Education

Why the ‘Hamburger’ Essay Has Gone Stale

The last year has taught educators that we must update many tried and true methods. Especially given the time constraints placed on teachers–whether teaching virtually or face-to-face. I’d like to suggest an important change. Stop requiring the hamburger style, five-paragraph essay. There is no rule that five paragraphs make the best essay. In fact, this unwritten rule leads to restrictive, repetitive, and often content-weak essays. It’s time to get rid of the hamburger essay!

Bye, bye buns

Sure, teachers still assign this style of essay for a reason. It is easy and efficient, but that is often the problem. Many students write through the motions to make their ideas fit into the hamburger style because they’ve been taught to do for so long. Even many state writing assessments still encourage the five-paragraph essay. This requirement often leads to drawn-out and monotonous essays, just so the student can check the boxes.

In his article, Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay, John Warner writes, “The five-paragraph essay is indeed a genre, but one that is entirely uncoupled from anything resembling meaningful work when it comes to developing a fully mature writing process.” The five-paragraph assignment often causes students to focus on how the essay should look rather than what the essay should say.

Serve up choice and voice

My favorite college professor once said he wanted two things from us when we wrote or presented in his class: to be informed and to be entertained. He told us to focus on what we wanted to say and then figure out how to say it.

A quick look at College Board requirements for essays encourages students to consider the following topics: subject, occasion, audience, and purpose. Challenge students to really focus on what they want to say. Encourage students to ask these questions: What is my goal? Why is this important to me? Why should this be important to others? The main goal of any essay should be to help the reader understand your thesis by organizing the ideas in a logical manner to support it. Answering these questions will help the student craft a strong thesis; without it, the essay is just wilted lettuce and mushy buns.

Size shouldn’t matter

The three-pronged thesis statement approach provided the meat, lettuce, and tomato of the hamburger essay. But this also forces students to develop three, and only three, main ideas to support. Sometimes two, four, or more may be just what is needed. As for the conclusion, let go of the idea that the thesis and main ideas need to be repeated. Instead, instruct students to focus on making sure the final paragraph emphasizes why the essay is important and why further action may be needed.

Throughout the writing process, reassure students that it is okay to write creatively. They should spend more time researching and fully developing the necessary support instead of worrying about meeting a certain length or number of words. Encourage students to stay mindful about word choice and voice to set the tone, use a variety of sentence styles to keep readers interested, and stay on topic. These important elements will help the essay achieve its purpose regardless of the number of paragraphs. One of the most important goals of teaching writing is to challenge students to think critically and to find their own voice and style. The focus of essay writing needs to be on quality, not quantity.

Not all essays are equal

Consider the type of essay you are requiring the students to write. If expository is the requirement, a five-paragraph essay might fill the bill. However, if narrative writing is the focus, encourage students to check out NPR’s series “This I Believe.” Here students will be able to read and hear numerous styles of essays that also showcase a writer’s voice. If the essay is persuasive, students will certainly want to spend time not only developing those body paragraphs of support but the counterclaim as well. Additionally, many courses simply require students to write an introduction, multi-paragraph body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The length is totally up to the individual student.

Allowing more voice and choice in writing gives the students more control and, in the end, more joy in the process. After all, a meaty and well-done essay is a chef’s kiss to an educator and student who have an appetite for success.

Do you think it’s time to get rid of the hamburger essay? Share your comments below!

Also, let’s stop asking students to start every essay with a hook.

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