Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all. 

Which brings me back to that post I read on the NCTE Teaching and Learning forum. Amidst all the responses for and against the five-paragraph essay form was a comment from Geoffrey Layton, a professor from the University of Oklahoma. Layton argued for teaching a form that is commonly found in many professional essays. Here is how he explains it:

The form is a statement of a “Commonplace,” supported by a “First Glance” and contested by a “Closer Look.” The “Commonplace” is a statement of “what most, or many people, probably believe about a topic” and becomes the assumption (or enthymeme) on which the subsequent argument will be based. An examination of a broad range of essays written by and for both academics and the general public begin with such a commonplace. A “first glance” is then used to support the commonplace, which solves the problem that plagues many essayists, even academic writers, when they assume that their naysayers aren’t competent rhetoricians. Finally, the “closer look” advances a differing but not necessarily an opposing or “agonistic” opinion. In other words, this form – a commonplace supported by a first glance and then contested by closer look – is a formula for advancing knowledge, the goal not just of the academy but all writers everywhere. It is what makes the essay such an enduring and necessary form.

The moment I read Layton’s response, I knew he was right. This form—the Commonplace, the First Glance, and the Closer Look—is a form I have seen over and over again in essays from the New York Times, New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on. This year, I started to teach this form explicitly to my students, and the “CFC”–which quickly became our shorthand for this structure—is now one of my students’ favorite go-to methods for organizing their ideas.

Have you heard of the CFC-The reason the five-paragraph essay has maintained its dominance in schools for so long is because of its clear structure. A clear structure, of course, is important in essay writing. However, when students sit down to write a five-paragraph essay, they too often start by thinking in terms of structure rather than thinking in terms of ideas. In other words, students’ ideas are crammed, retrofitted, and limited so that they can fit into five neatly organized paragraphs.

What I appreciate about the CFC, on the other hand, is that it requires students to lead with their ideas. In order to effectively use this structure, students must ask themselves what is a common understanding or assumption about this issue? To answer that question, students need to have a sense of audience. Students then need to think about how that common understanding is supported at first glance by evidence. Finally—and most importantly—students must take a stance of curiosity and ask is that really true? Perhaps a closer look reveals that it is not. From this point on in the essay, students must look closer, dig deeper, and question generally held (but often not closely examined) beliefs.

Take this example:

  • A commonplace assumption is that our school education often provides our most valuable learning experiences.
  • After all, at first glance, we spend many years in formal schooling and billions of dollars on funding our public schools.
  • But are schools the only place that we can get a valuable education? If we take a closer look, we see that we can learn much outside the classroom.

The CFC structure I’ve outlined above is essentially the set-up of New York Times columnist David Brooks’ wonderful essay, “The Other Education”. Here is the opening of that piece:

Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.

But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.

We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

Likewise, the CFC appears in the marvelous long-form essay, “The Upside Of Being An Introvert (And Why Extroverts Are Overrated)” by Bryan Walsh in Time magazine. Here is an excerpt from early in the essay:

Simply being an introvert can also feel taxing–especially in America, land of the loud and home of the talkative. From classrooms built around group learning to open-plan offices that encourage endless meetings, it sometimes seems that the quality of your work has less value than the volume of your voice.

And as if the world weren’t slanted enough toward the extrovert, study after study has made sociability seem like a prerequisite for good health, right along with low cholesterol and frequent exercise. Very shy and introverted people have been shown to succumb more rapidly to diseases like HIV and to be at greater risk for depression than their extroverted counterparts. In schools, it’s the bolder kids who get attention from teachers, while quiet children can too easily languish in the back of the classroom. “Our culture expects people to be outgoing and sociable,” says Christopher Lane, an English professor at Northwestern University and the author of Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness. “It’s the unstated norm, and against that norm introverts stand out as seemingly problematic.”

But that unstated norm discounts the hidden benefits of the introverted temperament–for workplaces, personal relationships and society as a whole. Introverts may be able to fit all their friends in a phone booth, but those relationships tend to be deep and rewarding. Introverts are more cautious and deliberate than extroverts, but that means they tend to think things through more thoroughly, which means they can often make smarter decisions. Introverts are better at listening–which, after all, is easier to do if you’re not talking–and that in turn can make them better business leaders, especially if their employees feel empowered to act on their own initiative. And simply by virtue of their ability to sit still and focus, introverts find it easier to spend long periods in solitary work, which turns out to be the best way to come up with a fresh idea or master a skill.

Walsh begins with the commonly held belief that being an introvert is often seen as a negative quality, especially because at first glance, America is a “land of the loud and home of the talkative.” Walsh includes additional evidence to support this commonly held belief, such as statistics about the physical benefits of being an extrovert and the societal prejudices against being an introvert. However, a closer look reveals the “hidden benefits of the introverted temperament.” From this point on, Walsh’s essay digs deeper to examine those benefits.

If you aren’t convinced yet, here are five benefits to the CFC:

Structure. While the five-paragraph essay is structured, it is a structure that is limiting. The CFC, on the other hand, offers a structure that is a meaningful starting point for students as they write and explore a topic.

Large and Small Scale Organization. Speaking of structure, the CFC can offer a method for global organization where the entire essay is loosely organized into these three parts. But it can also be used as a smaller craft move within an essay. Take, for example, this paragraph from “The Case for Teaching Ignorance” by Jamie Holmes in the New York Times:

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Above, Holmes uses the CFC to pivot from some background information earlier in the essay to his claim that teaching ignorance has value.

And below, in Kathryn Shulz’s Pultizer Prize winning feature essay—“The Really Big One” published in The New Yorker last year (and among my absolute favorite essays of all-time)—the CFC is alive and well:

Most people in the United States know just one fault line by name: the San Andreas, which runs nearly the length of California and is perpetually rumored to be on the verge of unleashing “the big one.” That rumor is misleading, no matter what the San Andreas ever does. Every fault line has an upper limit to its potency, determined by its length and width, and by how far it can slip. For the San Andreas, one of the most extensively studied and best understood fault lines in the world, that upper limit is roughly an 8.2—a powerful earthquake, but, because the Richter scale is logarithmic, only six per cent as strong as the 2011 event in Japan.

Just north of the San Andreas, however, lies another fault line. Known as the Cascadia subduction zone, it runs for seven hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, beginning near Cape Mendocino, California, continuing along Oregon and Washington, and terminating around Vancouver Island, Canada.

Notice how Shulz begins this section (which is actually the narration part of the classical argument structure) with what “most people in the United States” first associate with fault lines: the San Andreas. Shulz then shifts to take a closer look at the fault line of more pressing concern—the one found a few hundred miles north in the Pacific Northwest.

Authenticity. As I hope I’ve shown in the example above, the CFC can be found in many professional essays and mentor texts.

Focus on Reasoning. To pull off the CFC, students need to think through the assumptions behind commonly held beliefs. Then students need go further—to consider opposing or alternative views to those beliefs. They learn to ask questions and look at an issue by taking another stance. They learn to be curious.

Motivating. When I asked my students what they thought of this structure, one student replied, “I like it because it makes me feel like I’m proving someone wrong. I’m taking something that a lot of people believe and showing them how it’s not that simple.” Rather than write an essay that simply answers why I’m right (isn’t that what all five-paragraph essays do?), the CFC asks students to consider what if we’re wrong?

Of course, all this said, the CFC isn’t always the best organization for all types of arguments. Students need time and practice experimenting with many different types of organization and then choose the one that best fits their ideas.

What do you think of this method? How do you help students find a way to structure their ideas? Please share your thoughts in the comments below, or connect with me on Twitter at @triciaebarvia.

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As a bonus, here are a handful of additional essays that also use the CFC form in some capacity:

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11 thoughts on “Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

  1. It’s funny how our posts this week dovetail a bit… Now, I’m building, in my head, an essay structure where they use CFC, and then drop in a quote, run the says/means/matters on it, and from those relatively simple notions, have something longer, and presumably better, than the old 5PE! Thanks for the share!

    • Thanks, Maribeth! I think 2nd graders could do some of this. Start with a topic and ask, “What do you think most people would think?” (or insert specific audience). Then, “Why would they think that?” and finally, “But is that true?”

      For example:

      Q: “What do you think your teachers would think about all-day recess?”
      A: “They would not like it all!”

      Q: “Why would think think that?”
      A: “Because (at first glance) they would think that kids would go crazy, etc.”

      Q: “But is that true?” <–students could even use this question as in the essay
      A: "No, because (if we take a closer look) kids can be trusted to behave because…"

      • Oh, I agree completely! I have a group of writers this ear that rival 4th graders. They have an interesting mindset, and seek the different. This would have been perfect for them, but alas, I am in narrative mode…
        Thanks for the suggestions. I appreciate the time you took to think it through. Maribeth

  2. Kudos. You’ve given us a very thoughtful guide to this format and something for my students and me to think about in the days to come. Congrats on the new gig too.

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