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Introducing the Five-Paragraph Essay

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Updated on Dec 13, 2012

In middle school, students are expected to organize, synthesize, and take real ownership of their essays – no small task for kids who are struggling to balance schoolwork, social life, and raging hormones. But the five paragraph essay should make students feel more in control than ever before – if the thesis sentence doesn't have them stumped!

Middle school students should be familiar with the format, but a back-to-school refresher couldn't hurt. The five paragraph essay should be made up of an introduction with a thesis, three body paragraphs supporting the thesis, and a conclusion. Ideally, students should be able to develop body paragraphs, each starting with a clear reason that proves the thesis, followed by three examples that back up each reason.

Donna Kasprowicz, a language arts teacher who teaches the five-paragraph essay to sixth graders, favors this approach to the process: using Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, she introduces the concept of a “rite of passage” using the main character, Jesse, who transitions from a boy to a man after his friend tries to swing across the creek into their magical forest kingdom and dies. Here’s how Ms. Kasprowicz's sixth graders tackle it for this classic coming-of-age novel:

  1. The teacher provides the thesis and three supporting points: “In Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, Jesse goes through a rite of passage and experiences three stages: isolation, transition, and renewal.”

  1. Before writing, students should collect examples and quotes from the text. Assuming they’ve finished the book, they should search the text for three examples for each supporting point – these should show how Jesse is isolated, beginning to change, or becoming a different person.

  1. After writing down nine strong examples - three for each supporting point – students should begin writing!

 Things to remember:

    • In an introduction, students must write clearly and include only essential details. The plot of the book should be covered in a few sentences and should lead to the student’s thesis statement (the essay should not be a review of the plot).

    • Initially, it may be hard for students to distinguish a “reason” from an “example.” If isolation is simply a reason supporting the thesis, what are examples that show Jesse’s seclusion from his peers or family? When is Jesse ignored? How? By whom?

    • Likewise, understanding the difference between “showing” and “telling” examples may be tough. A student who says “Jesse was left out at home” will receive a lower score than the student who describes Jesse’s family environment, how his father puts him down, or how his sisters make fun of him. Another student who explains a particular incident when his father puts him down — using specific details, scene description, and a supporting quote — will do even better.

    • For students beginning the five-paragraph essay, the conclusion should be succinct — a restatement of the thesis, or brief remarks relating the book to personal experience, if appropriate. It's always tempting to add a brand new idea in the conclusion, but students should relate the conclusion back to the introduction (this could mean rewriting the intro to address your new thesis!).

The five-paragraph essay looks long and daunting, but beginners will soon find that it organizes their thoughts into a coherent, well-argued, and illuminating structure, making the five paragraph essay a rite of passage for budding writers!

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