Five-paragraph essay is a traditional composition format, widely used in middle and high schools throughout the English-speaking world with little to no variation. Rather strict, this format gives enough space for initial development of students’ writing skills, teaches them the basics, all the while making the teacher’s job of assessing assignments much easier.
At a glance, the structure of five-paragraph essay feels restrictive and uninspiring: five paragraphs, no more than 3 points to cover, no more than one point per paragraph and so on. However, it does its job excellently: limitations teach children how to organize their thoughts, how to build up argument, gather evidence and so on. When left to his own devices, a child will usually write a rambling mess rather than a composition – not because of lack of intelligence but due to lack of skill. Five-paragraph essay serves exactly this purpose: to teach children how to stop writing in flow of consciousness and start to make sense.
The first paragraph is introductory – in it the student is supposed to present his point, declare the topic of the essay, attract the reader’s attention. In addition to that, it may serve as a short recounting of the essay’s contents and contain a transition that will smoothly redirect the reader’s attention to the second paragraph.
Paragraphs two to four contain arguments, points, examples, illustrations, whatever serves in this particular case. The important thing here is to introduce only one of them per paragraph and start with the strongest or the most relevant one. Of course there are times when other structure can do a better job, but then again – here we are not discussing how to express your thoughts better, but how to teach children an organized way of putting their thoughts and ideas on paper.
It is the moment when five-paragraph structure may start feeling overly artificial – sometimes a point in question is too big to express in several sentences, but you are not supposed to end a paragraph until you’ve dealt with it. In this case, a paragraph is used in not exactly the same way it is used in general writing; it is, again, a way of imprinting an idea rather than an example of actual use.
Ironically, the most freedom is given to the student in the final, concluding paragraph. Depending on the essay’s type and topic he may repeat the structure of the introductory paragraph, simply repeat the initial statement drawing from the points from the essay’s body, summarize them or do something else entirely – as long as he wraps the things up, anything goes.
When you study how to write a five-paragraph essay it is very important not to overdo it and always to understand that it is a substitute, not the real thing. Five-paragraph essay is not how you are supposed to write in real life – it is an instrument for learning the basics. When you go to college, you will have to forget the more formal skills dealing with it (like selecting three most important points to cover) and keep analytical and organizational skills that will come in handy no matter what the nature of the assignment is.