get papers where it’s all generalizations, one after another, in a kind of burst of colloquialisms.

And the papers are so full of the passive voice, because the teachers in high school never let them use “I” or “you.” They were writing things such as, “The ball was kicked by me.” And yet they can’t recognize it.

Ronna Edelstein: Part of the problem is that in the elementary, middle and high schools some of the subjects go through a progression. In math they go through how to add, subtract and then move on to higher forms.

Writing is not like that. There’s no communication between the high school teachers and the middle school teachers, between the middle school teachers and the elementary school teachers. So instead of taking kids’ writing to a new level, the teachers are just repeating the formula.

When the students get to college they’ve had the same thing over and over and, as Geeta said, they think there’s a right way and a wrong way to write.

Susan Demo: You can have a really good five-paragraph theme and a really bad five-paragraph theme, and the thing that makes it good or bad isn’t the five paragraphs.

Maybe that name also de-emphasizes what may be important about the pattern. Somewhere in that model you have to have a point and you have to support it with something.

Then the pattern becomes: You make an assertion; there must be some support — so you can talk about what’s good support, what’s not good support and about how to use specifics to explain an assertion. But I don’t always see that happening.

I saw a bright young woman in class. She was following her outline for the five-paragraph theme. Right where any reader would have said, “Keep going!” she had to switch to point B. That’s a case where the outline was actually preventing her from doing the thinking she had to do to complete her argument. I try to teach students to ask, “What do you think your reader would want next?”

Sten Carlson: Along those same lines, I gave my students an assignment in seminar in comp. There was a minimum of 1,400 words. Then I gave them another assignment on top of that to cut it down to 1,000 words. We talked about the process of developing form. My hope was to get them to understand that there are many forms.

What they learned in high school was through the five-paragraph essay: Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell it to them, and then tell them you told them.

I developed this other analogy: When you’re writing, you want to arrive late and leave early. So we look for different places to open an essay. Maybe you open in the middle, in the body. Then the intro — what you’re going to tell them — will fall away. Then instead we talk about the strategy of writing a good lead.

Susan Demo: There is something that’s always puzzled me. We often try to discourage students from expanded openings, which I think is what Sten is talking about: “In this paper I will …”

But I’m also surprised at how often in professional journals that is exactly the way people begin. So I wonder: Why are we telling them not to do that, when that’s actually what professionals do?

Geeta Kothari: That doesn’t mean that those professionals are writing well.

Beth Newborg: A friend of mine tells her students, “If words were a dollar and you had to pay me for every one of them, which ones would you get rid of?” It makes them conscious of the choices they’re making.

So I think that sometimes using those formulaic phrases — “Here in this paper I will argue” — is considered quite appropriate and even desirable in certain disciplines. I don’t have an issue so much with that. It’s what comes after that formulaic introduction.

“I will argue that clean water is important,” is not the same thing as saying “I will argue that it is the responsibility of engineering programs to build ethical practices that lead to clean water.”

Whether you’re using the five-paragraph essay or not, what are the ways to get students to write substantively and responsibly, understanding that their thoughts don’t come from nowhere, they’re informed by many things, and when they’re expressing their thoughts to have a consciousness of where that information comes from instead of just putting it down.

When you introduce students to that concept, do you do it in the abstract or do you use examples? “I know you were taught not to do this, but here is a person who started with I. Why does it work here?”

Beth Newborg: I would think most of us would consider using samples both from professional or experienced writers and students themselves to be absolutely essential. It’s rare any of us would talk about this without using samples, and often the examples are coming from the students themselves.

Geeta Kothari: It’s a basic concept in our writing program that you use student samples as a focus of the writing class.

Ronna Edelstein: I think there could be a TV show called “Fear Factor: The Writing Edition.”

When students come to college and I say, “You’re allowed to put your voice in, you’re even supposed to put your voice in,” they’re afraid, because in high school they’ve regurgitated whatever the teacher said to them.

I had a student who was writing a personal essay. He wanted to go to graduate school in occupational or physical therapy. He showed me his essay, and it was a five-paragraph essay, with no voice whatsoever. I asked him to tell me a little about himself. After a while I said: “Listen to what you said, and then read what you wrote. Tell me what’s missing.”

Imagine [Geeta’s] nephew being told by the teacher, “You’ve written something and it’s wrong.” I tell my students when they’re doing an analytical paper, there’s no right or wrong. There’s valid and less valid. If you back up what you’ve said, it’s more valid.”

Carol Hamilton: I think the teachers think that five-paragraph themes are easier to grade.

Pam O’Brien: In addition to the five-paragraph essay, a lot of freshman writers come in without having had to think critically about anything. They know plot summary. They can let you know they’ve read the book. They know how to pick out a point and repeat that point. They know how to pick out a quote and then repeat the quote in their own words. But they don’t know how to give you original thinking, original ideas, and they don’t know how to read difficult stuff.

When they hit Seminar in Composition, which this year is using [Pitt English professor] Dave Bartholomae’s “Ways of Reading,” which has nothing but hard essays, they can’t figure out the essay, let alone write about it. So the old pattern isn’t going to work. Most of them do make that transition, though, to learning how to think, because that is what writing is all about. When we’re talking with them, it’s not talking so much about the word choices, but talking about thinking and how to do that.

Sam MacDonald: I do want to move them to critical thinking. But one of my problems is I’m not sure what else I’m responsible for in the classroom. As an institution, we’re not sure.

I have students come in for composition tutorial, and I’ll ask: “Has your teacher mentioned any mechanical or structural or grammatical issue to you?” They’ll say, “My teacher said that’s your job.”

So I’ll look at an essay that is a complete grammatical and structural catastrophe, that has absolutely nothing going for it.

The kid has something to say, but can’t make a sentence. The instructor is saying, “I’m supposed to talk to you about ideas. You go over [to the Writing Center] for a half hour, and learn what you’re supposed to learn in 3rd to 12th grade.”

I teach composition and I also tutor here at the Writing Center, where a good number of the students can’t make a sentence. How does that fit into making them be critical thinkers? I’m not even sure now, in my fourth year of teaching composition, what I’m supposed to do with that.

If you take the “Chicago Manual of Style,” I have kids with issues on every single page. I can’t go through all these mechanical things. I would only be doing that. Do you take the problems the majority of students have and throw the rest to the Writing Center and say, “You deal with it”?

Beth Newborg: That’s one of the most difficult negotiations to make in teaching composition. And again, if you move out of the composition classroom into professional writing, my obligation is to prepare students to write in particular academic and professional circumstances. My obligation also is to attend to the processes of thinking, the responsible presentation of evidence, those kinds of things. It’s enormously difficult. We can’t do everything in Seminar in Composition. We can tell students they need to be aware of errors in their writing and know where to look for help.

Another way to look at this is: We’re always in a particular historical moment. When I came into graduate school at Pitt, well into the last century, Pitt had been in the midst of a decade of cutting-edge composition theory, heralded by [Pitt English professors] Dave Bartholomae, Bill Coles and others. There was a fairly new, radical and exciting idea: getting rid of the old formulas, or questioning them.

I remember sitting in my teaching seminar, all of us new teachers, and there probably was an overload of enthusiasm for getting rid of anything that looked as if you were telling a student “Here’s what you need to do,” either in writing a sentence or writing a transition from one paragraph to another.

But what I think got lost in that enthusiasm was: What do you do with certain sentence-level problems, as well as with certain students who would benefit from some kind of model to understand principles or organization? That fell by the wayside quite dramatically.

There has been much more room in recent years for some of that to be brought in, or for the question to be overtly raised: What do I do with sentence-level errors in my composition classroom where I’m being asked to have students dealing with an essay by Edward Said?

My own practical response to that requires some negotiation. If many students are having comma problems or sentence fragment problems, then I am going to take class time to talk about that and I’m going to expect students to show some mastery of the problems. If I have to cut out reading one essay to have time for that, I will. This is part of composition. If a student is particularly struggling, I will suggest other resources.

Ronna Edelstein: That’s interesting that you put this in a historical perspective. I go further back; I grew up in the environment of diagramming sentences.

When I first began teaching in Michigan in a private school and found that my students knew nothing about grammar, I asked if I could take two periods a week just to teach grammar. Those kids then began to understand how to put a sentence together.

Then when I went to public schools in Michigan, the superintendent equated grammar with a dirty word: “Grammar will not be taught.”

What happened to the philosophy of education that we’re not teaching grammar, which gives kids a basic understanding? So we’ve lost the language of communication when it comes to grammar, because the school system — elementary through high school — made grammar something that we just don’t do. They thought it could be handled through the writing, but that has not always been successful.

Were any of you taught the five-paragraph essay?

Joe Casanova: I’m kind of glad that in the high school I went to, I never learned the five-paragraph essay.

Geeta Kothari: What kind of terrible school did you go to? (laughter)

Joe Casanova: I went to a decent high school where creativity was emphasized. Being at Pitt, I realized that most of the writers I deal with feel restricted in many ways. I have to tell them, “You have to break loose. You have to find your voice. I’m reading this and it’s bland. You have to add character to it.” I think their restriction adds anxiety and leads to a multitude of other problems.

I had a student who was having sentence-level problems, and I told him, “I think you have to have a sense of personal responsibility about this. Treat this as a job. Don’t come to me and expect me to lay the rules out for you. Step up. You’re a student, learn it on your own.”

I tell them also: “It wasn’t easy for me. I established my own voice. No one ever fed it to me. Go on this journey, and hopefully you find yourself.”

Michael Potochny: I went to a Pennsylvania public school and the five-paragraph essay was pretty much taught to everyone; we followed like sheep. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the five-paragraph essay as a formula. But the huge problem is the loss of voice. It is a continual detriment; it stymies creative progress for such a long time. Once you master the formula you’re like Pavlov’s dog. You’re so used to that, you’re not inclined to be creative.

How did you adjust in your own studies?

Mike Potochny: I was fortunate. I had a seminar in comp professor who was a poetry expert and right off the bat he tried to create an atmosphere of creativity. It still took me several semesters to really delve into my own voice, but the right course helped me to do that.

At the high school level, and I’m only four years out from that, the five-paragraph essay is comfortable for the student, obviously, but also for the teacher.

Everyone here has a difficult time teaching grammar. It’s a ludicrous thought that people can spend a lot of time on that in college.

But even in the high school setting, it’s difficult when you have large classes and a diverse group of students to hit all these targets. So, with such a bland, generic formula with no investment of self or intellect, you can streamline the process: They hit the 12th grade and the teachers wash their hands of them.

Joe Casanova: My first two years in high school my teachers were older. Typically, they’d say, “This is how it is.” My last two years I had younger teachers. One of them said, “I want you to challenge the system.” It was an audacious stance. That class really influenced me in exploring creativity. It’s not only reading texts like “Huck Finn,” for example. It’s applying that to real life, finding relevancy in that. A lot of students come in without that, and that’s a problem. The idea of being creative, challenging or taking a stand was not inculcated in them in their high school years.

Joe, in your experience as a peer writing tutor do you find students resistant to being creative?

Joe Casanova: Yes. They do it only with reluctance. I tell them, “If you want to use the five-paragraph essay, that’s fine. But you need to step up, you also have to find your voice, to think creatively, to think critically.” I’m very candid about that.”

Carol Hamilton: One of the things I bring up to students is: Who is their imaginary audience? That’s one of the first questions. In high school it was always their high school teacher. I ask, “Who’s the audience: a peer, a professor, an extraterrestrial, a 6 year old?”

This gets them to think about the content and not just spouting back to the teacher.

Mike Potochny: I feel people are unwilling to take chances. But when it’s presented as, “This is your opportunity to develop your voice,” it opens their eyes and they might be more willing to do that, to express themselves.

Sten Carlson: Most of them also are adjusting to the academy and all the anxiety that includes, especially when they don’t feel they’re part of the discourse. Grammar and things like that break down at that point.

Geeta Kothari: When students start to learn a new discourse, or when they’re learning something new, everything they knew starts to break down. It’s totally normal. In fact, you want to get them to that point by mid-semester where things are actually falling apart, because that’s a good sign. You’re breaking things down.

Pam O’Brien: Part of the University’s job is to help students make a transition. I came out of a high school where we diagrammed sentences. I knew all the tenses of a verb. But when I got to college my first assignment was to write an essay on “African Genesis.” It was an awful experience.

I have three grown children and they still don’t know a direct object from an indirect object. What they had to do all through high school was write journals. Journals! Yet they graduated from colleges and did just fine, are out in the working world communicating and writing well.

So I think something happens in college, regardless of whether you came from the five-paragraph essay or from the most creative high school on planet Earth, where you need to make that change to functioning in what is going to be your real life.

Jean Grace: A lot of what we’re saying is that as teachers of writing we want to see our students invested in their own writing. We want to see them use writing to think, take on authority in their writing. To do that, we sometimes have to disrupt their easy assumptions of what writing is and how it functions.

Sometimes making writing the center of the classroom, and making it a daily practice to talk about their writing with everybody in the class, leads to challenging the idea of who you’re writing for. “If you’re writing this for us, then why are you sounding like this?” That can be a way of disrupting those assumptions.

When I talk to students who are upset about this, they say, “I spent all this time in high school learning how to write this way, and now you’re telling me it’s irrelevant,” I say, “It’s not so much irrelevant. Think of it as training wheels, a good starting place. It’s great for timed writing situations, for situations where you know what you want to say and your job is now to put it on paper. But it’s not that great for a lot of the situations you’re going to come across in college, where you have to craft an intellectual project, think critically and present that. It’s a good thing to have in your pocket, to pull out on certain occasions, but it’s not enough.”

Ellen Smith: Regarding audience, a good writing teacher is going to play dumb. It’s hard for students to recognize that. Yes, I know what you’re talking about. By my job is to pretend that I don’t so you will teach me, or convince me. That’s a big leap for some, because it’s a role reversal. If they don’t take for granted that the teacher knows what they’re talking about, hopefully, they start to take a position seriously.

Carol Hamilton: But I don’t like to play so dumb that all I get is the obvious or what’s common knowledge.

Robin, you work with a lot of student-athletes. Do you see any differences from what we’re talking about?

Robin Clarke: It’s really the same issues, only maybe intensified. I started teaching composition workshop a few years ago. I know I’m not supposed to teach the five-paragraph essay. I’m not supposed to teach what a thesis statement is, a topic sentence. But some of these students don’t have a clue of how to articulate an argument.

Since then, as I’ve been getting more accustomed to the Seminar in Composition philosophy at Pitt, I’ve seen that it’s not essential to give them that formula.

But it’s a weird position to be told to fight against a formula that might work for some. What if I don’t give these students a formula? They’re going to be lost. But over time I feel like they aren’t lost, that they do eventually get it. My approach has become to not talk about it at all. I teach about thinking, the essay as an instrument of thinking. I talk about what that means.

Do your students typically struggle with grammar?

Robin Clarke: The first year I taught it was my obsession. I felt these kids are so underprepared, it’s why they’re in that class. It’s not fair to deny them that knowledge. But I’ve started to see that it happens little by little.

Geeta Kothari: They acquire it through the process of writing and looking at their writing. But there is a lot of anxiety about whether you’re teaching your students anything. You want to feel, just as they do, that they’re getting something concrete. In some ways a formula or focusing on grammar does allay those anxieties of “Am I doing my job?”

There’s a lot of pressure on those teaching a freshman composition class to do the work all in one semester, even though we know it happens over the course of four years. It’s a course that’s supposed to prepare students for academic writing. So you feel the weight of the rest of the University. I’ve sat in this room and heard people from other departments wonder out loud what exactly it is we do in composition.

When they get students in whatever W class, I hear: “They don’t know how to write.” Quite often, those students haven’t had to write in that discipline. So it’s again that breakdown or that adjustment to an entirely new discourse.

How important is the peer review of student essays in the teaching of composition?

Ellen Smith: We should mention collectively the centrality of student writing in our composition program. A good 30-40 percent at least is focused on student writing samples, and more than that in Seminar in Composition. We want to create an atmosphere where people are comfortable in talking about their writing and their peers’ writing like you would talk about football on a Monday.

Once you start doing that, it really does have an effect. Students will think, “Maybe I shouldn’t do it this way all the time. Maybe I should try something else out.”

Sometimes you don’t see it immediately in students’ reactions. But I hear them talk about it, in comp tutorial especially, how their peer reviews have impacted them and their writing. It’s given me more faith that that kind of work is key.

Ronna Edelstein: It also helps teachers encourage students to revise their own papers. In high school, you write the five-paragraph essay, you get the A, you’re done.

Here, one paper can go through several revisions and the revision is not just putting in that semi-colon, but it’s exactly what the word revision says: seeing the paper in a new way. I think that’s really helpful in learning that writing is a process. What they handed in in September and what goes into their portfolio in December may be, should be, a very different paper.

Pam O’Brien: If it’s a new type of writing that they’re not familiar with, I’ll talk about it. I’ll have examples of it for them to look at. I’ll have chances in class for them to practice that type of writing. Then we’ll work in groups with it. There’s never a grade attached to any of this. That helps to relieve some anxiety, when they have a chance to learn it, read it, practice it, before a grade is assigned.

Joe Casanova: I agree. We have a portfolio grade system, where you gather all your work for the semester and hand it in. I find that helpful. Students are not always stressing over the grade early on, and they’re learning that writing is a process. That is difficult, because there’s a reluctance to embrace that, there’s a resistance.

I was talking to a student the other day who said he was trying to master writing. I said, “Listen, I tutor at the Writing Center, and I haven’t come close to mastering anything.”

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 6

Leave a Reply