Tips and Techniques for Teaching and Learning to Write the Five Paragraph Essay
As a teacher who was facing the fact that the students coming to me were not usually good writers, I had to develop a program that would encourage them to improve. With the advent of state testing, other teachers at my level also searched for ways to improve . As we tried, shared, and improved what we did, so did the student's writing. I am sharing some of the things that we found to be effective for us. This is by no means an inclusive list on effective writing.
Writing a good five-paragraph essay requires that one master the format. What is required for writing a good five-paragraph essay is the same as for any good writing, but that the five-paragraph format needs to be exact. Through practice, proficiency is achieved. Through practice using a good planning pattern, the process becomes a second nature thinking skill. Remember that the practice is not drill as the product is ever changing. Mistakes will be made, but good evaluation, especially self-evaluation will see that the mistakes are not repeated. Since writing is communication, always remember that the goal is to become clear, concise, and unified so that the reader can follow along and appreciate the writer's point of view and train of thought. The five-paragraph essay is a great tool for learning and communicating at all levels.
Here are some ideas you might find useful.
The Introductory Paragraph
For the Writer: The Introductory Paragraph
For the Writer: Supporting Paragraphs
For the Writer:The Ending or Summary Paragraphs
Thoughts of This Teacher for Other Teachers
For the Writer and Teacher: Look Around for Examples and Develop Your Program
For the Writer and Teacher: Some Ending Thoughts
For Teachers: Sample Lesson Activities
Before you begin to use the suggestions here, I assume that you have read through and understand the full essay process. If not, take the time now to do so. Be sure and look up some of the the links presented as they present core knowledge. When you are finish, come back and begin to look through these suggestions. Only when you have an understanding of the process and product, will this section make sense.
First and foremost, do not try to write a whole five-paragraph essay the first time you try. Divide the learning experience into sections and practice each section individually until you feel you are successful. Build gradually adding a section at a time. Go step-by-step through the introduction, supporting paragraphs, and conclusion until the process becomes second nature. After a while, you will recognize what is good and what is not. I learned that most pointedly while teaching fifth and sixth grade students.
Start with learning to write the introductory paragraph. It is the most important as you are grabbing the reader's attention by informing him or her of the main points of your essay. Spend a lot of time learning to write this well. A poor impression often "turns off" the reader and/or evaluator. That leads to a less than appropriately appreciated essay or a lesser grade. You have to grab the reader's attention with interest and clarity. That is not an easy task.
When you are learning to write the essay, think small. Practice writing just introductory paragraphs. Choose a topic about which you know quite a bit. Jot it down. Do some brainstorming to determine which are the three best supporting ideas. Write them down too. Now go back and think about the point that you are trying to make. How can you word the first sentence to clearly and concisely tell that to the reader? Try to do that in the active voice as it is much stronger that way. Jot down the new sentence. Now do the same thing for each of the three supporting ideas. Be sure that they are well written and explain a facet of the topic that you want to develop. Once you have that, there is just one more thing to write. It is the transition sentence that will connect these thoughts to your supporting paragraphs. Remember that you are developing one sentence at a time.
When you are finished, take a second to look back over that paragraph. Be sure that you have made it exciting to the reader. Usually, if you are honest, if it is not exciting or interesting to you, it will not be so to the reader. Be sure that you are not using dull similar sentence structure. Be sure that the ideas flow easily one from the other. The reader needs to see that there is connection. Unless you are writing a personal narrative, try not to use the pronoun "I." Most people do not know you so there is little authority given to your opinions. Make any corrections. When you are please, share it with someone whose writing you respect. Get their impressions. They are important. Writing is communication with an audience. Once that audience is defined, you need to learn what is important to that audience, not just to yourself. Then and only then will you be successful.
Do not give up with just one try. Write on many topics, just writing the introductory paragraph. You will find that the process of following the format and thinking through and good introduction becomes easier with practice. That is only true if you go through some good pre-thinking, and evaluation so do not skip that part.
Put the introductory paragraphs that you have written aside and perhaps they can be developed later. Even if you do not later use them, they can be looked at in the future and compared with the type of writing you are doing now. It is nice to see a pattern of progress.
Use this technique of writing one paragraph at a time for writing supporting paragraphs. You can use some of the practice introductions that have been written earlier as "starters" if you wish.
Remember, that in writing a supporting paragraph that you are using the three supporting ideas from the introductory paragraph as the topics of each of your supporting paragraphs. Do not change the idea or the order. The reader is expecting you to follow the road map that you presented in the first paragraph.
Once again, practice developing just one of those supporting ideas. Be sure that you brainstorm to find the best facts and examples to support and explain your topic sentence. Be sure not to put in just anything about the general topic. Put in only those details that really enhance and develop the idea you presented. Then, when you are finished brainstorming and have written down your ideas, you can go back and think about the best structure for each of those sentences. Be sure that the first sentence is to the point and concise Think about each and write them down in paragraph form. When finished, go back and make sure that they are really explaining and giving examples specifically about the topic sentence. The tendency is to wander a bit off topic. Be careful not to let that happen to you.
As you end each supporting paragraph, the writer needs to think about how to make a good transition between this paragraph and the next. Will it best be done at the end of the paragraph or at the beginning of the next. You must provide a transition from one paragraph to the other so that the reader sees that there is closure and can anticipate what is coming next. It can be simply done or can be more elaborate. It is up to you. If you are not sure how to accomplish this, go back to the previous pages and check out some of the suggestions. I would run off one page and keep it with you when you are learning to write until you get the "hang" of transitioning.
Practice writing one supporting paragraph and evaluating, revising, and editing it. As with the introductory paragraph, this process and format becomes easier to follow as you practice. Do it many times remembering that pre-thinking and planning do not just apply to the paragraph, but to structuring each and every sentence. If you feel comfortable, have someone else look over the paragraph and critique it for you. It can be a valuable tool in evaluation.
Do that for many of the introductory paragraphs that you wrote and saved earlier. Note the development and the increasing completeness of thought. It is great to view your own successful development. You will be surprised how success breeds more and greater success in writing practice.You will come to appreciate the fact that the process becomes easier and faster when you put lots of effort into pre-thinking both the topic and the sentence structure.Good jobs do not have to take a long time to complete.
When you feel confident, develop two supporting paragraphs in a row. See how they fit together. When you are successful, then try developing all three at the same time. Be careful to include those important transitions from one supporting topic to the next. Be sure that the ideas flow easily from one paragraph to the next. Check to see that the writing does not appear choppy by using dull and similar sentence structure.
Double check to see that you are using active voice for strength. If you do all of those things, you will be amazed at how good and closely unified and developed your ideas can be. Remember, it does not happen over night. Practice and evaluate. Revise and reread. Progress is your most important product. It usually does not come without a lot of effort.
The Ending or Summary Paragraph
This is a difficult paragraph to write effectively. It sounds easy. All you have to do for most essays is to restate the opening paragraph. That often becomes the difficulty. The writer tends to use the same words and almost just rewrite the first paragraph with a transition that goes something like "Now you can see ...".
The introductory paragraph becomes a strong guide for writing the conclusion or summary paragraph. It is in conclusion paragraph that you, the writer, must remind the reader of the most important ideas that you have presented. If you just restated them as you did in the introduction, they may lack the strength to refocus the reader. You need to restate those ideas in a somewhat original manner. Why? You do that because you cannot assume that the reader logically followed your logic or even agrees with it. You cannot assume that they even accepted your thesis, especially in a persuasive essay. You must summarize effectively and with some degree of authority and originally as the last effort to convince them that this is well written and has value. Remember that these are the last thoughts that you will leave with the reader. Make them the best that you can.
Once again, use those introductory paragraphs that you wrote earlier as tools for writing practice. You want to say just about the same thing in a forceful way. Practice writing a summary for each one. Both of the paragraphs must be good. They both must grab and hod the reader's attention. But the last paragraph must convince the reader that you did the job well. You are reminding them of that.
After you have practice writing conclusions for a while, sometimes you find that you develop a style that is good and can be repeated. You may find different types of writing (expository, persuasive, and narrative) often have different good patterns for ending them. It is not necessary, but it can happen. After you have written three or four of each, see if that might not be true. It might just make future writing a little easier if it happens.
Thoughts of the Teacher for Other Teachers
What follows are merely ideas that I found to be personally useful. Use what you think will work, and forget the others. There is no sure fire way to teach or learn writing. There are some things that might make it easier, and that is what I am presenting.
Give your class lots of opportunities to write throughout the year. Teach them the format. Let them learn one paragraph at a time. When they are ready, use this format or writing in every subject that you can. It stretches the kids and makes them see that this is not just state test writing. Show them that this is a bridge to letter writing, making oral presentations, and all of the areas that will that will be used in the future world of work. Let them see that they are getting ready to be successful.
If you are a teacher, peer editing is a good technique to use here also. To aid in that, sometimes it is good to have the beginning student write on every other line or on wide line notebook paper so that there is room to make suggestions and revisions.
Another technique is the use of an overhead projector. A poorly constructed paragraph can make for a great modeling experience as the class makes suggestions and chooses what they collectively consider to be the best revisions. Doing it with one paragraph is easy since the whole thing fits well on a transparency. Do remember that the whole class must read it, so use a large and simple font, perhaps in boldface, for the transparency.
As the students get better and better, it is interesting to write better and better "poor" paragraphs. It is rewarding to see and point out to them the growth of the reasoning process as well as the writing.
As a teacher, I hesitated to use any student essays for this purpose. I never wanted to embarrass a student in front of the class. Peer editing and small group conferences for revision can aid effectively individual students. Having students volunteer to read essays about which they feel some pride is also a good way to share. If they did any of these, I had a rule that good things had to be said before any suggestions were given. Examples or reasons had to be included. A student could not simply say that they liked it. They had to tell why. That way, each student would have a success experience and some suggestions for possible growth.
Use written practice prompts whenever possible. This is especially true if you are using five paragraph essays for tests whether teacher given or state mandated. The written prompt has the advantage of aiding the writer in identifying all that is important in the assignment as well as being an effective place to go to double check that the assignment has been met when the writing is over and revision time is at hand. For the teacher, it can be a good way to see and check that the student understands the assignment. Oral instructions are open to wide interpretation for a variety of reasons.
Look Around for Examples and Develop a Program
Having great examples to use is important. Sometimes one can find great examples of good essay writing by collecting and using good editorials or editorial columns with students. Occasional, one can find an exceptional letter to the editor. "Reader's Digest" or a similar publications often have some good examples of good writing. There are numerous student publications that may well come to your class or be in the resource center that can be an aid in letting the students see real world examples of fine writing. Knowing what is expected is important in goal setting.
Using those same publications can be a great source of ideas for writing. Students can write essays in support or opposition to editorials or letters to the editor. Perhaps, they might be inspired to enter essay contests. Often the prize can be most worthwhile. They can use newspapers and magazines as sources of background information for their own essay about a particular topic. They can write articles about topics of importance to the school and submit them to the school paper or perhaps be included in your newsletter to parents. Providing background information for the writer is essential.
Some Ending Thoughts
The five paragraph essay is a good introduction to patterned writing. It is the basis for much writing that is done in school and later life. Mastering this form is essential. Developing good writers requires regular and frequent practice.
This is not your typical story writing or creative writing type of endeavor. It does not mean that it cannot be creative. But it does mean that it must conform to some specific rules. The sooner the student understands the basics of those rules, the better the writer.
Too often young children's writing just rambles. It never really gets pointed in one direction. Once that this becomes a habit for a student writer, it is hard to break. The best school-wide programs are ones in which there is a commitment to organization and teaching organization and development as soon as reasonable. That can be with the first writing experiences. Even one poorly written and accepted paragraph is too many.
Whether a person is writing an essay, a memo, a journal entry, or a simple paragraph good organization and good writing are important. In becoming a good writer of any type, it is important to just start small, practice, and build on each step until a writer feels confident to effectively tackle the whole challenge. Teachers and parents should provide those opportunities.
Sample Lesson Activities