How to Change the Way We Teach Writing

Walking through the mall, huddled around their lockers, even sitting on the couch, students are glued to their cellphones. Whether they are minimizing their thoughts into 140 characters or less on Twitter, or actively engaged in a group text message, young people flex their writing muscles consistently throughout the day.


Next time you see your son or daughter, ask them if they really enjoy writing in their English classes. If they say “No,” ask them why. Virginia is ranked 30th in the nation based on their SAT writing scores, and has an 83% passing rate on the Virginia State SOLs. While these statistics aren’t alarming, there is more and more evidence that students are not entering the workforce with the writing skills necessary for success. The biggest reason for this is the Five Paragraph Essay.


As an English teacher accustomed to teaching the five paragraph essay method, I have also begun to slowly remove the five paragraph essay from my curriculum. Although this is one of the easiest models to teach, it is also one of the most detrimental.


Ray Salazar, an English teacher in Chicago who has moved on from the five paragraph essay, describes it as “rudimentary, unengaging, and useless.” His words are unapologetically harsh; they are also true. Ask any college professor their opinion on the five paragraph essay and they will tell you the same thing.


When teachers instruct students to write the five paragraph essay, students learn to write using a list of arbitrary rules that exist nowhere else but in high school academia. No books found on the shelves of your local library exist in five paragraphs, limit use the word “I” or include a set number of sentences per paragraph.


This idea is slightly blasphemous to other English writers and tutors. However, the truth is that educators are focusing on these rules while ignoring the important elements of writing: audience, purpose, and message.


Students are spending too much time writing five paragraph essays and entering college with low-level writing skills. How do we fix this problem? One of the easiest changes we can make to curricula is adding creativity to writing assignments. Each writing task should focus on solving a writing-related problem while acknowledging the author’s audience.


Take Salinger’s, “Catcher in the Rye.” And ideal writing prompt for a student could be, “How would this text be different if the main character, Holden Caulfield was female?” Students need to look at the text through the lens of a different gender, giving them a thesis while also focusing on audience, purpose, and message.  Students could also write a modern adaptation of a scene from the book or even an obituary for any of the characters. The same writing and critical thinking skills are used!


The available options for student growth in writing are infinite. Yet educators, including myself, have held students back because we are scared to try something new. New creative writing lets students write authentically and allows them to find their voice. Give them freedom; give them a choice. School teachers will thank you. College professors will thank you. Most importantly, your students will thank you.


Written by Garrett C, Novastar Prep English / Creative Writing Tutor


Sources: 5-paragraph- essay by-state- 2014 you-teach- or-write- 5-paragraph- essays-stop-it/


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