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beyond the five-paragraph essay:
providing students with opportunities for authentic writing
by carrie deahl

The five-paragraph essay... Let's be honest, when students hear these four words sighs, groans, and looks of disgust flood the classroom. In 12 years of teaching English on the secondary level, I have yet to see a student pipe up with enthusiasm after I've muttered these words, or assigned this type of writing. There may be a time and place for this type of writing, but the 21st century English classroom isn't it.

What if we could provide students with opportunities for authentic writing that would not only meet district/state/national standards, but would also create a genuine interest in writing? What if we could increase student engagement, improve writing scores, build writing skills, and prepare students for the challenges of writing at the college level, or in the real world? All of these goals can be accomplished when we teach writing in forms real writers use everyday.

Length Can Be Limiting

We could spend a lot of time debating whether or not the five-paragraph essay is the only/best way to teach students how to write, but we're busy folks and this isn't the place for that debate. In my experience as a high school English instructor, I've found that when students are given length requirements, rather than focus on the quality of their writing, they spend more time brooding over how many paragraphs it needs to be, or how many sentences need to be in a paragraph. The real loss here is that students end up focusing on something that is only slightly important in their writing task.

There is no doubt that students need to be taught to write with length restrictions. Certain forms of poetry, standardized tests, scholarship applications, applications for the National Honor Society, or applications for a job are all appropriate opportunities for such a task. But to require students to write to a certain length all year long is not in the best interests of students who upon graduation will be competing for jobs in our extremely competitive global economy.

Instead, we need to spend more of our instructional time focusing on the writing process and the skills required within each phase of this process while exposing students to multiple forms of writing. Doing so allows us the opportunity to model the habits of good writers everywhere.

Re-Thinking Traditional Modes

For the sake of argument, let's say that as an English instructor I'm responsible for teaching narrative, expository, persuasive, expressive/creative, literary response, and research over the course of one academic year. I can teach most of these modes in a traditional five-paragraph essay, or I can introduce my students to forms used by real writers everyday. Here, I'll focus on two of these modes: narrative and persuasive writing.

If we broaden our definition for narrative writing to include anything autobiographical, we can include memoirs, which have gained a great deal of popularity in the last ten years. Showing my students excerpts from works by Richard Wright's Black Boy, The Burn Journals by Brent Renyon, or Three Little Words by Ashley Rhoders-Courter allow me the opportunity to help students build connections to writers who might be a little bit like them. Such connections are the keys to luring kids into the worlds of reading and writing.

By providing my students with excerpts from such memoirs, together we can study these models picking out the techniques writers use within this genre to share their personal experiences with us, the readers. This helps us establish guidelines for our writing own narratives/autobiographical piece. Equally important, I've exposed them to a type of writing they may have had little, if any, exposure to.

As a follow-up to narrative writing, I can also teach students how to write Six-Word Memoirs. While six words may not sound like a difficult task, writing within a tight word limit is not only challenging and engaging, it forces us to spend a great deal of time in the revising and editing stages--two stages many high school students blow right through. This is one mode of writing where students see a length requirement as a positive way to hone their skills as writers. Why? Because many students have never heard of this form before, they believe writing six words about themselves won't be a difficult task.

By the time we begin writing Six-Word Memoirs, however, they're stumped in finding the right words to share their stories. Watching them delve into their psyches, ask their peers for help, or search through the visual thesaurus (Thinkmap Visual Thesuarus) on my smart board are exactly the results I want to see. I've tricked them into spending more time editing this piece for the perfect words to share their life stories with their readers. Spending more time in the editing phase helps them develop a much-needed editing eye, which will also help them become better writers. For more on six word memoirs see: Six-Word Memoirs: Life Stories Distilled and Six-Word Memoirs at SMITH Magazine.

For persuasive writing, I can use political rhetoric during campaign season, which might appease a few politicos in class, or I can show students how to write reviews. Before introducing this form, I'll pull contemporary reviews of books, movies, TV shows, CDs, products, and local restaurants from the Internet. As with other forms we've written, we study these models carefully, establish our assessment criteria, and then delve into our prewriting activities.

In modeling how to write a good review, I can cover persuasive techniques like emotional appeal, logical appeal, and the bandwagon approach while allowing them to write a review on a topic of their choice (school appropriate, of course). We also talk about how often consumers use reviews to make informed decisions about where to spend their hard-earned money. By teaching students how to write reviews, I'm giving them the chance to be convincing about a topic they're truly interested in while teaching them the writing skills they need in order to be successful in this form. For online publishing opportunities, I have my students publish their reviews on Teen Ink.

The Natural Consequences of Authentic Writing

The natural consequences that come with broadening what I include in teaching traditional forms of writing have often surprised my students and I. From increased student interest to thoughtful discussions about what makes good writing to what should be included in a specific form prove that writing instruction can go far beyond the five-paragraph essay. Giving students opportunities to write in modes used by writers everyday helps them foster a genuine interest in writing, develops their skills as writers, and provides rewarding writing experiences.


Writer. Reader. Teacher. Consultant. Activist. Takes life and herself a little too seriously. Relishes moments of humility. Believes peace is possible through education. Believes writing is the way to freedom. Unleashes the written word daily.

more about carrie deahl


concrete graveyard
by carrie deahl
topic: writing
published: 11.16.08

by carrie deahl
topic: writing
published: 1.9.09


william carr
7.16.11 @ 3:42p

Thanks for your essay. I teach in a graduate-professional setting--theological seminary--and the writing skills of (too) many of our students are poor. They want to know how many pages they have to write, and I want to know whether they can engage the topic cogently and write their engagement well.

I have not sorted out how you're using "authentic." One could argue that technically poor writing is "authentic"--y'know, Teach, the way I write is "real."

One "picky-bit": last paragraph, first sentence: "...surprised my students and I." Boo! Hiss! I have been surprised, but nothing ever surprised I--unless "I" actually is someone's proper name--or a diminutive thereof--and, therefore, third person.

Bill Carr

carrie deahl
7.16.11 @ 3:46p

Bill, thanks for your comments. Yes, I need to fix a few things in this piece. By "authentic," perhaps I should have clarified that I simply mean using writing modes that are used outside of the education field. Modes that are used by people who publish their writing everyday. Yes, "authentic" could include poor writing because all writers need to be exposed to writing that is poor, average, and above and beyond.

carrie deahl
7.16.11 @ 3:53p

Exposure to a variety of modes and quality in writing published by writers everyday is one way I teach my students how to be skilled readers and writers. Students need to see that there's more to writing than the traditional forms that have dominated English instruction for generations. When we approach writing instruction in a workshop model, in ways that "real" writers write everyday, I strongly believe we can help students hone their skills as writers and "buy-in" to what we're teaching them.

carrie deahl
7.16.11 @ 3:58p

Bill, one last thing. I recently started a blog, and I'd appreciate your feedback on my posts. If you have time, you can check it out at:


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