Reconciling Freire and Direct Instruction: In Support of the 5 Paragraph Essay

To cast away a useful tool is not only foolhardy, it shows a lack of imagination”. — Tracy A. Novick, Algonquin Regional High School


This past fall a couple of 11th and 12th grade teachers were reviewing some of their students’ essays. While performing a cursory overview of each paper, one of them remarked, “Why don’t these kids know how to write?”. I can tell you why. As education continues to shift away from direct instruction under the guise of Paulo Freire’s rebuke of the banking model, and since teaching directly somehow takes away meaning and individuality, the answer is quite simple– it’s because they haven’t been taught.

The Pitfall of Writer’s Workshop 

Nancie Atwell writes in her conferencing guidelines that teachers should “skim students drafts” making sure to “focus on content, not conventions” (i). She also recommends “meet[ing] with as many writers as possible per day” (i). Imagine a middle school classroom with 36 students (common for Minneapolis & St Paul Public schools)— What level of depth or guidance can you really give if you only spend 2-3 minutes with each student? It’s not reasonable to expect that the teacher adequately address content or Screen Shot 2019-02-03 at 11.45.43 PMconventions in these mini-conferences. In the same way that balanced literacy and reader’s workshop purport that simply reading more will make you a better reader, writer’s workshop makes the same error: just have the students write more and they’ll get better at it. Ultimately, quantity matters more than quality (and this hurts our students in the long run).

Tracy Novick, high school English teacher, writes that at the beginning of the year, they ask their 9th and 10th graders to write an essay about their summers. What Novick finds while reading the essays is “Good ideas in a sea of words.. [the essays] lack focus, direction, [and] voice…” (ii).  This teacher then spends the year giving the students a tool that will allow them all of these things— the 5 paragraph essay.

Just as the sonnet supported the creativity and imagination of Shakespeare (ii), so does the 5 paragraph essay support our students; it enables them to focus on content inside of a determined form. The 5 paragraph essay is not the golden pinnacle of successful writing, but it is a solid starting point. As students become more proficient writers, expanding upon this form comes easily to them because they have been taught a foundational tool.

Direct Instruction Isn’t Oppressive

Paulo Freire is often invoked when discussing instructional methods. He was concerned with systems of power and domination, and critiqued what he called “the banking model” of education– a title that is incorrectly and misguidedly cast on direct and explicit instruction.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he wrote that the oppressed, “…will not gain… liberation by chance” (iii), and “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates” (iii). Our students should be taught using the science of learning AND their curriculum should be a reflection of the diverse experiences and knowledge of the world (not just western thought). It doesn’t have to be either-or; you can (and should!) have a curriculum that ensures both to work toward what I called  culturally relevant direct instruction in my last post. If we, as educators, claim that we care about our students, we can not leave their success to chance, nor make excuses for failure. Have we really done our best teaching when less than 40% of our country’s 4th graders can read (and by extension write) proficiently? Given that Freire was invested in the literacy of peasants in Brazilian favelas I doubt that he would  approve of our current system even though students have meaning and can “read the world”.

A Few Takeaways for My Classroom

  1. We Should Teach Writing Using Evidence-Based Practices

The Institute of Education Sciences recommends that “writing strategies be taught explicitly and directly through a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student” (v). I have seen the positive effects of this evidence-based approach first-hand. In my teaching fellowship with Breakthrough Collaborative a few summers ago, I taught 8th grade writing using an I-do-we-do-you-do framework per the curriculum they provided to us.  Granted this was my first time teaching, and I was still learning how to modify curriculum, the contents of my students’ essays were devoid of significance to their lives. Hence, my next point.

2. Meaning Matters

For those who might dread teaching the 5 paragraph essay because they think it takes away student voice, examine your writing prompts— are they culturally relevant? Cultural relevance, by the way, doesn’t just mean asking your Black students students to write about being Black. A culturally relevant prompt  in language arts means students will engage in critical thinking to determine what is within the purview of “normal” thereby interrogating the status quo.

3.  Students Write About What They Know

This reason alone makes the case for background and content-knowledge so integral to academic success (iv). As schools put less time into teaching content knowledge and instead focus on isolated skills, we as teachers can assume that we will have to do a lot of the initial heavy- lifting. We should front load our units with background knowledge– articles, videos–  and use imbedded non-fiction texts to scaffold reading because ultimately,  content knowledge drives reading comprehension.


If we don’t give students a foundation to practice writing, we are inadvertently deciding  how much choice they have in what their future looks like,  including how well they perform on college entrance writing exams. By “freeing” them of the 5 paragraph essay and direct instruction, we leave their success to chance and potentially confine them to a perpetual position in the underclass. The conventions of writing matter just as much as the content— meaning isn’t the catch- all.





i) Atwell, Nancie. “Responding to Writers and Writing.” New Understanding About Writing, Reading, and Learning, pp. 224–229.

ii) Novick, Tracy A. “Praise for the Five Paragraph Essay.” The English Journal, vol. 90, no. 3, 2001, p. 12., doi:10.2307/821293.

iii) Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, 1992.

iv) Marzano, Robert J. Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement. Hawker Brownlow Education, 2005.

v) Teaching Elementary School Students to Be Effective Writers.

vi) “Good writers just keep writing” is a phrase adapted from Lucy Calkins’ Readers/Writer’s workshop curriculum and is intended for teachers to say to students when they experience writer’s block.



  1. I’m pleased to realize that there are young teachers like you who see the reality of writing instruction. It’s true that we don’t want high school seniors who are still tied to the 5-paragraph essay format. But it’s equally true it’s better to learn a format early on and then transcend it, than it is to be unable to put some structure to one’s thoughts.


    • Thank you. I observed a 12th grade class of primarily Black and latino students a few years back and over half of the class couldn’t even write a 5 paragraph essay, let alone a few pages. I have just seen too many students passed through the system without even a basic grasp of writing. And it seems like we have just resigned to have failure as norm for Black Indigenous and other students of color– this is an equity issue for me.


  2. I’ve been seeing your posts being shared on Twitter, and I would add this: Freire (and the banking model) is concerned with authoritarian/anti-dialogical pedagogies, which aren’t synonymous with “direct teach”ing. It not Freire but rather the literature in the learning & cognitive sciences that has driven the turn “against” direct teaching; though this is a huge oversimplification of the conversation in this field as there is a lot of nuance to “anti-direct instruction” literature in the learning sciences as well. Schwartz’s classic “A Time For Telling” is a go-to for the need to balance direct instruction with other pedagogical methods. Even GLB’s classic Dreamkeepers study understands that teaching content is incredibly important…. I do not think Freire would disagree here.

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