If you want to know why so many of the college grads you’re hiring can’t write worth a darn, look no further than today’s most popular English assignment: the Five-Paragraph Essay (5-PE). Many educators I talk to believe this form is the key to getting their students into college and off to a successful career. And no amount of real-world evidence to the contrary can dissuade them.
In the 5-PE, or Sandwich Essay, the argument is made three times: in the opening paragraph, in the body, and again in the closing paragraph. So kids learn to say the same thing over and over again in different, often confusing, ways. They learn that form is more important than content. They learn that having a certain number of paragraphs is more important than having a good idea and saying it well. They learn to BS their way through school because that’s what their teachers give them grades for and that’s how their states want them to write on tests.
The National Governors Association, Bill Gates and bunch of other people talk about reforming high school. Sounds good to me except for one thing: they’re nine years too late. By the time kids get to high school, they’ve already been ruined as writers and critical thinkers.
And while the 5-PE isn’t the only culprit in this day and age of standardized tests and cookie cutter teaching, its institutionalized nature makes it a great place to start. Because as soon as kids start writing 5-PEs, they begin to internalize the idea that this is how writing is done. By 9th grade some have had half a decade or more of schooling in this useless, mind-numbing form.
Then these kids are unleashed upon an unsuspecting business world and they’re stymied by a simple request for a report or memo: Where do I put my thesis? What goes in the second, third, and fourth paragraphs? How do I write a good ending if I can’t repeat everything I’ve already written?
The fact is, we don’t write in the real world like teachers teach kids to write in school. And this is why kids can’t write when they get to us.
We have to bust the myth that the 5-PE is an “industry standard” for writing in the workplace if we want to have a workforce that can communicate effectively.
Here’s how we do it. Business was a driving force behind the No Child Left Behind reforms. Ok, so we didn’t get that quite right. Let’s retool and try again. Let’s go back and ask for something we can use this time: kids who can read, write and think in the real world.
Let’s start by asking educators to teach kids authentic types of writing like personal essays, memos, letters, book and music reviews, op-eds, briefings, executive summaries, news reports and interviews—real forms written for real reasons by real adults in the real world. By focusing on authentic writing, kids will learn more and be able to do more once they’ve learned it.
Mastering real forms of writing will be easier, too, because teachers can base their instruction on real-world models and demonstrate the strategies real writers use to create them. Teaching real writing also means teaching real thinking, specifically the critical thinking required for success in college and in the workplace.
The good news is we already have a proven model for this kind of instruction in the Writer’s Workshop method, an approach with a 30-year history of documented success. Even better, many Writer’s Workshop teachers have developed strategies for writing that kids can begin to learn in kindergarten and continue to use all the way through college and beyond.
The trick is getting more educators to actually adopt this method. We’re not going to see the changes we need if we wait for education to heal itself. And relying on the government to come up with bureaucratic boondoggles like No Child Left Behind isn’t going to do it either. So we in the business community, as the ultimate consumers of our education system’s product, need to make a different kind of demand.
Rather than asking for higher test scores or tougher standards, let’s start asking schools to teach kids the skills we actually need them to have. Instead of rote learning, let’s ask for real learning. And let’s start with writing because writing is the most important skill our children need to compete in a global Information Age economy.
Margot’s a content strategist and freelance journalist. She consults with and/or writes for businesses large and small, and new and traditional media. She’s also the author of four books, including Be a Better Writer: Power Tools for Young Writers -- co-written with her husband, Steve Peha -- won the 2007 Independent Publishers Association gold medal for teen/young-adult nonfiction. She is currently working on two additional titles in the Better Writer Series, one for college students and another for corporate employees. A Southern belle and sex symbol for the intelligentsia, she was born, raised and still lives in Orange County, N.C.
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11.28.05 @ 7:45p
I have to admit this is the first I've heard of 5-PE, but it explains some things I've observed about the writing samples we receive from those freshly out of college.
As a professional technical writer, I've always argued that a good writer first has excellent critical and logical thinking skills and then a mastery of writing forms. Form can be perfect, but if content and logic are weak, the writing becomes an exercise in futility.
Back in my day (ancient times though they were) as a high schooler in California, academic-track students were taught to master the skills needed to pass the dreaded Subject A exam, which was required by the University of California system. Passing the subject A meant avoidance of remedial English as a Freshman. The test was sufficiently rigorous so that students were downgraded not only for errors in form, but for failure to support their theses with logical and salient arguments. Thus, "teaching to the test" was not a disaster."
11.28.05 @ 8:00p
My daughter, a high-school sophomore, was recently struggling with a history assignment. Her teacher had instructed her that her paper must be presented in the 5-PE form. She was FAR more concerned about form than content, and kept asking me to look her paper over. I pointed out HISTORICAL ERRORS and her response was "that doesn't matter, I just need to make sure I supported it three times."
As I'm sure you can imagine, I flipped.
I spoke with her history teacher later, and expressed my outrage. He sighed. He said that if kids came into his class with anything remotely resembling writing skills, he would not give 5-PE assignments... but given that 90% of them DON'T have those skills, he was resigned to teaching form over fact. "At least they'll know SOMETHING when they get out of this class," he said.
Oh and by the way... this is an AP level history class.
The mind boggles.
11.28.05 @ 8:01p
As I progressed through my years of academia, it seemed to me that I was "writing" less and less. To be sure, I was putting words down on a page with regularity, but it was primarily regurgitating proper report-formatted prose — taking an already determined conclusion and backing it up with text which escaped the label of plagiarism only because I had a properly cited bibliography page.
You know when I learned to write? Second grade. Miss McKinney had us all doing creative writing — telling stories! — not scrawling down bland essays. I learned sentence structure, punctuation, segues, and proper spelling through exercising those skills in a practical but fun manner. Everyone needs to know how to tell stories, and better still, how to make them up! I recall my college psych prof talking with me after the final and telling me how much she enjoyed the essays I'd written on her exams during the semester, because I injected them with humor and thoughtfulness, rather than merely reciting the information back to her.
I am still wavering about home schooling my two boys, but even if we choose to send them to school, I intend to lay on real "home-work" in both reading and writing. You've made an excellent list of suggested writing styles, Margot; I believe it will make an excellent jumping-off point for the boys.
11.30.05 @ 12:26a
I guess I'm too old to have heard of the 5-PE. Back in the day I had teachers who encouraged me to multiple pages and never limited me to 5 paragraphs. I find it appalling to hear of this type of education, but not surprised. Our world is geared toward dumbing us down.
Very disappointing to discover this form of education.
11.30.05 @ 7:51a
I remember the 5-pe, but I remember it as an intro to writing, a model/training template, but not an actual form that was emphasize later as skills developed.
I think the suggestion to teach real-world writing forms is great, but there is one problem. Teachers themselves don't live (or write) in the real world. How will they teach all those manners of writing and stay abreast of them when they have no exposure to them on a day-to-day basis. How will they evaluate forms they've never dealt with? Continuing Ed? Maybe if education professors lived and wrote in the real world.
11.30.05 @ 8:50a
I taught something very similar to this to freshman comp students when I was in grad school. If they learn it's just one way of tackling a topic, it can be very successful. Inflexibility in anything to do with writing is ridiculous. Good writing breaks rules. Of course, you have to learn them thoroughly before you can break them successfully, which is where forms like this come in.
My students had four major assignments during the semester and this was only one. They started with personal narrative, they had to do compare and contrast; teaching a broad numbers of forms is the best way to make sure students become writers.
11.30.05 @ 10:01a
Back in the dark ages when I went to high school if all I did was five paragraphs I'd no doubt get a D or maybe even an F. This whole topic is mind boggling to me. I'll have to check up on my granddaughters' writing skills. One of them wants to be a writer, so she writes all the time, journals, letters, essays, stories: she's never far from her pencils and paper. She's only eight, but she's practicing her craft daily. She's in a gifted program at school and I rather doubt she's been limited to five paragraphs, but now I'm going to find out for sure. Thanks for the heads up.
11.30.05 @ 12:09p
I am still wavering about home schooling my two boys, but even if we choose to send them to school, I intend to lay on real "home-work" in both reading and writing.
I can tell you that the home "enrichment" method (read that as tough, bossy parent method) works. My daughter is now a competent freelance writer. When she was in high school, I remember correcting a paper after a teacher had already awarded the requisite "A;" I did not think the paper was her best work.
I was often dismayed too by the grammatical and spelling errors in communications from her teachers.
11.30.05 @ 12:33p
I know a few teachers who have chronic problems with grammar and spelling. I don't believe they're aware of their difficulties, however, and that makes them doubly ignorant in my eyes. When I'm uncertain of a word's spelling, I look it up! I have a dictionary in my desk drawer, and I can always check Google or some other online source for help. It's frustrating to consider that some of the people who may be teaching my sons how to learn are unwilling to take the consult a basic reference, or are so haughty (or naive) as to believe that they don't have a deficiency.
I don't want to come off as a language Nazi, but I believe that knowing how to spell, how to write and how to speak are fundamental skills which influence both personal success and social perception. Write or speak like an idiot, and you will be considered an idiot. Write and speak well and people will believe you even when you don't know what you're talking about!
My older son is strong and smart (good looking, too), and I hope to instill in him the same willingness to strive for both academic AND athletic fitness. I believe he's gifted in both areas. As a parent, it's my responsibility to give him every opportunity to excel; at times, that may mean pushing him beyond what a teacher or coach is willing to do. I hope that when the time comes, he'll accept the challenge.
11.30.05 @ 1:59p
Margot, thanks for an inspiring piece of writing. I think I may teach a business unit next semester, after all. Anyone have good sample of business writing they want to pass along for classroom models?
I find the 5PE difficult to deal with in the classroom because, while I want my students to break the habit, I don't want them to toss out everything that they've learned. Some of the elements are necessary. For example, today I suggested that a student conclude a paragraph with a sentence that would tie some of the ideas together, and she asked if it was ok to do that, even though it was something she'd learned in the 5PE form, which people are now telling her is bad writing.
The problem, is that writing is a conditional exercise. Under certain conditions, some things are desirable, while under others they aren't.
11.30.05 @ 2:05p
Thanks everyone for your comments and feedback.
Teaching kids to write is complicated by the political nature of writing and teaching. Preaching and teaching the 5-PE as an authentic form of writing *is* bad in my estimation. I've fired four JOURNALISM students in the last two years because even they are now writing this way.
That said, there is nothing wrong with a summary sentence. What we need to be teaching kids is what makes good writing, and what's appropriate in different forms of writing, not that everything you write has to conform to a certain number of sentences and grafs.
That's all I'm saying, really.
And, Sarah, I've got some good examples and some terrible ones if you want to see them. I'd also be glad to come to your class and talk about what we teach business people about business writing.
11.30.05 @ 6:12p
Margot, I'd be curious to see your business writing samples too, as I have some of my own and we're thinking about starting a fac/staff writing workshop here. I'd appreciate your input.
But, you know, I doubt you'll be able to just skip over to DSM. :)
We struggle with this in an M&C capacity at a university. I can't tell you some of the writing nonsense I've encountered, even from those with doctorate degrees.
And punctuation? Forget it!
Some of the students in my office display great ablities for logical thinking of what the target audience is, how to communicate a message and do it well. Others? As college seniors? Not so much.
12.1.05 @ 11:39a
Journalism students writing 5-p essays is ridiculous. Journalism has its own style -- actually, every type of journalism has its own form and feel, from feature writing to news to crime to profiles to obits to sportswriting to... y'all know what I mean.
If there's anything at all universal across different types of writing, it's this: your first sentence should be killer. True for fiction, true for marketing, true for everything. Even theses.
12.1.05 @ 11:46a
What we need to be teaching kids is what makes good writing, and what's appropriate in different forms of writing, not that everything you write has to conform to a certain number of sentences and grafs.
I agree with this, and my experience is limited to freshman comp in an inner city school, but I still say that for a persuasive paper, the 5pe is a reasonable template. The goal is to get them to logistically develop their thoughts, and to stay on task, which is to proceed soundly and validly to the conclusion, hence the repetition of the thesis. The number or paragraphs is arbitrary, but requiring at least 3 supporting premises is appropriate for adding dimension.
I know that when I was trying to teach comp, which in addition to everything else means tabling fair assigments to diverse students, I had to have some type of baseline like this or half the kids would have flunked outright. (I was in a magnate, and the frosh had anywhere between 3rd grade and college-level skills). I'd add one thing: No one got dinged on nitpicking, i.e, if they didn't repeat their thesis, or whatever, or if they had more than 5 paragraphs, they didn't get dinged. As long as the implication, the basic constructs were there.
12.1.05 @ 11:57a
sure, dan, in theory that works. but i've seen these essays in schools around the nation and that's NOT what's happening.
true story: i was leading a workshop for 9th grade english teachers on essay writing. we worked through some strategies real writers use and then they started writing. everyone wrote solid pieces, despite not being "writers", except one teacher. she came up to me afterwards and said, "i know this way is better -- i came up with a lot more ideas and support -- but i kept thinking 'how will i fit this into the 5-paragraph form?' i realized if i kept to that format, i'd be repeating myself. but i couldn't stop.'
THAT is the problem. that format, especially when taught poorly, gets in your head like a bad pop song chorus and it debilitates you.
12.1.05 @ 1:03p
Which magnate were you in, Dan? Rockefeller? Or Getty?
12.1.05 @ 1:24p
This kind, Mr. GED:
School Choice: A wide variety of educational options including the traditional public school, magnate schools, charter schools, private non-religious schools, private religious schools, and home schooling.
ETA: My spelling does suck in general, Russ is write about that.
12.1.05 @ 2:07p
Threads on both eggcorn.com and wordsmith.com, along with Googling both terms lend credence to the likelihood that 'magnate school' is a common malapropism. See this story wherein the copy editor writing the headline can't find agreement in usage with the story below. Google, as ever, attempts to gently correct the inquiry: "Did you mean to search for: what is a magnet school?"
To beat my point to death, from an article on the ongoing struggle of hospitals to maintain fiscal solvency:
To achieve magnate status, hospitals must have the 14 forces of magnetism as determined by the study - or the forces that make the facility a great place to work and be a patient.
"Magnate" (a powerful or influential person, especially in business or industry) has nothing to do with "magnet" (in this case, a person, a place, an object, or a situation that exerts attraction). Perhaps these struggling hospitals would be more successful if they would attract more magnates to endow them.
12.1.05 @ 2:50p
I got my first F ever in English 111. My teacher (a graduate assistant) was more concerned with form than content. I, poor misguided soul that I was, naively assumed that in college facts and informative prose were finally more important than form. Not only that, I was convinced I'd presented my informative and accurate prose in the proper form when I turned in the assignment. To have a college instructor tell me that having my facts correct was "irrelevant" was mind-blowing. This will sound awful, but I sincerely hope that grad student finally got a dose of reality from one of his own professors at some point.
The foolishness isn't limited to 5-PE in English classes. Verbal communication isn't taught in a useful manner either--just sit in on a college Speech class some time. The adherence to teaching specific types of speeches (for example, persuasive)that adhere to a formula is nuts.
Personally, when I write something important in a work situation, my first concern is content---get the facts right and in a logical order that leads the reader in the proper direction. THEN, and only then, do I worry about form---is my grammar correct? Did I miss any typos? Is my punctuation right or are the holes in my comma shaker too big again?
When I gave essay questions on tests as a college professor, I wanted proof that the students understood concepts and could express their understanding by putting the facts together appropriately...I wasn't teaching English and wasn't interested in whether they could achieve 4 5-PE style answers along with the other answers in a 50-minute time frame.
Communication, written or verbal, should focus on CONTENT and PRESENTATION in a logical and understandable order. Form should be secondary, yet appropriate for the circumstances.
12.1.05 @ 3:22p
When I supervised writers, I taught them that any type of organization was fine as long as they had SOME type of organization. That's the only place where I feel like form has to come before content. Which I think agrees with what Lisa is saying above. "Secondary, yet appropriate for the circumstances." Just right.
12.1.05 @ 3:45p
That damn Russ is correct about the malapropism, but that's how half of everyone, including teacher ed materials, seem to refer to it.
get the facts right and in a logical order that leads the reader in the proper direction, then worry about form.
That is form in my mind, and is why the 5pe exists, specifically to help novice writiers do exactly what you just described.
I guess I just think of form and content as being closely related. If effective thought and expression are the goal, form has to be as important as content, particularly if the argument is controversial, in which case the better formed of the opposing viewpoints is the superior piece of writing.
12.1.05 @ 3:48p
i'm not bashing organization or form. i'm bashing programmed instruction and a system that encourages people to promote this particular form as the be-all end-all of writing techniques, AND that doesn't bother to teach other, more authentic forms. organization is my friend.
12.1.05 @ 4:13p
I know, I'm not saying that. I'm with you on advancing past it once the kids grasp it. I'm just stuck on where to start with kids who don't read or write particularly well to begin with and will just get even more hopelessly lost.
12.1.05 @ 4:42p
But Dan, sometimes the 5-PE isn't adequate for the topic and sometimes it's overkill.
A friend of mine once used this expression in regards to writing a letter: It should be like a woman's skirt--long enough to cover the subject and short enough to keep it interesting. The same applies to any form of written or verbal communication. By forcing students to use the 5-PE in virtually all essay-writing exercises, the emphasis becomes not on addressing the issues within the assignment adequately so much as it becomes about the form. The 5-PE ranks right up there with demanding paragraphs of 85-100 words on a subject without regards to whether the subject deserves 85 words, or needs more than 100.
Case in point: One of my favorite junior high teachers once gave us a reading project where we had to write summary paragraphs on a series of short stories in our textbook (and unless things have changed, there's nothing worse than the stories in 1-12 reading texts--they are tedious beyond belief). Each summary had to be 85-100 words, and the story list seemed endless. I have memories of sitting at my desk in the basement dutifully reading each story, and writing a summary paragraph then counting each word in the paragraph--then struggling to write more just to make the word count minimum despite the fact that most of the stories weren't worth 40 word summaries much less 85 words.
I have no clue what any of those stories were about now, other than a vague recollection of one being about a POW in WWII who figured out he'd been captured by noticing that the water the nurse used to bathe him was hard rather than soft. (Or was that a 4th grade story? Clearly, reading texts in 1-12 need help.) Basically, the only thing I learned from that project was how to BS my way through to a specified word count. Knowing that teacher this was not the intent of the assignment, yet it was the ultimate outcome.
12.1.05 @ 4:46p
It should be like a woman's skirt--long enough to cover the subject and short enough to keep it interesting.
I am totally going to start using this in describing to my coworkers why we're not writing longer brochures. Heh.
12.1.05 @ 4:53p
Be my guest, Jael. I just wish I could take credit for the line myself!
Reading is the key. I would argue that many of kids' writing stumbling blocks come from being forced to read appallingly dull stories and essays which are used as examples. There's no reason why non-fiction writings cannot be interesting just because they are non-fiction. Perhaps if students were given better, and more interesting, examples of different writing forms then teaching them how to write would be easier.
Kids get hung up on details--did I stir the reaction mixture exactly 30 times? Do I have enough words in this paragraph to get full credit? What's the point of having kids recognize that there are 56 different species of tree in front of him, if he can't grasp the significance that those trees make up a forest, and that the forest is what is significant?
We get hung up on outlines and word counts and introductions and conclusions and body paragraphs to the point that the majority of a child's assignment grade is based on form. The side effect of this intense focus on form is that we are teaching children that what they have to say is not as important as how it is said.
12.1.05 @ 5:36p
we know where to start. we've worked with kids from K onwards to write well without the crutch of this form. we have strategies that work with real kids in real classrooms. kids of very different socio-economic, skills and literacy levels. it CAN be done. but it's going to take big changes for teachers, support from administrators and a push from parents and the business community. which is why i wrote this piece. we want better from and for our kids. and that means we have to expect more.
12.1.05 @ 7:00p
Okay, Margot, I'm going to further give away my age and tell you that the lack of caps in this discussion thread reminds of the cockroach Archie (who couldn't reach the shift key) in The Lives and Times of Archie and Mehitabel. (Mehitabel, a dissolute old alley cat, is one of my heroines!)
Seriously, though, I agree with you that kids can be taught to write well. A mechanical, formulaic approach will result in mechanical, formulaic writing, and who wants to read that?
12.1.05 @ 10:51p
Reading and the lack of it in the formative years is a primary factor when considering poor writing skills. Television and video games do not familiarize someone with the written word. There's no way to understand the flow of a story or the thought process behind sentence structure and purposeful word placement.
I like the "long enough/short enough" theory, too, Lisa. I'm challenged by this when I have to summarize or highlight a life in 325 words for some of the magazine spotlights I do at work. This is where I might disagree with the formulated paragraph argument. You have to extract details and position them in such a way that the reader feels that, even in short form, there was something to take away from the article.
Pssst - still waiting on those samples, Margot. :)Thanks!
12.2.05 @ 12:20p
There's no reason why non-fiction writings cannot be interesting just because they are non-fiction.
Yes there is. In my experience, most are selected for political reasons, and not for the intrinsic reason that they are well written.
As for reading, definitely a big one. As for writing, expanding past a given form, and obliterating it altogether are two different things. I just don't think it's a given that kids who can't write a 5pe are going to rock out on other forms if they can't grasp something that basic.
It's definitely worth a try, but it takes a miminum of 16 years for curriculla reforms instituted in Kindergarten to be accurately measured. I think it will have positive results, I just don't think it's an either/or.
And I'll say something else, not one of the talented writers here that I have read, by implication or theme, that doesn't form their persuavive writings along that old intro-body-conc format.
12.2.05 @ 12:41p
Yes there is. In my experience, most are selected for political reasons, and not for the intrinsic reason that they are well written.
I don't understand this statement. So every non-fiction book is written because the author has an agenda and not because they find the topic interesting? Granted, I prefer fiction, but I have read several non-fiction books that I really enjoyed, most recently one called The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty by Buster Olney.
Every book has a point.
12.2.05 @ 1:33p
No I was referring to essays that are selected for text books or pieces that are otherwise mandated in the curricullum.
I like Non-fiction and I read a lot of it. But you don't get to pick when you're a teacher, you pretty much have to select from what is approved by the powers that be. All I'm saying is, a lot of it sucks outright. But's there.
12.2.05 @ 1:42p
ah, but if you teach in the workshop style, you and your kids get to pick. it's so much more interesting, relevant and instructional for everyone. and, seriously, easier for the teacher to manage when done correctly (which isn't very hard, really).
12.2.05 @ 2:18p
That sounds good, productive.
But hey, here's something else that seems to be closing my mind a bit, something based on exercises you do in classroom managment classes. The average school year is 180 days given perfect attendance. The average class period is 55 minutes, and that's a liberal estimate. Knock off ten, for set up/wrap up, let's say 45 minutes per class. That totals 135 hours. If you knock off, say 5 weeks for test prep, movie units, music units, and other politically mandated conttent like Holocaust units or whatever is required by law, you have 155 45-minute periods, or 116.5 total hours.
If you have 20 kids per class, that gives you 5.81 hours/student/year.
So the workshop can definitely avail you, and certainly makes good use of limited time with the group-oriented format, but my question is, how much can you really get done with those types of contrainsts on a teacher? Most teachers have at least 3 or 4 classes (80 kids or so) and are not permitted to tutor their own students. Teachers are unionized, i.e. incented to do their basic job but nothing above and beynod, and also have almost no feedback to the admin or to the union about how well previous teachers did preparing the students for this class, etc., etc. I guess what I'm wondering, is this gonna work in real world public schools?
12.2.05 @ 2:34p
all your points are valid, dan. but we see it work in real-world public school classrooms every day. we're getting some good results in inner-city schools with low-income kids (and, in phoenix, where there are a lot of ESL kids) and in the fancy suburban public schoools. but it takes a teacher who's willing to focus on procedures to get the max out of the lower class times. 55-minute periods are tough for any model of instruction, but can be used effectively in the workshop style if the teacher's willing to create and enforce good procedures. steve can tell you how to do it better than i can, but i promise you it can be done. as you correctly point out, however, it takes a teacher who's willing to change his/her practice, put in a little more work upfront and then reap the rewards in say, october. that's a small percentage of our teachers. one last point, in lots of districts, the administration is keen on the workshop style, but lacks the cajones to enforce the model.
12.2.05 @ 2:44p
Why wouldn't you want to workshop? Sure, you have to invest time into designing workshops and making sure the directions are clear, but after that initial investment, all you have to do is wind them up and go.
Not to say that the workshop teacher isn't involved in what is happening, or doesn't have to work. Just that the work involves responding to individual students or groups and their concerns, rather than lecturing at them and marking up their homework. I find it much more relaxing, and I believe my students find it more helpful.
12.2.05 @ 3:17p
you're exactly right. but you'd be surprised how many teachers just don't want to make that initial investment. even ones who've seen it work in a classroom across the hall with kids just like theirs.
the mind reels.
the heart breaks.
12.3.05 @ 11:47p
I sent the link to this article and discussion to a friend who teaches high school special education. Here's her response:
I loved the article--I will certainly pass it on to receptive colleagues--the problem is that the state and feds (NCLB) are evaluating on that basis!
12.4.05 @ 9:08a
thanks for sharing the article, lucy! here's my response to your friend's very valid comment: teach authentic writing forms and develop authentic writing skills during the year. this framework allows you to include the 5-PE as a "special form" so kids understand it's a school thing, not a life thing. this is the model we use with teachers all over the country, so we know it works. and their kids, because they're better writers and thinkers, smoke the test while still learning valuable communication skills for their lives after graduation. it's a win-win!
12.4.05 @ 10:48p
I can tell you that the state standards for language arts that I've dealt with lean heavily on emphasizing form, but don't specify the 5-PE format. This leads me to believe that to some degree the heavy reliance on that form for testing and instruction may be due more to ingrained habits--i.e., "This is the way I was taught to write, so this must be the best way to teach it"--rather than because it truly is the best way. Since this is the time-honored method, it's not surprising that standard tests and college admissions procedures also place a heavy emphasis on the ability to write in this style.
I will state again for the record--just because it is they way it's always been taught doesn't mean it creates effective communicators and thinkers. In fact, it does just the opposite, at least in science--it leads to rigidity in thought and expression. If we continually limit our students to 5 paragraphs, of which 2 contain nothing original in terms of thought or information, what exactly are students learning about the thought process--that it should stop once they've reached a 3 body paragraph limit? That if something can't be said in those 3 body paragraphs, it's not worth saying? We don't think in 5-paragraph format, why should it be given such excessive prominence when we teach writing?
Personally, I think this format encourages students to take the safe route with information and not break new ground in the way they share their interpretation, simply because they aren't allowed enough space or words to complete their thoughts.
Let's start teaching students how to think, and express their thoughts on paper---THEN teach them how to edit them down to the salient points and get their finished product into the final format.
Food for thought--our reading lives might have been easier if Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau or Machiavelli had written in the 5-PE format, but just think how much poorer the world would be intellectually as a result.