Here’s what Emig had to say about the 5 paragraph essay back in 1971.  She calls it the Fifty-Star Theme because “it is so indigenously American”:

“Why is the Fifty-Star Theme so tightly lodged in the American composition curriculum?  The reason teachers often give is that this essentially redundant form, devoid, or duplicating, of content in at least two of its five parts, exists outside their classrooms, and invery high places–notably, freshman English classes; “business”; and in the “best practices” of the “best writers”–that, in other words, this theme somehow fulfills requirements somewhere in the real world.

This fantasy is easy to disprove.  If one takes a constellation of writers who current critical judgment would agree are among the best American writers…can one find a single example of any variation of the Fifty-Star Theme?”  (97)

Her answer is no, and she goes on to say that freshmen English is not monolithic, but creative according to instructor.  She argues that the responsibility for the persistance of the five paragraph essay is “partially attributable to teacher illiteracy,” to teachers’ lack of “direct experience of composing” and reading contemporary writing.  Without working as writers, teachers “underconceptualize and oversimplify the process of composing.  Planning degenerates into outlining; reformulating becomes the correction of minor infelicities.” (98)

Emig doesn’t tackle the crucial, vital work of effectively simplifying (or accurately isolating discrete skills within) the process of composing for teaching in minilessons across the life-span of a young writer.  She leaves that work up to us.

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