Notes: Lil Brannon, Jennifer Pooler Courtney, Cynthia P. Urbanski, Shana V. Woodward, Jeanie Marklin Reynolds, Anthony E. Iannone, Karen D. Haag, Karen Mach, Lacy Arnold Manship, and Mary Kendrick, “The Five Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education”

Brannon, Lil, et al. (2008). The five-paragraph essay and the deficit model of education. English Journal, 98(2), 16.

3 pens on a composition book

3 pens on a composition book


The UNC Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative draws on the large body of scholarship and theory in the teaching of writing to critique the continuing and pervasive practice of teaching the five-paragraph essay. Instead, they argue for a pedagogy that does not reiterate the status quo, but offers students a more nuanced understanding of writing.

Keywords: composition, literacy, pedagogy, teaching of writing


Knoblauch, Cy, and Lil Brannon. (1984). Rhetorical traditions and the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair: Boynton/Cook.


“There is, according to Halasek, a dangerous paternalism surrounding this pedagogical practice, which stems from objectivist rather than constructivist notions of language and discourse. Such practices, she argues, are repressive acts that compel students to master this one form before proceeding. The premise that this form is somehow ‘foundational’—’an all purpose approach to writing’ (99)—is false because it ignores the generative nature of forming and ‘disregards the intimate relationship among audience, social context, subject, and author’ (100)” (p. 17).

“When students are considered lacking—lacking organization, lacking ideas to write about, lacking understanding—writing in an arbitrary formula merely sustains the deficit perception. Students learn that writing means following a set of instructions, filling in the blanks. Such writing mirrors working-class life, which requires little individual thinking and creativity combined with lots of monotony and following orders. It’s obvious what training the five-paragraph essay is really practice for. Writing, we argue, should not be yet another way to train students to be obedient citizens, but rather provide them with opportunities to develop their thinking as individuals, making meaning through the act of composing” (p. 18).

“A deficit understanding of students would see the diversity of languages and cultures in classrooms as a problem rather than a strength. A deficit understanding labels the language of low socioeconomic students as a problem, often marking them as ignorant. The deficit model labels these same children as remedial or even having learning disabilities. This model is largely responsible for placing minorities or children of the poor in remedial classes. The deficit model gives these children worksheet drudgery and formulaic writing that will occupy the students into passivity” (p. 18).

Questions, Reflections, and Responses:

Lil Brannon is always brilliant and the UNC Charlotte Writing Project is a powerhouse of amazing and talented teachers. This idea of going against the problem with the “common sense” pedagogy of the five-paragraph essay seems to reflect a lot of what teachers of writing have to go up against and the narratives that surround our work. The endeavor of creating a pedagogy that creates this more nuanced sense of writing, that goes beyond the all-purpose approach, deficit model means undertaking an articulation in what we value in writing and changing the “grand narrative” of its instruction.

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