Even though students start learning about the 5-paragraph essay in middle school (sometimes even elementary!), it seems like they magically forget everything by high school. In this post, I hope to share some tips for teaching the 5-paragraph essay to teens.
Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #1: Know Your Success Criteria
Before even discussing the 5-paragraph essay with students, make sure you know your own success criteria.
Success criteria are the standards by which you’ll measure students’ ability with the task.
There are multiple ways to approach the 5-paragraph essay, and every teacher has his or her preferences. Maybe for you starting the essay with a rhetorical question is just too blase, and you expect a more exciting hook. Perhaps you expect seven sentences in a body paragraph while your colleague is content with five.
Make sure you know what success looks like in your classroom before you begin teaching anything to students.
Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #2: Don’t Do It In Isolation
Teaching the 5-paragraph essay just for the sake of it is never going to work. Students need buy-in before they’ll even think about attempting something hard.
So try to avoid a unit that’s just about writing a 5-paragraph essay. Instead, make sure students have a compelling topic to write about.
This could be a literary analysis essay–especially if the novel in question is a hit with students.
It could also be a research paper in which students can choose between engaging and controversial topics.
Give students the topic about which they’ll be writing first. (I would even give them the actual essay assignment before talking about how to write an essay.)
If you can get them to care about the content of their essay, getting them to understand the format will be much easier.
Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #3: Break It Down Piece By Piece
This is where high school teachers mess up. They assume that, because students have probably done this before in earlier grades, they can rush the essay writing process. Sadly, you can’t.
While some students might be able to write a 5-paragraph essay in their sleep, a lot will have completely forgotten the format. Or they’ll struggle with citations and tracking their sources. Or they remember what the thesis statement is but can’t start their body paragraphs.
For most students, there are going to be holes in their knowledge. Go over the format of the 5-paragraph essay slowly.
In my 5-Paragraph Essay Mini-lessons resource, I break down the 5-paragraph essay into five lessons: an overview, the introduction paragraph, the body paragraphs, the conclusion paragraph, and citing sources.
You could break this down even further and spend an entire day talking about thesis statements or writing conclusion sentences.
Basically, while you can teach the 5-paragraph essay too quickly, it’s almost impossible to go too slowly.
(Want to break down the 5-paragraph essay even further or have plenty of time to build up students’ skills? Try teaching claim, evidence, and reasoning skills first! This will make a huge chunk of the 5-paragraph essay a breeze for your students!)
Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #4: Provide Examples
Just like with everything else you teach, you can’t provide too many examples for students.
When it comes to the 5-paragraph essay, you should even present examples for the pieces of paragraphs. (“Here are some examples of thesis statements…” and “Here are some examples of clinchers…” etc.)
If possible, however, I recommend you not show examples using the same topic that your students will be using for their papers. It’s too tempting for students to copy.
Instead, model for students how they can rephrase the essay question you gave them and fill in the blanks to create their own thesis statement. Or create sentence starters to help struggling students begin their claims.
Don’t show them a completely done essay on their topic; give them tools to help them get there on their own.
But do use examples from other essay topics, so students can learn what a strong essay looks like.
Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #5: Don’t Write It Chronologically
When I have students write an essay, I never have them write it from beginning to end.
Instead, we spend a day writing our thesis statements. The next day, we write all of our claims. The day after, we gather and construct our evidence, and so on.
I encourage my students to write in the order of what is most important to the overall essay–not in chronological order. (And I use the most scaffolded outline in this resource to do so.)
Writing a hook (the first sentence of the essay) can require some creative thinking. For some students, this will completely stall them out for days–even weeks–if they let it. And while they may end the unit with the world’s greatest hook, they’ll still have the rest of the essay to write.
Instead, if I can get students to start with the thesis statement, the rest of the essay will be easier. They’ll know their stance and their major ideas.
Plus, you can grade an essay if it has a few strong ideas strung together. You can’t even begin grading an essay that just has a few sentences of the introduction.
Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #6: Let Them Use Tools
No, I don’t mean you should accept ChatGPT essays.
But students could use ChatGPT to ask questions about their topic if they get stuck. They shouldn’t, of course, use this as a source in their essay, but it could help get some struggling students thinking about their major supporting arguments.
Students should also be allowed to use citation generators like EasyBib.com or CitationMachine.net.
I, personally, have never formatted a citation by hand since learning about these tools, and if a real-world English teacher isn’t manually citing sources then students shouldn’t certainly have to.
Instead, make sure students know what proper citations look like and teach them how to use these websites–and their limitations.
Help students use these websites and double-check the generator’s work, rather than teaching them the useless (and time-consuming) skill of creating citations manually.
There are all kinds of accessibility tools out there, too. Students who struggle to read should be allowed a screen reading extension–especially for research-heavy papers.
If you have struggling writers, reach out to your school’s librarian or tech guru to see what kind of software your school computers might already be equipped with to help make essay writing easier for your students.
Teaching the 5-paragraph essay probably won’t be the most fun you have in your classroom. But, if you break it down, go slow, and provide plenty of examples, you might be able to avoid a mental breakdown grading those same papers.
If you’d like to make teaching the 5-paragraph essay as easy as possible on yourself, check out my 5-paragraph essay resources.