One Way to Leave the Five-paragraph Essay Behind: Introduction to Digital Inquiry and Argument Unit Plan

At the beginning of my current master’s class, Writing Assessment and Instruction, I thought I had a handle on how to teach my high school English students to write essays—after all, I at least had learned a system from my mentor during my yearlong internship of student teaching. Sure, the system of Power Writing, based on a method developed by a professor named J.E. Sparks, entailed a formulaic, often five-paragraph essay form without a lot of room for experimentation. But it seemed to work for my students, transforming unfocused, disorganized writing into a concise, structured, and sometimes-sophisticated argument.

So when I began my immersion in a body of scholarly writing on writing instruction research, a multitude of questions arose for me as I read about such compelling topics as:

  • the limitations and negative outcomes of privileging the teaching of a particular writing form, particularly at the expense of instruction on the skills necessary to develop the content of writing (Hillocks, 2005)
  • the incredible potential of building writing assignments that transform the way students understand themselves and the world (Yagelski, 2012)
  • and that students’ engagement with writing instruction both demands certain factors of authenticity and increases their achievement (Behizadeh, 2014).

Perhaps the five-paragraph essay is not the best way of teaching my students how to write an argument—but then what? How can I transition away from this method of writing instruction? Specifically, which activities and instructional practices will help me guide my students to a more flexible conception of argumentative writing with more authentic purposes and outcomes?

One of the most helpful course texts in providing many concrete ideas of where to go from Power Writing was Real Writing: Modernizing the Old School Essay by Nobis et al. Similarly to many others, the authors argue that the five-paragraph essay is a pseudogenre and that as teachers of English, we must improve our methods by engaging students with actual published essays, the gray areas of argument that won’t fit into five paragraphs, connected learning, digital writing environments, and argumentation in creative works.

I could continue to explain why five-paragraph essays offer just a sliver of the authentic learning power found in the types of transformational curricular ideas of Nobis et al and a wide variety of other educators and researchers, but the real focus of this blog post is the response I’ve formulated to my questions.

After selecting and engaging with additional resources on the topic of broadening writing instruction and leaving behind what one author called “the tyranny of the five-paragraph essay,” (Schwartz, 2014), I developed the unit plan below. This product is the result of an extensive research process and the application of the work of inspirational educators who have been re-imagining writing instruction long before I began my inquiry. What follows is a deeper look at the some of the key features of the unit:

Intro to Digital Inquiry and Argument Unit

  1. A focus on the essential elements of argument with the Toulmin framework

The unit begins with a focus on the essential elements of an argument and how they relate to one another–claim, data/evidence, and warrant/reasoning–rather than a particular form in which these important ideas can become lost.  Also fundamental to the power of an argument is an understanding of the types of evidence and how to use them, which is another element of argument emphasized in the plan.

For example, in the unit’s  gateway activity “Evaluating Evidence,” which similar to other integral gateway activities came from an indispensable resource, Argument in the Real World by Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks (2017), students learn some of the primary types of evidence, such as scientific law, statistical data, expert opinion, and anecdotal evidence. After the teacher first models the process, they work in pairs to collaborate on a mini-inquiry, finding multimedia sources online, classifying the evidence used, and evaluating their responses to it (p. 28-29).

     2. Experiential learning of the knowledge and skills involved in analyzing and crafting arguments in a variety of formats

As Hawley Turner and Hicks emphasize in Argument in the Real World, drawing on the work of George Hillocks (2011), students need experiences where they are involved in the work of inquiry and of writing before they are asked to apply them to extended research projects.

For this reason, the unit contains gateway activities designed to introduce students to the elements of argumentative writing and to facilitate their collaboration to analyze how they work in actual everyday arguments such as those made in logos, ads, and blogs. In fact, before students are asked to do any of the tasks critical to their success in the unit, they are guided in the procedural knowledge, skills, and tools involved, and they practice them with the class and independently.

3. Meaningful engagement with mentor texts

In Real Writing, Nobis et al describe the value of students’ exploration of mentor texts in order to understand how complex arguments can be written and crafted. Not only does allowing them the freedom to choose mentor texts they find interesting help engage students, but it also encourages the depth of their learning from more experienced writers.

In this unit, students read many blogs in preparation for the final product in which they produce a blog of their own and share their digital writing on the website Youth Voices. Students use the blogs to find and analyze the impact of various features of the form, such as links, text features, and invitation to conversation, as well as of the content, including the relationship between the larger blog focus and that of particular posts and the personal and other forms of evidence. They also study the argument structure of the post and the author’s stylistic elements so that they try it out for themselves.

4. Connected learning in a digital environment

Connected learning involves many engaging components for students, including the use of technological tools to research topics students are genuinely interested in and to share that research with authentic audiences.

This unit was deliberately planned as an introduction for students to develop and practice norms for engaging with one another and people beyond the classroom on social media and blogs, as well as to select and research topics they choose because of their curiosity about what’s going on in their lives and communities. Through weekly in-person discussion and collaboration on classroom social media platform such as Edmodo or a wiki, KQED Do Now posts, and Youth Voices, students will gain a lot of experience researching and formulating arguments about current events, sharing their ideas with others, and engaging with other writers and readers in response.

What are some ways you are doing similar work in your classrooms?  Are there any resources that have been helpful to you in teaching argumentative writing and making it authentic and engaging to your students?  Please respond with comments, experiences, and/or questions!  I’m still very much learning about this topic and plan to try out this unit with my students in the near future.


Behizadeh, N. (2014). “Xavier’s Take on Authentic Writing: Structuring Choices for Expression and Impact.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 58(4). 289-298. doi: 10.1002/jaal.357

Hawley Turner, K. and Hicks, T. (2017). Argument in the Real World. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Hillocks, G. (2005). “At Last: The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English. November 2005.

Hillocks, G. (2011). Teaching Argument Writing, Grades 6-12. Portsmouth, Heineman.

Nobis, M., Laird, D., Nobis, C., Reed, D., and Schulze, D. (2016). Real Writing: Modernizing the Old School Essay. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Schwartz, L. H. (2014). “Challenging the Tyranny of the Five-Paragraph Essay: Teachers and Students as Semiotic Boundary Workers in Classroom and Digital Space.” Literacy, 48(3), 124-135. doi:10.1111/lit.12021

Yagelski, R. (2012). Writing as Praxis. English Education, 44 (2).

Image by helloquence from Unsplash

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