Mastering the Five-Paragraph Essay
There are many reasons why RCDS students develop into incisive writers and strong communicators. Upper School English teacher Tara Malia unpacks one essential element of the curriculum, the five-paragraph essay, and how RCDS students learn to master it.
Deeper Dive: Q&A with Upper School English Teacher Tara Malia
What is the five-paragraph essay and why is it an essential part of the RCDS curriculum?
The five-paragraph essay is a composition with a clear beginning, middle and end. It is essential because it’s the basis for most writing that students will complete from now until they are adults. The introduction or thesis statement in the first paragraph is the most important part of the essay. Once students learn how to write a strong thesis statement, they have a foundation that supports the entire essay.
How do you teach a 10 or 11-year-old how to write a thesis statement?
It’s like building a sandwich. I teach the students to start with a hook, something to draw the reader. Once the kids know their hook and thesis statement, they then have the bread holding all the contents of the sandwich together. Whether meat or vegetables, details are needed to introduce the concept of what is being addressed. Once the thesis statement is written, it should be seamless throughout the entire paper. It should connect every detail that the student writes. It also needs to inform, as well as follow a progression for students’ writing to be effective.
It sounds like the sandwich metaphor makes the abstract more concrete for students. Do you use other visuals to teach the five-paragraph essay?
If a thesis statement is written with strength, everything that follows connects like a jigsaw puzzle. I bring in a ball of yarn and string it from the first student all the way around the class. Then, I have each student drop it in different places. The string could drop for a variety of reasons, just like a detail or fact that doesn’t belong. Students then see the string doesn’t work; it doesn’t tighten; it doesn’t hold. It’s the same with writing. This tactile tool helps illustrate that if kids have a firm thesis statement, all the strings are taut and connected.
The other visual I use is a ladder. I set yardsticks across the rug of my classroom. I’ll say to students, ‘If you’re writing a paragraph, you don’t want to go from the first rung to the fourth rung because you’re going to fall.’ This helps young writers understand that everything they write has a purpose. They’re able to spot holes in their writing and make a step- by-step connection with every idea they put down on paper.
Why does RCDS teach the five-paragraph essay in fifth grade?
Fifth graders can start to differentiate on a deeper level with comprehension and the synthesis of information. However, we don’t teach the five-paragraph essay right off the bat in September because students at this stage are still very literal and concrete. Developmentally, kids need to learn how to analyze, interpret and then make relevant connections, both through Literature or writing. We teach five-paragraph writing towards the end of the year. At that point they’ve been instructed in the stepping stones of comprehension and analysis, and can dive more deeply into written material. Students then understand why the thesis statement is so important and how it connects to strong writing, whether it’s for Literature, social studies, math, or science. For instance, we study Civil Rights in the spring and fifth graders will read Brown Girl Dreaming and The Watsons Go to Birmingham. They are tasked with synthesizing information to write thesis papers based on what they’ve learned from Literature.
How does the RCDS build upon the five-paragraph essay in Grades 6-8?
Once our students learn the structure of the five-paragraph essay, they move on to more complex writing projects. They can understand more detail in sixth grade and work more of what they read into their writing. In seventh and eighth grades, they will incorporate textual evidence and citations to support their thesis. The number of research papers increases and the process becomes lengthier.
Literature and language arts are two distinct classes in Upper School. We are fortunate to be able to separate the two because there is just so much to interpret in Literature. Likewise, it’s important to have a class just for the grammatical and mechanical aspects of English. The fact that we have time dedicated just to the mechanics of writing and the synthesis of reading, and students are able to put them together…it’s a fabulous aspect of RCDS that is just a pleasure.
Does mastering the five-paragraph essay influence other areas of students’ intellectual development?
It does. My big message to students is the importance of communication, always. The five-paragraph structure really does enable kids to present an argument and defend a case. I’ll often tell my students, ‘Your argument is to tell mom you want ice cream for dinner. Tell me the points you are going to make.’ So, 100 percent, the five-paragraph essay impacts their thinking. It impacts their ability to persuade and write in other forms using figurative and descriptive language.
Finally, I can see that our students are 100 percent prepared for the high school application process because they are able to communicate their ideas effectively. I am working with RCDS graduates now on college essays. They use the tools they learned here as they prepare those applications. I think that underscores just how foundational the five-paragraph essay is to everything students communicate after they leave RCDS.
Mrs. Malia has taught Upper School English at RCDS since 2017. She is the author of The Special Princess, published in 2012. Geared to readers ages 5-9, the unique book is partially illustrated, encouraging each reader’s personal interpretation and the creation of drawings to accompany the story.
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