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  • Matthew Gu

Five Paragraphs to Win: The Formulaic Failure of Literacy Education

A handy five-paragraph diagram from the University of Waterloo’s Writing and Communication Centre

Introduction. Body paragraph 1. Body paragraph 2. Body paragraph 3. Conclusion.

A paragraph for each, and you’ve got your typical five paragraph form—or three-tier paper, or 1-3-1 model, or hamburger essay. Regardless of name, it remains a relentlessly common style of writing which any person who has experienced an American high school English class is almost undoubtedly acquainted with. Schools all across the United States gravitate around those little five paragraphs in their curricula. It’s just so conveniently structured and so easy to teach. 

Yet the epidemic of the United States literacy crisis continues to hover over the country and its citizens, far past the stage of early childhood. The National Literacy Institute reports that 21% of adults in the US were illiterate in 2024, and 130 million are unable to read a simple story to their children. The question lies, therein, in this: are these high schools preparing their students to use English in the real world? 

To start, let’s unpack what exactly it means to be “literate” in the first place.

Literacy pioneer Lauren Resnick

In 1990, educational psychologist Lauren Resnick fundamentally challenged conventional understandings of literacy. In her aptly titled journal article “Literacy In School and Out,” not only does she address the ways literacy goes beyond the classroom, but she reframes it as a cultural practice rather than an acquired ability. She argues that it takes a variety of forms: from the practical to the informational, from the pleasurable to the persuasive.

The ways in which people require these forms of literacy in their daily lives are all-encompassing and multifaceted. Tasks like following instructions to assemble furniture from IKEA, reading a book for pleasure, or researching information about an issue that matters to you all fall within this umbrella. In contemporary society, practicing literacy is an essential life skill—and people depend on the education system to teach them how to do it in the variety of forms and genres which exist.

However, teachers—especially as they are pressured to prepare their students for standardized tests—engineer lessons specifically suited toward that purpose, which often emphasize particular “formulas” of organization. Formulas like ACE (Answer + Cite evidence + Explain) are certainly useful tools in how they teach students about key elements of writing and give them a framework to think about its organization. It is when these learning environments cultivate the misconception that utilizing set structures is essential to literacy, rather than one potential stepping stone towards learning the more organic writing that might be expected in college or other environments beyond a high school classroom, that the problem becomes apparent for impressionable students.

Perhaps the epitome of formulaic writing for argumentative purposes is five paragraph form. It has undeniable benefits not only from an efficiency for standardized tests perspective—condensing thought into a simple and digestible format so that students can learn more quickly—but also from a broader pedagogical perspective. If used thoughtfully, it can be a great instrument for teaching students important skills like consistently connecting a piece to a clear thesis and organizing evidence under different points of an argument. 

Yet the five paragraph form is surface level in both organization and argument, often limited to a sum of three distantly connected ideas under one overly general thesis. Furthermore, its use in such a large portion of “major” English class assignments, due to its relevance to standardized testing, further misleads students into overestimating its importance.

By portraying formulas like the five-paragraph form as gospel to their students, inadvertently or otherwise, educators encourage them to prioritize adhering to pre-established forms over carefully considering the real function of their work. In turn, they become more prone to neglecting key parts of literate practice, such as gearing their work to a particular audience and context, and thinking critically about what structure and progression would best suit the presentation of one particular argument and its reasoning. The way that literacy is being taught in the classroom actively disempowers students trying to be literate in the wider world.

But what happens when the wide and diverse range of literate forms and techniques, each for a different context, is emphasized instead? 

Think back to how Lauren Resnick frames literacy as a cultural practice rather than an acquired ability. Literacy is cultural: it encompasses the myriad ways in which we live, think, communicate, and express ourselves. English class and school in general are certainly not the end-all be-all for preparing students to function in society, but they have an undeniable impact in a plethora of aspects of it, from informational writing to civic engagement. Whether by broadening the scope of course curricula or creating opportunities for extracurricular engagement, there is much that schools can do in improving how they prepare students to write for the near-endless range of purposes literate practice may hold: practical, recreational, persuasive, and beyond. 

To be literate—or to practice literacy—is to be empowered to work towards a better future, for both yourself and for others. Literacy is more than the ability to follow a formula. So why do we continue to treat it as such?


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