The “Five Paragraph Style” is Alive and Well

One of my early English teachers in high school was a man named Roger Bass.  And one of the signature moments I remember about him was his advocacy of what he called the “Five-paragraph Style”.  He claimed that scores of his ex-students had approached him years after they graduated, saying that this method of organizing a piece of writing made their careers.  He even climbed up on his desk, waved his arms, and said “I’m making a complete fool of myself so you’ll pay attention.  The five-paragraph style is all you’ll ever need to write a good essay”.

As I moved on in life and became a college science instructor (who as a group, are allegedly poor at expressing themselves — what a crock!), I also found the five-paragraph style to be great starting place, whether I was writing a short lesson or a chapter in a book.  As students in my science classes (somewhat bitterly) discovered, I required them to write one essays on every exam.  Oh how they chafed!  How dare I base their grade on their “writing ability”!

Of course I wasn’t grading their writing ability, although for a long time I marked up their copies by circling spelling errors, indicating where I was confused, etc.  What I sought was that they could express themselves clearly in an organized fashion, so I could tell that they really understood the material.

In response to criticism of my outrageous expectations (“This isn’t an English class!”), I wrote up a little guide on how to write an essay answer.  Make it five paragraphs long.  The first paragraph introduces the topic/exam question and lays out three points that will be covered in the essay.  The next three paragraphs took up each point, one by one.  The last paragraph was a summary of what was said.  To make it even easier, I usually asked essay questions like, “Name and explain three ways that microbes can gain access to your body”.

To be frank, my crusade to include essay questions died out after several years.  I fell back into the default position of giving short answer, multiple-choice tests.  It was just easier.  Students didn’t get in my face anymore (about writing, anyway).

But as a teacher, and now an instructional designer, I kept writing manuals and lessons and courses using that old format I learned from Mr. Bass.

Fast forward ten years to when my kids have started writing reports and essays for school.  Thinking I could offer them some tips, I mentioned something about five paragraphs.  “Yeah, yeah dad….we know….introduction, point one, point two, point three, summary.  We hear that every day at school.”.

Really?  Apparently the five-paragraph style is alive and well…although it is called something else these days.  I’d like to think it’s lasted the test of time because it is simple to remember but a powerful organizer.  It helps you get started with writing, having a structure to write within.

Mr. Bass, wherever you are……thank you.  Here’s one guy who agrees.  You can’t beat it.

P.S. I found Mr. Bass online at http://www.rogerjbass.com/about.cfm.  He’s also alive and well. 🙂

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About eric

I am a storyteller who enjoys using a variety of media, especially visual, to teach about life and the natural world. My portfolio can be found at www.ericstavney.com.
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2 Responses to The “Five Paragraph Style” is Alive and Well

  1. missprofessorcasey says:

    I love this style of essay. If I’m teaching a longer essay, I show my students how to expand their 3 main points into 3 smaller points, so there are 9 small points inside the 3 main ones. If I’m teaching developmental students, I show them how to do this with a 5 sentence paragraph, and we go from there. I love it. And they love having a formula to refer back to. Win.

    • eric says:

      It’s great to hear from somebody who finds this writing format helpful, in teaching or in writing themselves. I was especially interested to hear that you’ve had success using this format with “developmental students”, which I gather to mean students that are still struggling to master basic skills. I’ve taught a “developmental mathematics” class to college students that needed a leg up on writing fractions and doing basic algebra, so that’s my picture of “developmental”…at least at the college level.

      I agree, though — a clear, unambiguous formula for writing an essay is wonderful.

      Thanks for posting a comment on my blog — you’re the first!

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