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Thinking Outside the Five-Paragraph Essay

Students at the University of Texas-Southmost College work on a writing assignment in an English as a Second Language class in 2006

Students at the University of Texas-Southmost College work on a writing assignment in an English as a Second Language class in 2006

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

This is the VOA Special English Education Report.

Millions of students have been taught a formula that has nothing to do with chemistry. The formula is for writing a five-paragraph essay. First, write an introductory paragraph to state the argument. Then, add three paragraphs of evidence. Finally, write a conclusion.

Linda Bergmann is director of the Writing Lab at Purdue University in Indiana. Her job is to help students, including international students, improve their writing. Professor Bergmann has worked with many students who learned this traditional five-paragraph formula.

LINDA BERGMANN: "It is kind of like, 'A is true because one, two, three.' The second paragraph is the first reason, next paragraph the second reason. The next paragraph is the final reason, and then the last paragraph is, 'So we can see that this is true.'"

Professor Bergmann says international students sometimes have difficulty with this formula if they learned a different writing structure. But just knowing how to write a five-paragraph essay is not going to be enough for a college student who has to write a longer academic paper. As Professor Bergmann points out, the formula is too simple to deal with subjects that require deeper thought and investigation.

LINDA BERGMANN: "Essentially, it is way too simplistic to handle more intellectually sophisticated topics which involve actual inquiry."

Karen Gocsik is executive director of courses in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The institute has an extensive library of online writing materials on its website.

So what are the qualities that make up good writing? Ms. Gocsik says there are no simple answers -- except maybe for one. That is, there is no formula that students can follow to guarantee a well-written paper.

KAREN GOCSIK: "What we try to teach students to do in college is to listen to their ideas, and that the idea should be able to tell you what form it needs to take."

She says moving from secondary-school writing to college-level writing can be difficult, but students should not be afraid.

KAREN GOCSIK: "The thinking that you are doing, and the purpose that you have and the audience you are writing to -- all of these things you will mix up together and you will come up with, we hope, an excellent college paper."

In some cultures, students organize their paragraphs to build toward the main idea at the end of the paper. American college students are usually expected to state their thesis at the beginning. And, while students in some cultures use lots of descriptive words, American professors generally want shorter sentences.

And that's the VOA Special English Education Report, written by Jerilyn Watson. Tell us about your own experience with academic writing. Go to and share your stories. And before you write that next paper, check out two links on our website. One is for the Online Writing Lab at Purdue. The other is for the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth. I'm Jim Tedder.

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