The five paragraph essay has an interesting and turbulent history. Long taught as the most handy way to explain the writing process to composition students, it has been both praised and criticized by representatives in higher education. Some professors have found that it limits students by forcing them to express themselves within an artificial structure. Others continue to argue that the five paragraph essay helps students - both in school and in life - by giving them an easy-to-apply device for saying what needs to be said clearly and concisely. Since the vast majority of professors in composition classes teach and encourage the five paragraph essay, it is important for students to understand its structure and usefulness as well as its limitations.
The structure of the five paragraph essay is fairly straightforward, and almost every composition student knows it in theory. The first paragraph of the five paragraph essay introduces the topic, gives a three-sentence outline of the argument to follow, then suggests what the essay's conclusion - its thesis - will be. The next three paragraphs follow through on the first paragraph by restating the topic sentences, which have appeared in paragraph one, and offering proof or evidence for the assumptions that support the thesis of the essay. Finally, the conclusion paragraph summarizes the argument, reiterates the thesis, and suggests how the thesis relates in some way to a broader idea. The final sentence should be clever, memorable, and relevant.
This, unfortunately, is often the extent of what most composition instructors share with their students about how the five paragraph essay works. What instructors rarely reveal is that the five paragraph essay has roots much older and more significant than English 1A. Fundamentally, the five paragraph essay form is based on a tradition reaching back thousands of years and still impacting our lives in a number of ways. The tradition on which the five paragraph essay is based is the tradition of formal logic, which was established in the West by Aristotle and Plato and applied by countless thinkers since. Hiding this fact from students is perhaps one of the most significant mistakes composition teachers make, since formal logic is the foundation of philosophy, mathematics, computer science, and even music! The vast majority of students, of course, have an understanding of at least one of these fields, and even students who struggle with writing are perfectly capable of determining whether a statement is "true" or "not true," "valid" or "invalid."
In formal logic, all that is required are premises and conclusions. The premises of a logical argument are those statements which are assumed to be true for the sake of the argument. In the five paragraph essay, the premises of your argument are expressed in your topic sentences. If the statements made in your topic sentences are proven or known to be true, then you already have the makings of a solid essay. The "conclusion" of your essay is simply your "thesis." In other words, your thesis is what you want to prove based on your premises. Other than the actual words to express them, true premises and a conclusion that follows from those premises are all that a well-structured five paragraph essay requires.
Of course, the five paragraph essay does have limitations. One of the most important limitations of the five paragraph essay is that it requires students to have a clear idea of what they want to say in advance. Since you need to know your conclusion before you even start writing your five paragraph essay, it's important to use techniques, when writing in this form, such as brainstorming and outlining, which can help you to clarify your argument and thus control the logical progression of your essay. In fact, brainstorming and outlining techniques were developed by educators at the same time that the five paragraph essay was becoming an increasingly popular tool for teaching composition. Brainstorming and outlining are, by implication, more important steps to take before writing the five paragraph essay than before writing any other type of essay.