Monday, December 15, 2014

The 5-Paragraph Persuasive Essay in College ESL Courses

“How deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”
--Henry David Thoreau

Many teachers believe that the 5-paragraph persuasive essay is the only appropriate writing task for college-level students. Almost all of the college-level ESL textbooks published for the Quebec market include units on the so-called 5-paragraph persuasive essay, but units on narrative writing rarely appear. This dearth is unfortunate since there are some very good reasons to switch to narrative writing.  

1. We need an alternative to the 5-paragraph persuasive essay

Why would anyone want an alternative to the 5-paragraph persuasive essay, you ask? For starters, over-reliance on this standard writing model does considerable harm to both students and teachers. When you ask teachers why they teach the 5-paragraph persuasive essay, they invariably tell you that it teaches students how to think and how to express themselves. However, there is evidence to suggest that, in fact, this standard writing model does exactly the opposite--limiting thinking, stunting expressiveness, and persuading no one of anything.

Structure displaces meaning

Rorschach (2004) reports in a case-study of three college ESL students in a remedial writing course that pressure from the writing teacher to adhere strictly to a proscribed form interfered with the students' development and organization of their ideas. One student had been taught in her ESL writing class to focus solely on the formal features of the model and ignore critical issues with content. As a result, her paragraphs remained "a series of unconnected vignettes," bound together by a highly-formulaic thesis statement. Rather than to help the student organize and express her own ideas, the imposed structure suppressed personal expression and produced non-thinking conformity.

A deskilling effect

Another teacher phrased the problem this way: "The five-paragraph essay is not an inherently incorrect form. However, it is destructive in that students are not ever allowed to discover if the form fits the meaning they seek to make” (Duxbury, 2008). Since the form is always set in advance, meaning suffers. Part of the blame belongs to the thesis statement, by controlling what you are able to say and how you can say it. Berggren calls persuasive essay writing profoundly anti-intellectual in this respect because the student's only question becomes, "What can I say that I can support?" (Berggren, 2008, p. 60). Students begin with an opinion and cast about in search of support for it, instead of looking at the evidence and formulating a position by induction. Moreover, the epistemology thesis statements reinforce is exactly the style of knowing we want learners to outgrow, namely that of absolute knowing in favour of contextual knowing. The absolute claims of the conventional thesis statement preclude nuanced thinking. 

Not only does this rhetorical straitjacket have a negative effect on students' ability to think and express their meaning, excessive focus on this one rhetorical model to the exclusion to all others, Moss (2002) argues, has left students under-prepared for the range of critical thinking and writing tasks they will face at university. Concomitantly, Moss (2002) found that adopting a single, standard academic writing model has devalued teacher innovation and development, with school administrations claiming that in the context of a single, universal writing model funding teacher training for writing instruction is no longer necessary. The 5-paragraph persuasive essay is having a deskilling effect on teachers, as well.

Virtues Overstated

The virtues of the 5-paragraph persuasive essay are almost always overstated. Many teachers will tell you that this type of essay promotes proper habits of mind, helping learners organize their ideas, no matter the subject. This is called the Doctrine of Formal Discipline and is based on the idea that learning to do one task can have a positive effect on a learner's ability to do another unrelated task. In the early 1900s, the dominant view was that learning Latin and Geometry would have an improving effect on learners, so E. L. Thorndike, the first educational psychologist, set out to test whether learning one cognitive task would result in an improvement on a different task. It did not. The theory of general transfer has been abandoned in favour of theories of specific transfer (where learning one task will help you do a similar task in the future) or specific transfer of general principles (where learning to apply specific strategies to one situation can transfer to a new situation). Essay writing may provide an organizational model for arranging arguments into an essay form but it is very unlikely for it to cause a general improvement in thinking skills. 

Inauthentic task

The persuasive essay is an inauthentic task since it is never used outside of instructional contexts. Horowitz (1986) in a survey of writing assignments across disciplines found that the persuasive essay does not resemble any of the actual writing tasks usually given by university professors.  Defenders of the essay claim that persuasive essay writing is nevertheless an essential academic skill, without which advancement in academia is impossible. Proof of this is that the universities use persuasive essay writing tasks as entry tests. Therefore, the reasoning goes, teaching the persuasive essay in English will help students gain access to and succeed in English language universities.

According to Statscan, 64% of the population in Quebec attends CEGEP. Only 38% go on to university. But from there, according to Lamarre (2008), only 20% of francophone graduates attend English language university. That means that only 8% of all the francophones in all CEGEPs will go on to English University. Assuming that learning to write the persuasive essay is, as claimed, useful for students attending English universities, a class of 30 CEGEP ESL learners will receive instruction in a writing task which might be relevant for only about 2 students in the group. "How relevant?" is another question since a growing number of undergrads enter Business and Engineering programs where report writing and case studies (i.e., narratives) will be required of them.

Of the English L2 speakers who do arrive at English language universities, irrespective of academic discipline, the biggest hurdle, according to the Vice-Provost of Concordia University, is their low English proficiency. It is for this reason that the University Writing Test has been suspended at Concordia University for all undergraduate students in favor of preparatory ESL courses that focus on writing, listening, and speaking components of language training. To what extent, we should ask, do academic writing tasks support listening and speaking skills? To answer this question, we should look at the corpus data.

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References 

Abbott, H. P. (2008). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative.

Baker, S. C., & MacIntyre, P. D. (2000). The role of gender and immersion in communication and
           second language orientations. Language Learning, (50), 311–341.

Berggren, A. (2008). Do thesis statements short-circuit originality in students’ writing? In C. 
           Eisner & M. Vicinus, Originality, imitation, and plagiarism: Teaching writing in the digital
           age. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad and E. Finegan (1999), Longman grammar of
spoken and written English. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Dornyei, Z. (1990). Conceptualizing Motivation in Foreign-Language Learning. Language Learning,
           40(1), 45–78.

Duxbury, A.R. (2008). The tyranny of the thesis statement. English Journal, 97(4), 16-18.

Hines, S. C., & Barraclough, R. A. (1995). Communicating in a foreign language: Its effects on 
           perceived motivation, knowledge, and communication ability. Comrnunication Research 
           Reports, (12), 241–247.

Horowitz, D. (1986). What professors actually require: Academic tasks for  the ESL classroom. 
           TESOL Quarterly, 20, 445-462.

MacIntyre, P. D., & Charos, C. (1996). Personality, attitudes, and affect as predictors of second 
            language communication. 15, 3-26. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, (15), 3–26. 

McCrosky, J. C., & Richmond, V. P. (1982). Communication apprehension and shyness: Conceptual 
          and operational distinctions. Central States Speech Journal, (33), 458–468.

Moss, G. (2002). The five-paragraph theme. The Quarterly24(3), 23-38. Retrieved from 
           http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/download/nwp_file/467/The_Five-Paragraph_Theme.pdf

Labov, W. 2008. Oral narratives of personal experience. http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~wlabov/. (13
           December 2008.)

Rorschach, E. (2004). The five-paragraph theme redux.The Quarterly26(1), 16-25. Retrieved from 
           http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/download/nwp_file/970/Five-Paragraph_Theme.pdf 

Segalowitz, N. (1976). Communicative incompetence and the non-fluent bilingual. Canadian
            Journal of Behavioural Science, 8(2), 121-131.

Statistics Canada, (2008). Youth in transition survey. Retrieved from Statistics Canada website: 
            http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/81-595-m/2008070/t/6000006-eng.htm

Trimble, L. (1985). English for science and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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