A tweet from Scott Karambis (@copia) inspires this rant:
Why in the name of all that’s good and holy do the standardized tests (such as the Massachusetts MCAS) use the “five paragraph theme” as the measure of writing accomplishment?
(For those of you who don’t know, the five paragraph theme works like this: an intro paragraph with a thesis statement and a transition to three supporting points; three paragraphs, each an exploration of one of those points; and a summary that recaps the previous four paragraphs.)
I challenge any supporter of the five paragraph theme to point to any rhetorical exercise — from news reporting to essay writing, from casual correspondence to polished fiction, from product specs to persuasive sales copy, from any kind of writing to any other kind of writing – – in which the 5P model has any relevance whatsoever.
To me, it’s the equivalent of demanding architects to design every structure with five rooms. Doesn’t matter if it’s a home or a factory, a warehouse or a parking garage, a hospital or a hotel. It has to have five rooms. Why? Because.
Defenders will argue that the 5P form teaches kids to apply structure to their work. No, it merely teaches them to follow arbitrary and utterly irrelevant instructions from clueless adults who value their authority over their vocation. If you really want to teach students about rhetorical structure, you show them a process in which form follows function — in which structure emerges organically from the substance of the writing itself.
This is what all successful writers know how to do. But the five paragraph theme isn’t about successful writing. In fact, the best student writers are routinely punished by standardized tests because, naturally, their work doesn’t conform to the model.
So why does the 5P model exist? Expediency. Standardized tests are graded by part-timers (never professional writers, only occasionally professional educators) who don’t have the time or talent to make a meaningful assessment. Instead, they count the number of paragraphs. Are there five? Good. Is the first one an introduction? Great. Do the subsequent three paragraphs articulate, in turn, thoughts alluded to in the intro. Fantastic! Does it have a conclusion? Yippee yah-eh!
Bottom line: Our children are profoundly miseducated for the convenience of the testing industry. I have five fingers on my hand; I only need one of them to communicate my sentiments to the testers.
Teach all your marketers a much more effective way to write content through my in-house writing workshop.