The criticism most often leveled against the use of the five paragraph essay is that it is simple, overused, and boring, but it need not be boring at all!
There is an equivalent in music. Consider the song, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, for example. Everyone knows the tune. Even children know it. And the notes are old. The notes were known to Mozart 250 years ago because they inspired his Variations on the tune which he wrote 1778.
And this is the point: While the simple notes provide the foundation, Mozart's genius and creativity push the Variations far beyond simple, overused, and boring. Mozart wrote 12 variations to the little tune, variations that go on for 14 full minutes, not one boring, but genius. Click to Listen, and as you listen, consider this: Five paragraph essays, likewise, can be well-structured, creative, and unique, every bit as exciting as this example in music, Mozart's Variations.
(Technical note: This is a streaming file recorded in mono at only 16 kbps, so it should play immediately and uninterrupted, even over a slow internet connection.)
The rationale for teaching non-native English speakers the structure of the "traditional" five paragraph essay is very convincing, and I would like to begin with a personal anecdote. When I was teaching English composition in community colleges in the US and attending meetings between the "regular" English departments and the English as a Second Language Department, we discussed the greatest weakness among non-native English writers on several occasions, and the response of mainstream English teachers was always the same: The greatest weakness of non-native speakers of English is organization of ideas! Since then I have discovered that most teachers outside English departments can easily overlook grammar errors like subject-verb agreement, article or preposition errors, etc., but only if they have an idea what the student is trying to say. If essays are not organized, teachers can't understand what the student is trying to say, so they believe the student is not ready for college level work!
I believe, therefore, non-native speakers of English first need to focus first on organization. More, I believe the five paragraph essay is the most effective foundation for all writing skills because its organization makes it easy for the reader to understand what the writer is trying to say.
There is a debate, however, between using this "traditional" approach and another approach which I'll call the "let them write what they want" approach. Some teachers believe that restricting the format to a five paragraph essay inhibits the student's free and creative expression. Not all ideas lend themselves to full development in five paragraphs. Some ideas may require four or six paragraphs they say. A web page from the University of Southern California contains reasons why the five paragraph essay should be avoided, listing reasons that (1) the format is entirely artificial, (2) it depends on a categorical theme that merely divides any topic into three sections, and (3) it stifles the writing process and encourages poor writing habits. It is interesting to note, however, that the above page presupposes the student's ability to write a five paragraph essay: When the author writes "Because the five paragraph essay is so widely taught in American high schools," the reference is clearly not to non-native speakers of English who have never been introduced to the five paragraph essay format.
The justification for teaching the five paragraph essay can be approached from two additional perspectives. First, I insist that my composition students know how to write a five paragraph essay, and what they do with their writing after they leave the composition course is up to them. But when I talk to former students about their academic writing, they say their writing is more sophisticated than just five paragraphs, but they still use the five paragraph essay as an organizational principle, even when writing in Spanish! I am always surprised to hear this because I actually warn against it, but I think it shows that the five paragraph format is a very effective organizational tool.
Finally, another analogous situation occurs in the teaching of art. I am not an art critic, and I don't remember the magazine or the author, but I recall reading about the differences between the modern art of Dali and Picasso and the modern art of many of today's young modern artists. The gist of the article was that the modern art of Dali and Picasso is superior to that of many of today's artists because Dali and Picasso were trained in realistic, classical drawing while many of today's artists are not. That is, Dali and Picasso could draw a realistic hand or a face or a body, and many of today's young artists cannot. Thus, the quality of today's artists is inferior, a lamentable condition according to the author of the article I read.
In terms of an English composition class, I believe the five paragraph essay is analogous to the "traditional" training of artists. It is like a realistic drawing of a hand or a face or a body, and likewise, I believe the five paragraph essay is an excellent foundation to future creative writing. Out of an interest in knowing whether this "theory" made any sense at all from the perspective of art critic, I wrote to Mark Harden, the owner of the web site, The Artchive. I explained my hypothesis and asked, "Does this theory make sense?" He responded:
This makes PERFECT sense. In fact, (a short time ago), I had drafted up a Juxtapositions essay on a similar theme. I wanted to display the early, realistic, conventional art school artwork produced by Modernists such as Picasso. The point was to show people that artists such as he COULD have easily produced realistic (academic) work, but found it an inadequate means of visual expression. Dali of course is an even more plausible model, since his superb technique was displayed throughout his career, only the subject matter was "different" from academic works.
Again, one of the saddest facts of almost all contemporary artists is that precisely this background in formal training is sorely lacking. It is quite likely that, just as there are no longer humans capable of doing the stonework which was done on Gothic Cathedrals, we will soon, given the abandonment of formal art training, reach a point where the skill to produce such works as were done by Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt . . . will be lost forever.
I was, of course, gratified by the validation of my "theory" from the perspective an art critic, so I searched for early works by Picasso to show he was well-trained in classical drawing, paintings that are extremely easy to find online like those HERE (will open in new window). I have included just one drawing by Picasso on this page, a Self Portrait at 16 on the right. The question: Would Picasso, for example, have been able to distinguish himself to the level he had without his "traditional" or "realistic" training? The question is pertinent.
In practical terms, I believe the five paragraph essay structure is exactly where ESL composition students need to begin. Many non-native speakers of English will write the ETS Test of Written English (TWE), which is what most US colleges require of non-native speakers of English for entrance exams, and the ability to use the five paragraph structure will serve well for that. In addition, the effectiveness of "models" as a "focus of instruction" has already been supported by George Hillocks, Jr., HERE (will open in new window).
Finally, while there is an honest debate among teachers on both sides of this issue, I believe those most opposed to the five paragraph essay in reality presuppose that students already know its structure and merely reject the continuation of its use. At least I would like to hope so. For further arguments, pro and con, about the five paragraph essay, check THESE OPPOSING POSITIONS (will open in new window).