You are on page 1of 6

EJ Extra

The Five-Paragraph Essay and

the Deficit Model of Education:
A UNC Charlotte Writing
Project Collaboration
Lil Brannon, Jennifer Pooler Courtney Cynthia Urbanski,
Shana Woodward, Jeanie Reynolds, Anthony Iannone,
Karen Haag, Karen Mach, Lacy Manship, and Mary Kendrick

There is a seductive commonsense logic to two nothing basic about the five-paragraph essay. Its
opinion pieces that have appeared over the last two enforcement, however, is certainly felt by many stu-
years in the Speaking My Mind section of English dents and their teachers.
Journal: Byung-In Seos Defending the Five-Para- This format is one of those school-created
graph Essay, which appeared in the November things that persist, much like the modes of dis-
2007 issue, and Kerri Smiths In Defense of the course. They persist because they have been
Five-Paragraph Essay, which appeared in March enshrined in textbooks and tested by the testing
2006. These two educators are establishment, even after scholars in composition
not merely giving their per- have documented the irrationality of their use for
This format is one of
sonal views but, we would over 30 years.1 Robert Connerss The Rise and Fall
those school-created argue, are also speaking the of the Modes of Discourse shows, for example, how
things that persist, minds of many teachers. They and why such artificial discourse structures are
much like the modes of speak a logic that is important outmoded and not useful, and he argues, using Kit-
discourse. They persist to challenge precisely because zhabers 1953 claim, that They represent an unre-
because they have been this logic perpetuates the com- alistic view of the writing process, a view that
enshrined in textbooks
monsense myth that the five- assumes writing is done by formula and in a social
paragraph theme is an actual vacuum. They turn the attention of both teacher
and tested by the testing
form, and that forming in and student toward an academic exercise instead of
establishment, even after writing is simply slotting toward a meaningful act of communication in a
scholars in composition information into prefabricated social context (119). Teaching writing (rather than
have documented the formulas rather than a com- teaching formats) takes an understanding of the
irrationality of their use plex process of meaning-mak- research and scholarship in composition, takes
for over 30 years. ing and negotiation between a understanding of oneself as a writer, and takes an
writers purposes and audi- in-depth understanding of how writers truly
ences needs. They are speak- develop as writers. Articles such as Seos and Smiths
ing a logic that makes this damaging mechanistic serve only to perpetuate the myth of the five-para-
practice appear to be an acceptable survival tech- graph essay, advance the power of the testing estab-
nique for overwhelmed, overtaxed teachers. They lishment, and make it more difficult for K12
speak down from the college level in favor of a teachers to enact alternatives that empower stu-
made-up-for-school essay format and their voices dents to truly write. Why, then, does the five-para-
(albeit uninflected by scholarship and research) can graph theme persist when years of research offer
be used as justification to insist on this dominant richer possibilities for teaching students by engag-
school practice. Smith even congratulates efforts to ing them in writing genres that actually appear in
force high school teachers back to teaching the basics the world outside of school? Why does this domi-
of essay writing (16; italics added), when there is nant school practice, which more often hurts rather

16 English Journal 98.2 (2008): 1621

EJ_Nov2008_A.indd 16 8/13/08 2:15:07 PM

EJ Extra

than helps writers, need yearly voicing in the pages What is troubling to us in Seos and Smiths
of this journal? reaffirmation of the common sense is that their
logic doesnt have to account for this formats lack
The Problem of Common Sense of existence anywhere outside of the classroom,
Smiths undocumented claim that the writing of
Students are subjected to this ill-conceived and Virginia Woolf and Oliver Sacks, among others,
outmoded practice because of the commonsense adheres to a five-paragraph theme structure (16)
wisdom that supports itits seemingly straight- notwithstanding. They merely repeat the building-
forward, self-evident logic. Advocating for the five- block mantra of behaviorist conceptions of teaching
paragraph essay implies that students problems while their advocacy masks the reality that the five-
with writing are the teachers fault for not doing paragraph theme is taught year after year, from
something so simple as having students write five elementary school through college, in course after
sentences per paragraph or have three reasons. If course. Speaking their minds thus only serves to
only teachers would follow this practice, so the reinscribe the five-paragraph essays iconic status,
argument goes, writings ills would be cured. The not advance new knowledge in the field.
logic that Smith and Seo are using is what Janet Even more troubling is that these authors
Emig would call magical thinking, the belief that opinions have been published by the leading
childrens learning to write is the direct outcome journal for English language arts teachers. It would
of explicit teaching (136). seem to us that opinions represented in English
Kay Halaseks A Pedagogy of Possibility: Bakh- Journal would open up possibilities for new devel-
tinian Perspectives on Composition Studies offers a com- opments in our field, or would, at least, be informed
pelling argument for the ideological reasons for the by professional wisdom. Yet it appears common-
persistence of the five-paragraph essay. There is, sense opinions are not scrutinized in ways that
according to Halasek, a dangerous paternalism sur- scholarship is scrutinized. These authors were not
rounding this pedagogical practice, which stems required to research practices in the schools, or
from objectivist rather than constructivist notions review and critique the professional literature to
of language and discourse. Such practices, she the contrary to gain their authority. Their opinions
argues, are repressive acts that compel students to were, nonetheless, published. As opinions, their
master this one form before proceeding. The prem- ideas are not intended to be engaged. These opin-
ise that this form is somehow foundationalan ions are, well, opinions, rearticulations of conven-
all purpose approach to writing (99)is false tional wisdom and the sustaining of the status quo.
because it ignores the generative nature of forming
and disregards the intimate relationship among
Limited Vision Equals Limited Instruction:
audience, social context, subject, and author (100).
The Deficit Model of Education
Even Seo admits that students need to be taught
that writing comes in different forms, and the con- Our concern is for what the five-paragraph essay
tent is reflected in the form (16); yet, her insis- teaches students and with what the five-paragraph
tence on the five-paragraph essay as a basic form essay does not teach them; our concern is with what
for struggling writers creates a needless impedi- students learn to do by writing in this format and
ment to composing. Imposing an arbitrary format with what students will not learn because of the
makes learning to write just that much harder, and continued persistence of this mythic form. Our
for no good reason, like learning to play tennis in concern is for the students who are subjected to this
leg-chains (Knoblauch and Brannon 47). Writers form and spend their intellectual lives constrained
need, instead, opportunities to write, to participate by its insistence.
within and through multiple genres because it is in Smith and Seo couple the five-paragraph essay
and through writing, over time, through various with the needs of students, a need based on a deficit
authorizing events (103), that writers gain affilia- understanding of those students and an efficiency
tions, those relationships that mark one as partici- model of education. The deficit model is often used
pant in various discourses. by educational consultants such as Ruby Payne2

English Journal 17

EJ_Nov2008_A.indd 17 8/13/08 2:15:08 PM

The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education: A UNC Charlotte Writing Project Collaboration

who get by with blaming the victim and offering a structed in behaviorist deficit terms are given
quick fix. When students are considered lacking step-by-step instruction. Children who lack read-
lacking organization, lacking ideas to write about, ing skills are taught phonics, taught basic sounds
lacking understandingwriting in an arbitrary before they are taught words, taught words before
formula merely sustains the deficit perception. Stu- they are taught sentences, taught sentences before
dents learn that writing means following a set of paragraphs. The deficit model does not allow stu-
instructions, filling in the blanks. Such writing dents to participate as writers and language
mirrors working-class life, which requires little usersas readers and writers in the world.
individual thinking and creativity combined with In classrooms where children are constructed
lots of monotony and following orders. Its obvious as knowledgeable students, children are writing
what training the five-paragraph essay is really before they can read and experiencing literature to
practice for. Writing, we argue, should not be yet explore how writers craft their stories.3 Children in
another way to train students to be obedient citi- these classrooms understand that writers make
zens, but rather provide them with opportunities to meaning in different ways and in different genres.
develop their thinking as individuals, making Writers use their creativity, their lives, and their
meaning through the act of composing. language to make sense of their experiences. In
Smiths and Seos deficit understanding of stu- these classrooms, the youngest writers begin writ-
dents is consistent; the only difference between ing and enacting their stories during imaginative
them is the kinds of students who they see as need- play, making visible what is important in their
ing the five-paragraph essay. Smith wants students worlds and thus what is important to them and
going to college to get this foundation, while Seo their writing. The diversity and the differences of
claims at-risk students are childrens experiences are honored and drawn on in
the ones who need it. In the the classroom. There is no insistence that every
Students learn that
school world, however, the childs writing looks exactly the same or is struc-
writing means following only difference between the tured in the same way. The multiplicity of voices,
a set of instructions, two groups is the degree to experiences, and stories make these writing class-
filling in the blanks. Such which the formula is insisted rooms rich and exciting for learning.
writing mirrors working- on. Most students do not reach A deficit understanding of students would see
class life, which requires the advanced seminar at the diversity of languages and cultures in class-
little individual thinking
Berkeley like Smith did; most rooms as a problem rather than a strength. A deficit
students never get a Sharon understanding labels the language of low socioeco-
and creativity combined
Marcus as a teacher who nomic students as a problem, often marking them
with lots of monotony demands that their thinking as ignorant. The deficit model labels these same
and following orders. Its move to the next level, like children as remedial or even having learning dis-
obvious what training the Smith did (17). In fact, most abilities. This model is largely responsible for plac-
five-paragraph essay is students spend their academic ing minorities or children of the poor in remedial
really practice for. lives appearing disorganized classes. The deficit model gives these children
to their teachers and structur- worksheet drudgery and formulaic writing that will
ing their thoughts into pre- occupy the students into passivity.
fabricated formats. Most students never experience The effects of the pervasiveness and the insis-
the power of their ideas or the structuring of them tence on the five-paragraph essay format can be
within a larger conversation, never get the chance seen at the opposite end of schooling that Smith
to use writing to think, feel, and wonder. argues for. In Jennifer P. Courtneys study of first-
While the five-paragraph essay might appear year writing students at a large southeastern uni-
to be a construct of middle grades and high schools, versity, students were interviewed about their
its droppings trail into early childhood in the form experiences with writing in school, and they
of skills-based literacy instruction and a deficit responded that throughout their schooling their
model of understanding of even the youngest chil- writing had to be a certain length and had to fol-
dren. Children in the lower grades who are con- low certain rules. These college students reported

18 November 2008

EJ_Nov2008_A.indd 18 8/13/08 2:15:09 PM

EJ Extra

that their experiences in school were constrained standardized, uniform cogs in the reproduction of
and constraining: the status quo. As Shana V. Woodwards 2007 study,
[writing] had to look a certain way. Conceptualizing and Enacting Writing: How
Teachers of Writing Construct Identity and Prac-
I wanted to write about more than three tice within a Complex Figured World of School,
ideas, but because it didnt fit the format, my indicates, even highly trained, award-winning
teacher forced me to leave it out, and I was teachers work from the assumption that the five-
so upset because I didnt want to leave it out
paragraph essay is the necessary first step in suc-
. . . the format didnt work for me.
ceeding in school life. These teachers believe they
[writing the five-paragraph theme] was not are being good teachers, putting their faith in the
my method but I had to do it institution of schooling and helping their students,
I was really frustrated by the format. It was they believe, succeed in it. So rather than teach
their three ideas and their three paragraphs. writing, the teachers spend weeks closely monitor-
ing and efficiently requiring students to write topic
Students who spend their primary, middle, sentences with two sup-
and secondary school years rehearsing the five-para- porting examples, slot in Students who spend their
graph essay end up blaming themselves for not get- transitional devices, and primary, middle, and
ting it right, or hating writing, or believing they decorate paragraphs with secondary school years
arent measuring up. If the writing doesnt fit the vocabulary words. Because
rehearsing the five-
mold, then they are the ones with the problem (after of the intense pressures
all, their teachers taught the format to them). They from the testing industry, paragraph essay end up
either grow silent or seek out classes that allow them teachers believe that they blaming themselves for
to fill in the blanks or circle true or false. are required to provide con- not getting it right, or
stant structure, scaffolding hating writing, or
every aspect of the writing believing they arent
First Things First, But Not Necessarily in
process for students, from
That Order4: The Problem of Efficiency measuring up. If the
the number of sentences per
Teachers using the logic of Smith and Seo see the paragraph to the inserting writing doesnt fit the
five-paragraph theme as the starting point; once of transition words. Wood- mold, then they are the
students learn this structure, they can then move ward understands these ones with the problem
on, become creative and develop more sophisticated practices not as a fault of (after all, their teachers
ways to get organized. Seo, for example, claims, the teachers but produced taught the format to
Once the [five-paragraph essay] framework has by the complexity of how them).
been established, they [students] can employ struc- teachers work in isolation
tural and organizational creativity (16). The five- from one another, with self-
paragraph essay, with its five sentences per imposed pressures and English Journal validation for
paragraph, appears to be an efficient way to make teaching in mechanistic ways. They get caught up,
the writing organized. It is efficient to have stu- Woodward argues, in the concreteness of the situ-
dents follow orders and not think for themselves. ation (Freire, 2000); the teacher sees little room or
This sort of five-paragraph programming is designed possibility to do anything otherwise. While these
to make teachers feel as though they are giving teachers believe they are helping students gain
their deficient students the tools they need to access to the institution by giving them step-by-
become literate, making them over from ignorant step ways to write, they are often frustrated by the
nonwriters into accomplished test essayists. Some students inabilities to perform writing according
students like Smith might even believe that they to the standards set before them.
learned to write this way and then arrogantly insist While it might seem to efficient teachers
that everyone must now be subjected to this abuse. that they have a shortcut to help their students suc-
In reality these students and their teachers are ceed and get ahead, they are in fact employing
being groomed to be good little automatons the efficiency excuse to rationalize sorting their

English Journal 19

EJ_Nov2008_A.indd 19 8/13/08 2:15:10 PM

The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education: A UNC Charlotte Writing Project Collaboration

students into the haves and have-nots. While it may trol. Teachers can absolve themselves of the respon-
appear to teachers that they are accomplishing some- sibility for knowing best practices in teaching
thing by stressing the formula, they are merely look- writing and insist that the five-paragraph formula is
ing for a topic sentence, counting the examples, in the students interests, while the effects of their
looking for transition words, and not worrying at all practices silence students and cause students to
about engaging what writers are saying. When they blame themselves for their failure to comply. And
receive the stacks of horrible essays, they have no the behaviorist/objectivist educational establish-
recourse but to continue to teach in the same old ment rolls on, unquestioned and unchanged.
worn-out ways and continue to blame the previous As teachers of writing we call into question
teachers for not doing their jobs by stressing the for- the five-paragraph essay and the deficit model of
mula. Students who can conform learn that what education. We question both the teachers who insist
they think or write does not matter as long as they on continually advocating this formulaic practice
have the requisite number of sentences and para- and the scholarly journals that publish their articles.
graphs. Students who do not conform to the five- As writers we know that when we begin to form a
paragraph-essay indoctrination, whose thoughts do piece of writing, we do not first think of a thesis
not easily lend themselves to the five-paragraph- statement with three points, craft topic sentences on
theme format, learn quickly that they and those each point for each body paragraph, and conclude by
ideas do not belong in that classroom. Jean-Francois restating those three points again. Instead, we write
Lyotard posits that such practices breed terror. If messy drafts, play with the language, ask colleagues
new or different ideas are too destabilizing to the to read our drafts, and continue to write and rewrite
system, the message to those who think differently until we are convinced that we have formed a piece
is, change your ideas or else. The highly efficient that conveys our intended purpose to our intended
five-paragraph theme is a great tool for keeping such audience. We know as teachers that our students
destabilizing voices under control. elementary, middle, high school, and college; those
And so, most students learn that school writ- whose language practices fit within school-sanc-
ing has nothing to do with them or their ideas. The tioned discourse and those who language practices
students place is to shut up and follow the rules, appear outsidebenefit from this recursive, social
confine their ideas to three, write five sentences in practice of writing as well. As teachers we, too, have
each paragraph whether you experienced Freires notion of concreteness, and as
Students who do not need them or not, and do as teacher-researchers we have discovered more space
conform to the five- you are told. These rules deny
the literacy practices the chil-
dren bring with them to the
indoctrination, whose classroom and deny students
thoughts do not easily avenues to think critically
lend themselves to the under the guise of helping.
five-paragraph-theme The reality is that students are
format, learn quickly that taught this formula year after
they and those ideas do
year, and few, if any, ever escape
it. By controlling what can be
not belong in that
said and how, the five-para-
classroom. graph-five-sentence formula
controls the way students view
themselves as writers and thinkers. Given that this
deficit model of writing instruction occurs through-
out their education, the result of such control per-
meates the lives and possibilities of students. The
five-paragraph-five-sentence formula is always
insisted on most urgently and most vigorously when
students languages and lives appear to need con-

20 November 2008

EJ_Nov2008_A.indd 20 8/13/08 2:15:10 PM

EJ Extra

to imagine other ways of doing things. As teacher before reading, see Peter Elbow, Write First: Putting Writ-
leaders we hope to make visible for our colleagues ing before Reading Is an Effective Approach for Teaching
and Learning, Educational Leadership, 62 (Jan. 2004),
the space for classroom practices that draw on stu- 814.
dents language and cultural backgrounds. We see 4. This formulation of putting first-things first in
learning as interestingly complicated, messy, and, whatever order is attributed to Dr. Who.
certainly, not efficient. We understand the need for
Works Cited
time, time to think and explore, time to write badly
Connors, Robert J. The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Dis-
to write well, time to learn and grow within and course. College Composition and Communication 32.4
through various discourses. With our students, we (1981): 44455.
write our opinions and beliefs, write to reflect and Courtney, Jennifer P. Performing Student, Teacher, and
make meaning of our worlds, write to imagine new Tutor of Writing: Negotiating Ideas of Writing in
First-Year Writing Courses and Writing Center
possibilities and to inspire, write to feel the power of Tutorials. Diss. U of North Carolina at Charlotte,
our words on others, write to make a difference in 2008.
our world. Our students learn that their ideas can be Emig, Janet. The Web of Meaning: Essays on Writing, Teaching,
Learning, and Thinking. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook,
shaped and formed to meet the needs of different 1983.
readers, their ideas are written to be engaged, their Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman
ideas matter. And if we have done our jobs, our stu- Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2003.
Halasek, Kay. A Pedagogy of Possibility: Bakhtinian Perspec-
dents will see themselves as writers, full participants tives on Composition Studies. Carbondale: Southern Illi-
in the ongoing construction of knowledge and in nois UP, 1999.
the changing of the world. Kitzhaber, Albert R. Rhetoric in American Colleges
18501900. Diss. U of Washington, 1953.
Knoblauch, Cy, and Lil Brannon. Rhetorical Traditions and
Notes the Teaching of Writing. Upper Montclair: Boynton/
1. Archives of the National Center for the Study of Cook, 1984.
Writing and Literacy are housed on the website of the Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
National Writing Project: Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Mas-
print/doc/resources/techreports.csp. These materials review sumi. Theory and History of Lit. 10. Minneapolis: U
much of the research that has been conducted in the United of Minnesota P, 1989.
States on writing and teaching through 1995. Seo, Byung-In. Defending the Five-Paragraph Essay. Eng-
2. For a recent critique of Ruby Paynes work see lish Journal 97.2 (2007):1516.
Joel E. Dworin and Randy Boomer, What We All (Suppos- Smith, Kerri. In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay.
edly) Know about the Poor: A Critical Discourse Analysis English Journal 95.4 (2006): 1617.
of Ruby Paynes Framework, in English Education, 40.2 Woodward, Shana V. Conceptualizing and Enacting Writ-
(2008): 10121. ing: How Teachers of Writing Construct Identity
3. Many researchers have documented how children and Practice within a Complex Figured World of
write before they can read. For a review of some of this School. Diss. U of North Carolina at Charlotte,
research and an extended argument for teaching writing 2008.

The authors are affiliated with the UNC Charlotte Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, where they work with
teachers throughout North Carolina to improve the teaching of writing. Lil Brannon, director; Jennifer Pooler Courtney,
associate director; and Cynthia Urbanski, associate director, took the lead in crafting the essay. They may be reached at,, and, respectively. Teacher consultants Shana Woodward (Gard-
ner-Webb University), Jeanie Reynolds (UNC Greensboro), Karen Haag (UNC Charlotte), Karen Mach (Central Piedmont
Community College), Mary Kendrick (North Mecklenburg High School), Anthony Iannone (Nathanial Alexander Elemen-
tary), and Lacy Manship (Newell Elementary) contributed to the essays exploration and development with their classroom
stories and research. Brannon, Urbanski, Haag, Woodward, Iannone, and Griffin recently published Thinking Out Loud on
Paper: The Student Daybook as a Tool to Foster Learning (Heinemann, 2008).

English Journal 21

EJ_Nov2008_A.indd 21 8/13/08 2:15:11 PM