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Five Paragraph Essay Rubric Elementary Writing

The Five-Paragraph Theme

By:Glenda Moss
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3
Date: Summer 2002

Summary: After teaching the five-paragraph essay early in her career, Glenda Moss now describes how it locks students into thinking it is the only way to write.


Early in her teaching career, Glenda Moss actively taught the five-paragraph essay. Only later did she consider what had become a concern among educators: that overemphasis on the five-paragraph theme had locked students into thinking it was the only way to write. Now convinced, Moss examines her belief that focusing on the five-paragraph essay underprepares students for college. Further, she adds her voice to the cry of many educators—that students need writing connections across the curriculum.

I did not always believe that the five-paragraph theme, as a standard, underprepared students for college. I did not make the connection when my own son failed freshman English at the local junior college in our East Texas city. I was pleased that he registered to repeat the course with the same teacher. While I personally felt disappointed with the teacher for "failing my son," who had "mastered" the skills tested by state standards in Texas and scored high enough on the college entrance exams to be exempted from the remedial English course, I believed my son's respect for and belief that his college English teacher could "teach him how to write" would result in a much higher level of success than he had experienced in high school. In retrospect, I was right. This past December, my son completed a master's thesis at the University of Houston.

It was not until he was in graduate school, and I was working on a doctorate, that I heard a freshman English teacher at Stephen F. Austin State University express concern that, since students have been "drilled" on the five-paragraph theme for the state test of academic skills, they were locked into only one way of writing an essay. I now remembered how, when students arrived in my seventh grade classroom, they had already had it ingrained in them that for the state test they were to write five paragraphs: an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each body paragraph was to have an opening sentence and at least two details to support the opening sentence. Part of our job as seventh grade teachers was to make sure the students could write descriptive, instructive, comparative, and persuasive essays. Following instructional material provided to us, they wrote the essays that generally ended up as five-paragraph themes.

The five paragraph theme was the accepted standard, but whose standard was it? The prompts on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) never referred to the "five-paragraph theme" as a standard. The students were not instructed by the test directions to write a "five-paragraph essay." I never once referred to the "five-paragraph theme" in my teaching. As a middle school language arts teacher for ten years in Texas, I came to believe in practice that this was the writing standard in Texas as we were given models of rubric scoring to evaluate our students' essays. These rubrics resulted in teachers preparing students to write five-paragraph themes.

While I required my seventh-, and later, eighth-graders to complete four research projects during the school year, most of the year was spent writing five-paragraph themes. This had become the norm for preparing students for success on the TAAS, the test that supposedly promoted higher-order thinking and held teachers accountable for student learning. For the most part, language arts teachers were successful within this accountability system as demonstrated by test scores, yet the number of students, like my own son, who were not prepared for college writing raised a doubt about the focus on five-paragraph themes.

We began with the best of intentions, focusing on the writing process—brainstorming, drafting, responding and revising, editing, and publishing. I cannot tell you when it happened that the process became a formula resulting in five-paragraph themes, but I believe it was the scoring rubric of the standardized test and pressure to teach our students how to be successful based on that rubric that resulted in formula writing. Students' opening and closing sentences began to appear as standardized. If the prompt read, "compare and contrast life in a rural community with life in an urban community," our students knew to begin the essay with a topic sentence something like this, "It is not hard to compare and contrast life in a rural community with life in an urban community." Or they might begin by stating, "Life in a rural community and life in an urban area are alike and different in several ways." Sometimes we would give our students ten prompts and have them write opening and closing sentences for each of them.

We also instructed our students on the importance of using transition words to maintain a cohesive flow between their ideas, examples, details, or reasons. Transition words were to indicate shifts to new paragraphs and were limited to a small word bank of transition words first, next, then, before, finally, similarly, and a handful of others. We meant well when we had weak writing students memorize transition words and introductory and closing sentences to match with particular writing prompts.

Prepositions took on new currency when the picture prompt was introduced. Students were presented a picture and asked to describe the scene. They could begin anywhere but were required to trace the picture in words by moving from top to bottom, left to right, right to left, or background to foreground—all in a multiparagraph theme. In front of, behind, to the right of, across from, in the distance, and near the right-hand corner were common tools students used to plow through the picture prompt.

The model writing norm, whether descriptive, instructive, classificatory, or persuasive, generally included an introductory paragraph, three paragraphs for the body, and a closing paragraph. Students were instructed to tell what they were going to write about, write about it, and then tell what they wrote about. While this is a standard that I remember being modeled in the fifties and sixties when I was an elementary and secondary student, it was only one model—the five-paragraph theme. In the educational reform of the nineties, one model became the only writing model for Texas students.

In Texas, teachers proudly boasted a high success rate when nearly every student could write a five-paragraph theme to any descriptive, how-to, compare and contrast, or persuasive prompt. Sometimes, we could even figure out the pattern and guess which mode would be tested in a given year. In the elementary grades, the students were given a picture to describe. In the sixth grade, students generally had to give the steps for how to do something. The prompts never invited any analysis of this process, so the resulting writing was usually a series of directions rather than an essay. Typical how-to prompts might read: "Think about your favorite game to play and explain in detail for a friend how to play the game," or "Your mom has given you permission to make your favorite after-school snack. Tell what your favorite after-school snack is and give detailed instructions on how to prepare it," or "Explain for your younger sibling how to gift wrap a present. Give details for all the steps needed to wrap the gift."

Seventh-graders generally were given classificatory prompts. Among the practice prompts that I gave my students was: "Your school is considering a dress code for next fall. Think about the good things and bad things about school dress codes. Write an essay for your teacher in which you explain the good things and bad things about dress codes." This prompt could then be changed to demonstrate for students the difference between classificatory and persuasive. Students could be prompted to write a persuasive letter to the local school board. The prompt might read: "Your school district is considering school uniforms. In a letter to the school board, take a position for or against school uniforms and give reasons to support your position." Once, I even hit the topic a few weeks before the test. My students thought I was a great teacher. Little did they realize that passing the TAAS would not guarantee them success in college, where writing standards included multiple models of writing to communicate critical thinking, something that does not seem to result from standardized testing that standardizes teaching practices.

It was a complex dilemma that I struggled with as a teacher. While I received praise from my school and district for my success rate among "at-risk" students, I kept asking myself why. Now, as I analyze my ten years of teaching under the TAAS testing system, I think it is accurate to say that the test prepared my students to write a five-paragraph theme, thus raising the level of education for some students, who had been tracked in special education and below-level classes, but it fell short of preparing students to write in multiple genres as expected in college. It is embarrassing as I reflect on some of the middle school teaching practices I used to motivate my students to successfully write for TAAS. In the week before the TAAS test when my students were working on compositions, we might have a dialogue similar to the following:

Students would complain, "These are boring topics."

I would reply, "I know. I am giving you boring topics these last two weeks before the state test because you will probably have a boring topic then, too. I know I created fun situations earlier in the year for you to write about. The camping trip behind the school, the food festival in the classroom, Mrs. Perkins' demonstration of the Inkle loom, and comparing and contrasting the two cars that Mr. Cagle brought were all fun. When you take the state test, you will probably be given a boring topic. If so, we need to practice writing terrific compositions even if we have a boring topic."


"Does everyone understand that on the state test you're totally on your own? You have to use all the skills you have learned to bring a boring topic to life."

Such instruction resulted in students disciplining themselves to write for the TAAS ritual.

I now have a clearer understanding of why my students and I agreed that my prompts were "fun" and the state prompts were "boring." My prompts emerged from the experience and concerns of my students. They knew all about Mr. Cagle's cars. They may never have given a thought to the subject of school uniforms before the day they confronted the topic on the TAAS test. And not only were they expected to write with intelligence on a subject about which they may have had little knowledge and less interest, they were required to accomplish this within the straight jacket of a five-paragraph format.

My frustration with teaching in a system that required me to participate in teaching to low standards ended in my resignation four years ago. That was following a school year in which I was not allowed to attend two professional conferences that I had been attending annually for at least five years. The message I understood was that I was needed in the classroom to prepare my students for TAAS. Professional development through attending conferences apparently was not perceived to contribute to that end. Innovation was no longer valued unless it resulted in success on TAAS.

Later, I realized that devaluing professional development had resulted in the devaluation of complex writing and critical thinking. Increasingly, I have come to understand the long-range negative effect on our students when the five-paragraph theme is the only standard. I now regret that I spent more time helping them to write to pass the TAAS than I did on helping my students to make the connection between writing skills as tools to express their thoughts, values, and beliefs.

College and university teachers in Texas—such as my son's instructor—have a right to pass judgment on the quality of writing instruction as evidenced in their freshmen's ability. But I wonder how long it will be until they, too, find themselves teaching to the five-paragraph theme. It was painful for me to watch university professors at various departments at Stephen F. Austin State University, where I was a doctoral research assistant, adapt to the impact of the standards movement as it was having its institutional effect on curriculum and teaching. I could see happening at the university level what had happened eight years earlier in the public schools. The examination for the Certification of Educators in Texas (ExCET), an accountability test for teachers in Texas, was shaping capstone courses into test-review courses, just as the TAAS had shaped writing within the five-paragraph theme.

Professors and teachers must work toward raising writing standards across the curriculum. As an educator of teachers, I now make reading, writing, and dialoguing central to the learning process in my classes. While I expect my preservice teachers to state the purpose of their synthesis papers, critically analyze, and synthesize educational research, I have to resist my students' initial tendency to expect me to give them a formula for controlled writing success. My expectation that my preservice teachers will be able to think critically and express their thoughts clearly goes beyond the minimal standards of a five-paragraph theme.

Will this make a difference? I hope so, but I'm not sure it will. Only this week, I sat in on an inservice for the English teachers at one of the local high schools. The principal is genuinely concerned about raising the Indiana State Test of Educational Progress (ISTEP) language scores for the school just like my Texas principal had been concerned about raising student scores on the TAAS. The principal believes that the test will change how teachers teach, and I agree. My concern is that this change will result in formula writing and five-paragraph themes. I am afraid that what Texas began will sweep the nation before the public demands what educators already know—students need writing connections across the curriculum and in multiple genres.

About the Author Glenda Moss is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. She instructs secondary preservice teachers and is currently a participant in the Indiana Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute.

Download "The Five-Paragraph Theme"

Related Resource Topics

The 5-paragraph essay is the most common academic task a student may face. You can meet it in such tests as TOEFL, IELTS, and the SAT.

Because the majority of these examinations restrict the student in time, you should be ready for the writing section. Try to memorize the structure of the 5-paragraph academic paper on any topic. It makes it possible to complete the assignments faster and efficiently. The best part of the five-paragraph essay is that it is rather flexible regarding the topic choice and various writing formats.

There are six basic types of five-paragraph academic papers. You should be aware of each type before facing your examination:

  1. Persuasive
  2. Argumentative
  3. Expository
  4. Narrative
  5. Cause and Effect
  6. Compare and Contrast

All of these 5-paragraph essays should stick to the five paragraph structure!

Examples of Good Essay Topics

Try to choose the best topic from the pool of good topic ideas.

  • Do we learn from other people's mistakes?
  • Who is responsible for our destiny?
  • Is it ethical to use animals for tests?
  • What are the advantages of allowing same-sex marriage?
  • How can the government minimize the criminal activity?
  • Who must be punished to death?
  • Is LSD that dangerous as most people think?
  • Why should education become entirely free?

These are topics which students usually choose. There are much more topics on different academic disciplines so that you may come up with your own suggestions.

Writing Your Outline

Any academic 5-paragraph essay is limited to the following organization:

  1. Introduction paragraph with thesis
  2. Three body paragraphs
  3. Conclusion paragraph
  4. References page

Catch the eye of your reader with an effective introduction to your topic. Each paragraph of the body must contain a specific main point about the topic known as an argument. Sum up your writing in conclusion. The 5-paragraph essays usually start out very broad, get narrower, and end up broad as well.

Introduction paragraph

  • This paragraph should contain 3-5 sentences.
  • This paragraph predetermines the entire structure.
  • The first sentence is a hook sentence.
  • The last sentence is your thesis statement.
  • The hook of the paragraph may be a rhetorical question, shocking fact, joke, quote, or some real life experience.

E.g. If you want to talk about the topic of racial discrimination and human rights, you can start with something like: "Why should we treat people with the different color of skin worse? Don't they have the same two legs and two hands?"

There is no need to answer this question so that it can be defined as a rhetorical question. You may find examples of good introductions or even buy a custom 5-paragraph essay at professional writing companies.

Short Introduction of Supporting Arguments (up to three)

  • Introduce your arguments in one paragraph (3 sentences). No need for details
  • You may pretend that you're writing a video trailer when working on this part.
  • Example: Establishing more organizations that defend the rights of minorities is one of the ways to resist racial discrimination.

Thesis Statement

  • It is your strongest claim.
  • The rest of the 5-paragraph essay should be based on your thesis statement.
  • It is better to change thesis if you discover that your body paragraphs are not related to it.

Body Paragraphs (5-7 sentences each)

Involve 3-5 arguments to defend your thesis statement.

Stick to this general structure of the body paragraphs: Introduction sentence (1), Evidence/Arguments (3-5), Conclusion (1).



Check the order of your arguments:

  • First body paragraph is dedicated to the most powerful point
  • The second paragraph may contain the weakest point
  • Leave another strong argument for the last body paragraph

Conclusion paragraph (up to 5 sentences):

  • The last few sentences of this paragraph should reflect the nature of your entire text. Begin with the restated thesis.
  • Recall all 3-5 supporting arguments. Paraphrase each main point to speed up the process.
  • Avoid using citations in this paragraph.
  • Join similar arguments together in one sentence.

The final stage is the so-called concluding paragraph hook. You may include it or not. It is a good idea to finish your writing with something your reader can't expect. Surprise the readers with the sudden question for continuous discussion or unknown fact.

In other words, put some sugar and spice to make the dish tastier. "Did you know that Oslo was called the most expensive city of the year?"

You can find more tips on the conclusion paragraph in this blog.

Overall Grading Rubric

Students write 5-paragraph essays to earn the highest grades. These grades are part of their final score per course. That is why it is important to know the grading rubric shared by your teacher in the syllabus.

  • Focus: Did the writer prove his thesis effectively? Were all the objectives met successfully?
  • Organization: What about the way 5-paragraph essay flows? Are there the smooth transitions between paragraphs? Are they logical? Did the author follow the outline and general writing standards?
  • Conventions: Is there any wordiness in the text? Are there some grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors? Is the text easy to read?
  • Style: Did the student use high-level vocabulary? Was he creative enough?
  • Content: Was the student right when defending his arguments? Was his evidence logical and factual? Did he develop powerful, persuasive arguments?

If you are not sure that you can meet some of these requirements, hire an expert writer online to develop a good writing solution for you. The prices are not as high as you may think. In case you need an urgent 5-paragraph paper for cheap, order instant academic writing help from one of the most reliable writing agencies!

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