Michelle Wittle On Teaching the Five-Paragraph Essay

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

If you don’t know the basics in anything, then you can never grow. You can’t write the next great American novel, if you can’t sustain an audience in a simple five-paragraph essay. It is just that simple. You can’t write well without knowing the “science” behind writing.


For some, they think teaching the five-paragraph essay is a waste of time. I’m not too sure why but I think the argument is teaching the essay format dilutes creativity. Which I feel is utter insanity. I can’t stand when someone feels that in order to be creative you have to go against all the rules. As I see it, being creative means knowing the rules and knowing how to manipulate them to suit your needs.


So, I am going to once again reach into my teaching bag and share with all of you how I taught my students the five-paragraph essay. I would like to toot my own horn here by telling you that when I taught in Philadelphia, I taught in a school that had 9th graders for one year and then they went to a different school for the rest of their time in high school. When my 9th graders wrote essays for other teachers, they always knew my kids because they knew how to write an essay.


I can’t remember how often they wrote essays, but I know that every test I ever gave had an essay portion to it. Let’s say I gave them an essay every two weeks. I also had them write research papers as well. I was such an evil teacher.


The Five-Paragraph Essay:


I always equated writing a five-paragraph essay to making a sandwich. The two pieces of bread are the introduction and the conclusion. They look the same, but have minor changes. The middle three paragraphs are always the “meat” of the sandwich. Let’s go with ham, cheese and lettuce. Each of those could be eaten alone and be perfectly fine, but when placed in order produce a powerfully tasty meal.


After the students get the analogy and (depending on when you are teaching during the day) when they have stopped thinking about the sandwich (which may or may not ever happen), then you can get into the paragraphs and their construction.


We get the brainstorm (I am a big fan of the web) and we find the three supporting details from our brainstorm. Then, we create an outline. Here is where you can get a bit creative. Do you know those cool sentence strips you see the younger grades using? Well, get them. Here is what you do. Somehow get the strips on the board (magnets, masking tape, whatever). When you are making the outline, create the sentences that you will use in the essay and write them on the strips. Now you have a visual representation of how an outline can turn into an essay and it will also save you time because the essay is already written.


Tell the kids that the introduction is a diamond and the conclusion is a pyramid. The diamond is because you start out with a general statement about the topic and then narrow it down to the thesis statement. The pyramid is because you restate the thesis and then expand to a concluding general statement about the topic.


Paragraphs 2,3,and 4 are just the supporting details that help validate the thesis. Just like the meat in a sandwich helps make the bread taste a bit better. 


The concluding paragraph is easy because all that needs to be done is restate the introduction in reverse.


Now, as they start to get the format down, then you can start helping them become more stylistic in their approach to writing the essay. Experiment with sentence structure and vocabulary only after the can demonstrate that they can handle the format. Take it one step at a time and build on top of things. If you throw everything at them at once, then you both are done. They won’t pay attention to you and you will want to throw out your eyes because of all the horrific papers you will be grading.


I taught this in high school to 9th and 10th graders. I don’t think it is ever too soon to start learning this format. Perhaps in middle school you could do a three-paragraph essay (the introduction, conclusion and one supporting paragraph). But by the time they are leaving tenth grade, they should know how to write a well-developed five-paragraph essay.


Also, for compare and contrast essays, you can pick either a four or five paragraph essay. But I will leave that for another time…if you want me to teach you that as well.


6 thoughts on “Michelle Wittle On Teaching the Five-Paragraph Essay

  1. I am currently teaching my 5th graders a 5-paragraph essay and they are doing great! We are working on the three middle paragraphs (the body) and I needed more guidance for the conclusion. I like your illustration of the intro is a diamond and the conclusion is a pyramid. Thanks!

    1. I teach fifth graders as well (which is a first for me, I usually teach high school, so it’s more then culture shock). Let me know how the conclusion works out and if you need more help, just let me know.
      Thanks so much for commenting:)…Michelle Wittle

  2. Do you ever have your students read examples or essays written by published authors? If so, which essays do you share with them?

    Thank you.

    1. It all depends on the grade level. In high school, I would always pull essays from The New Yorker. It all depends on what you are teaching and how you want to tie it in. But of course you should share published essays with students. It helps them see that writing isn’t just in the English classroom.

  3. As an English teacher with a degree in art, I completely agree with your comments about creativity. If you want to crush creativity you can do one of two things. You can present the problem and immediately give the solution, or you can present the problem and give no parameters within which to develop the solution.

    I like to point to the scene in Apollo 13 when the engineers were given a box of all the materials available to create the necessary apparatus for the astronauts to survive till touchdown. Now that was creativity!

    To continue with the theme of art and writing, I see the 5 paragraph essay sort of like perspective. Any truly capable artist has somehow learned perspective. If they choose to defy it, it’s because they have taken creative leave to do so, not because they don’t know how to use it.

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