How To Teach Students To Write A Five Paragraph Essay

How to Write A Five-Paragraph Essay

Step-by-step instructions for planning, outlining, and writing a five-paragraph essay.

The Planning

The most important part of writing a five-paragraph -- or any other style -- essay has little to do with the actual essay writing: When it comes to a successful essay, the most crucial step is the planning. In fact, a properly planned essay will practically write itself.

The first advice you should provide students about to embark on an essay-writing adventure, therefore, is to plan what you will write about -- and plan to write about the assigned topic.

The second part of that advice might seem obvious and unnecessary, but we all know those students who fail to carefully read the question or prompt and then too quickly write about a vaguely related topic; or those who believe essays are graded on word count and prefer to write a lot about a topic they know well -- or everything they know about a variety of topics -- rather than risk writing too little about a less familiar, though assigned, topic.

Students need to be made aware that assigned topics for most writing assessments already are quite broad; they often need to be narrowed and focused; they rarely should be broadened.

Consider the following assignment:

Mark Twain once said: "Suppose you were an idiot... And suppose you were a member of Congress... But I repeat myself." Discuss whether you agree or disagree with Mark Twain's statement.

An essay about some silly bills passed by Congress, an essay about a few brilliant and respected members of Congress, even an essay about the factors that influenced Samuel Clemens' beliefs about Congress might be appropriate responses; an essay about Tom Sawyer or the history of Washington, D.C. would not be.

According to the College Board Web site, the only way to get a zero on the SAT's new essay section is to fail to write about the assigned topic. A little planning can prevent that.

The Outline

After students have read and understood the assigned topic, they can go on to the next step of the essay-writing process. This step does involve writing -- but not yet essay writing. In step two, students write an outline of their proposed essay. The outline should look something like this:
Congress According to Twain

1) Topic: The question or prompt rephrased in the student's own words. Rephrasing the prompt will help students understand the assignment and narrow and focus the topic of their essay. For example, "Mark Twain once said that all members of Congress are idiots."
2) Position: The student's position or opinion about the question or prompt. For example, "I see no reason to disagree."
Most writing assessments ask students to take a position. Students should be aware that, if the test directions ask them to take a position, they need to take one side of the issue and defend it, not consider and defend both sides of the issue.
3) Reasons: Three reasons the student has taken his or her stated position.
a) Reason 1: The most important reason. For example, "Congress has passed a number of bills without considering where the funding for those bills would come from."
i) Evidence: Example that demonstrates Reason 1. For example, "The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act are just three examples of laws that were passed without considering how cities and states would pay to implement their mandates."
b) Reason 2: The second most important reason. For example, "Congress has passed a number of silly bills based on narrow political interests."
i) Evidence: Example that demonstrates Reason 2. "For example, federal laws have been passed making it a crime to imitate Smokey the Bear or transport wooden teeth across state lines."
c) Reason 3: The third most important reason. For example, "The members of Congress from my state are idiots."
i) Evidence: Example that demonstrates Reason 3. For example, "I met John Smith, a member of Congress from my state, and he had never heard of my hometown."

The outline now is complete, and the essay -- as you can see by reading the italicized text in the outline -- is practically written.

The Five-Paragraph Essay

Finally! Students have arrived at the easiest part of the essay-writing process -- writing the essay. All they have to do now is arrange their outline text into a five-paragraph-essay format and add a few transitions, and they're done!

Paragraph 1: This is the Introduction. Here, students restate the assigned topic, state their position on the topic, and list the three reasons for their position. They end the paragraph with a transition sentence.

Mark Twain once said that all members of Congress are idiots. I see no reason to disagree. Members of Congress are often financially irresponsible, politically motivated, and unaware of the real concerns of their constituents. Let me explain.

Paragraph 2: This is the first of three paragraphs in the body of the essay. Here, students name and explain the most important reason for their stated position. They end the paragraph with a transition sentence.

Congress is financially irresponsible because it has passed a number of bills without considering where the funding for those bills would come from. The Americans with Disabilities Act, the Clean Air Act, and the No Child Left Behind Act are just three examples of laws that were passed without considering how cities and states would pay to implement their mandates. Congress doesn't just waste money, though, it wastes time too.

Paragraph 3: This is the second of three paragraphs in the body of the essay. Here, students name and explain the second most important reason for their stated position. They end the paragraph with a transition sentence.

Congress has wasted time by passing a number of silly bills based on narrow political interests. For example, federal laws have been passed making it a crime to imitate Smokey the Bear or transport wooden teeth across state lines. Congress doesn't only do idiotic things as a group, though.

Paragraph 4: This is the third of three paragraphs in the body of the essay. Here, students name and explain the third most important reason for their stated position. They end the paragraph with a transition sentence.

Even the individual members of Congress from my state are idiots. I met John Smith, a representative from my state, and he had never heard of my hometown.

Paragraph 5: This is the Conclusion. Here, students rephrase and recap their position on the issue and their reasons for it, and then write a concluding sentence. The conclusion might emphasizes their position, expand it, offer a solution, or express a hope or prediction for the future.

So you can see why I think Mark Twain was correct when he said that all members of Congress are idiots. Often financially irresponsible, politically motivated, and unaware of the real concerns of their constituents, I believe that members of Congress need to spend less time immersed in the politics of Washington, D.C. and more time amid the voters at home.

Congratulations! You passed!

Additional Essay-Writing Resources


Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2017 Education World

Last updated 10/02/2017

Essay Writing for Standardized Tests: Tips for Writing a Five Paragraph Essay

Most, if not all, high school and college standardized tests include a writing portion. Students are provided a writing prompt and must then write an essay on the topic. Writing for standardized tests can strike fear in the hearts and minds of students of all ages, but it doesn’t have to. If you know what to expect and understand how to write a five paragraph essay, you will be prepared to tackle any essay writing prompt.

Types of Essays on Standardized Tests

When you begin to write your essay for a standardized test, you must first decide what type of essay you are being asked to write. There are many different types of essays, including narrative, expository, argumentative, persuasive, comparative, literary, and so on. The type of essay will determine your topic and thesis. Essays for standardized tests are typically either persuasive, in which you will answer a question, or literary, in which you will write about something you read.

For standardized tests, students usually have to write a five paragraph essay, which should be 500 to 800 words long and include an introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs and a concluding paragraph.

The First Paragraph: The Introduction

The first paragraph will introduce your topic. The introduction is the most important paragraph because it provides direction for the entire essay. It also sets the tone, and you want to grab the reader’s attention with interest and clarity. The best way to tackle the introduction is to:

  • Describe your main idea, or what the essay is about, in one sentence. You can usually use the essay writing prompt or question to form this sentence.
  • Develop a thesis statement, or what you want to say about the main idea. When the writing prompt is a question, your thesis is typically the answer to the question.
  • List three points or arguments that support your thesis in order of importance (one sentence for each).

Voila! You’ve just written your introductory paragraph.

The Second, Third and Fourth Paragraphs: Supporting Details

These three paragraphs form the body of the essay. They provide details, such as facts, quotes, examples and concrete statistics, for the three points in your introductory paragraph that support your thesis. Take the points you listed in your introduction and discuss each in one body paragraph. Here’s how:

  • First, write a topic sentence that summarizes your point. This is the first sentence of your paragraph.
  • Next, write your argument, or why you feel the topic sentence is true.
  • Finally, present your evidence (facts, quotes, examples, and statistics) to support your argument.

Now you have a body paragraph. Repeat for points two and three. The best part about introducing your main points in the first paragraph is that it provides an outline for your body paragraphs and eliminates the need to write in transitions between paragraphs.

The Fifth Paragraph: The Conclusion

The concluding paragraph must summarize the essay. This is often the most difficult paragraph to write. In your conclusion, you should restate the thesis and connect it with the body of the essay in a sentence that explains how each point supports the thesis. Your final sentence should uphold your main idea in a clear and compelling manner. Be sure you do not present any new information in the conclusion.

Parting Thoughts

When writing an essay for a standardized test, outline your essay and get through each paragraph as quickly as possible. Think of it as a rough draft. When your time is up, a complete essay will score more points than an incomplete essay because the evaluator is expecting a beginning, middle and an end.

If you have time to review your essay before your time is up, by all means do so! Make any revisions that you think will enhance your “rough draft” and be sure to check for any grammatical errors or misspellings.

Online instruction like  the Time4Writing essay writing courses for elementary, middle and high school students can help children prepare for state and college-entrance standardized writing tests. These interactive writing classes build basic writing skills, explain essay types and structure, and teach students how to organize their ideas.

For general tips on test preparation and details about each state’s standardized tests, please visit our standardized test overview page.

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