The Long Goodbye to the Five Paragraph Essay

My first five paragraph essay that I remember writing was on the word “square”.  I was in 9th grade Honors English and the assignment was to pick a word, go to the Oxford English Dictionary, and write a five paragraph essay on that word*.

Square Packing, cropped
Introduction with thesis statement. Three body paragraphs, including topic sentences. Conclusion. I earned a C. I never got Cs.** I can’t remember why I got a C.  But I was determined to never get a C again. And I became a master essay writer. I learned the rules. And I actually loved to learn to love to write essays, usually in a modified five paragraph format. I was an essay writing machine.

Intro. Thesis. Topic Sentences. Details. Analysis. Conclusion. Repeat.

And I admit it…I LOVE teaching five paragraph essays.  This is not edgy teaching, but old-school teaching at it’s very best.  I can make kids think they are writing masterpieces when they write a five paragraph essay. I love writing all over essays with my purple pen and I can help them become better writers. And I think it’s a handy skill to have in college. I couldn’t have napped as much in college if I didn’t have that formula mastered. And so, I was planning on starting a five paragraph essay with my grade 8 humanities students as a summative assessment on the World Religions unit.  I was ready to go, confident in my knowledge of how I teach writing and why I teach it that way.

And then I went this week to hear Chris Betcher speak about creativity in schools while he was visiting YIS.   Chris suggested we engage students by giving them choices***.  We have to think about what we really want them to learn and combine that with giving students choice about what to learn and how to present their learning.  This is real-world learning.  And then I read my teaching partner, Alex, write about getting rid of his old understanding on rules in writing. And both made me think about what I was doing with my grade 8s.  Then I threw out the old, comfortable, safety blanket that is the five paragraph essay.

Here’s is what my (and Alex’s) grade 8 students are doing


  • You must come up with a question about religion that you are interested in researching and allows for analysis
  • There must be least 250 written words and a thesis statement.  These words do not necessarily have to be in paragraph format, though that is an option.
  • You must include specific evidence to support your thesis statement.  Evidence can be visual or written.
  • You must show analytical skills (how does the evidence help answer the question?)
  • You must turn in your research log and a bibliography


  • You can do an essay.  For an essay to reach top levels, you would have to write more words than the minimum 250 words (500-750 words)
  • You could do a hybrid essay and multimedia (for instance podcast/voicethread/animoto/poster)
  • You could do a multimedia presentation that has written word sprinkled throughout the product

And in actuality, this is a hell of a lot harder to do than teaching a five paragraph essay, for both me and my students. I want my students to analyze, be able to create a thesis statement, and do quality research. I really hope this assignment will allow them to do that. I am already regretting putting in the 250 word minimum, because I am worried they will stop thinking and working as soon as they hit 250 words.  But I am getting some really fantastic questions: What role does religion play in education?  How is music used in Christianity, past and present?  How do different religions justify the existence of a god or deity?  These are much bigger questions than what could be fit into a typical five paragraph essay. **** 

I am nervous about this.  I am worried about how this will be assessed.  I’m unsure if this is really preparing them for high school*****.  Should I have done this type of assignment with a less controversial unit of study? Is this age appropriate?  Am I giving up a traditional teaching method that helps my students just for the sake of doing something “cool”? What are earth will they actually turn-in? But despite all my worries, I believe with this assignment,  I have started the long goodbye to the five paragraph essay.

Pictures used by permission from Creative Commons, Square Packing, cropped by oragami_madness


*I have absolutly no idea why I picked the word “square”.  I am pretty sure I quoted Huey Lewis and the News
**I have always been a nerdy overachiever.
***This is where the tech can play a role.  Web2.0 tools can help students create, research, & publish. But note, the goal is never to master the tool, but to create something. And I recognize it’s odd to have the tech part of this COETAIL post be in the footnotes, but I’m comfortable with that.
**** They can write an essay if they want.  That might be the way they choose to present their learning.  If I didn’t allow them to write an essay, then I would be limiting their choices, something I am trying to avoid.
*****Note, high school is not real life.  To cite the old argument, I have never written a five paragraph essay in real life.  But I use the skills. And it sure was helpful to know how to do it on the AP History exam.

About Rebekah Madrid

MYP Humanities Instructor. International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. National Board Certified Teacher. Traveler & TV Watcher. This is where I write my thoughts about all of the above.
This entry was posted in COETAIL @YIS, Humanities, IBO-MYP-DP, MYP Humanities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to The Long Goodbye to the Five Paragraph Essay

  1. pandahaus says:

    I think your approach sounds excellent, age-appropriate and fun! What a gift for kids to be able to showcase their own strengths in communication while completing a research project.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Appreciate the encouragement! Check back for the results.

  3. kdceci says:

    Great! Although that 5-paragraph is sooooo easy to teach after having taught it probably a million times. Good to drop old habits and move on. I think there are a lot of ways for students to show their understanding. Depends on what we’re teaching–writing or content?

    • One week in and I can tell you the five paragraph essay is much easier. I really did shift the focus of this to a research assignment. I’m thinking the five-paragraph essay format I will teach in a less formal, formative way. Still have to figure that one out next 🙂

  4. Mary Worrell says:

    This is awesome and you are inspiring me as I work on summative assessments for my units. I was just thinking about HOW to teach writing while avoiding those formulas that stifled my own creativity in school. I went to Maury High School where we learned the illustrious “Maury Paragraph.” A five-paragraph, soul-sucking nightmare format. But to some students it was comforting – a formula to follow.

    As I look at my MYP 2&3 students I think “maybe this is too hard for them…maybe this is too abstract,” but I need to be brave and open-minded. Be that risk-taker the Learner Profile encourages them to be. I’m going to share this with our humanities teacher who is also teaching a religions component of MYP 2&3 history. Let us know how it goes!

  5. Thanks for your comment! I am so far amazed at my kids ability to work with abstract. There are a a few that are really struggling, but at least they are struggling with something the chose and they aren’t giving up. That’s a good sign. I’ll post results once I get them!

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  7. Viviane says:

    I finally had time to read this!
    It is refreshing to see someone post their worries and their new experiment.
    I wonder how you developed the questioning phase of your students’ inquiries?
    Please keep us posted on how it’s going!

    • We developed the questions a couple of ways. This assignment was done after they did research on a singular world religion. And part of their reflection was to come up with something more they wanted to know about religion. So they came up with possible questions before even knowing about the assignment. Then they did traditional brainstrorming on googledocs. Then I commented on googledocs to help refine the question. And finally, we had one-one-one sessions. Some kids found their questions changing as they researched which was also great.
      Thanks for stopping by!

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  9. Kim Cofino says:

    Fantastic post, Rebekah! I love that you are so willing to take risks and try new things. I think the new version of your assignment more realistically reflects what students will have to do in the “real world”. I, too, love the 5 paragraph essay because I can follow a formula and get an A every time. But is that really what we want school to be about? Yes, they need to know how to write one (if only to get through college – and that’s it’s own problem which could potentially be changing), but do they need to do the same kind of project every time? Definitely not. After listening to Alex’s parent teacher student conferences last week, it’s clear that the students are engaged and interested and really learning because of the abstract and open-ended nature of this assignment. Looking forward to seeing the finished product!

    • The difference of hearing grade 8 students talking about this project at conferences vs. when we did a traditional essay was amazing. They just finished them and I hope to post some of their work soon. It was pretty awesome.

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  15. Alex says:

    Hi Rebekah,

    This post is a little old now, so I hope you are still able to discuss it.

    Firstly, my colleague and I are big fans of what you are doing in the classroom, both MYP and DP. Thanks for making your great ideas public!

    Now on to the actual question I have about this activity:
    how did you make sure that the student’s question tied in with the statement of inquiry, global context, key concept etc?

    I would like my students to come up with their own questions, but now with the “Next Chapter” it seems like we are really hemmed in by all the requirements for each unit. The students basically can’t really do much that is not related to the statement of inquiry or the 3 questions of each unit. Even if I say that they can think more broadly etc (which I’m not sure I am really meant to do) once they’ve seen the statement of inquiry and the 3 questions, it’s like they are incapable of really coming up with anything that is greatly different.

    What would you recommend? What do you do? Do your students know the statement of inquiry, the 3 questions, global context and key concept for each unit? Do these constrain the unit or do you allow students to go off in directions that interest them? If so, is it possible to grade them using the criteria?

    Thanks in advance,


  16. Rebecca,
    Actually, I’m doing some research on the effectiveness of teaching form to students from China and Japan, who do not have any idea what a “five-paragraph essay” is. I would love to pick your brain about your thoughts on teaching form, especially students who have never written more than sentences. You can email me at or text me at (757) 335-0944. Again, I want to get a sense of your feelings about teaching form. This goes for any of your readers as well.

    Thanks in advance,

    Greg Raver-Lampman, ODU English Language Center
    Norfolk, VA

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