How does the five-paragraph essay relate to SciJourn writing?

The five-paragraph essay, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a form often used by school systems to train students to write in such a way that evaluators will give full credit for essay answers. Typically, the student is taught to make an assertion, e.g., that dogs can be an important support to humans. Then offer three supporting details, e.g., dogs have been used for the blind, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and to help abused children. Then, summarize the points in a concluding paragraph, e.g., dogs really are man’s best friend.

First, it is important to notice in this and similar examples that the topic is much broader than anything found in a SciJourn article. But there is another problem as well; the five-paragraph essay is typically about structure and not much about logic. Students tend to look for three paragraphs to plug into the formula without thinking about connections between and among the examples. In this case of the dog essay, there is only a broad connection to the opening assertion and virtually no connection between the examples, i.e., the three uses of dogs. A news article, by contrast, demands logical thinking. To talk about support dogs with abused children, one would have to understand how many support dogs are being used. How are they trained? How many abused children are being helped? How do we know it helps? Where has this been done? What other treatments are available?

Clearly the structure of an essay—beginning with a thesis, supporting that thesis and ending with a conclusion is much like the kind of writing expected in literature and history courses in college (although it is never just five-paragraphs). However, these academic essays rely on logic absent from the five-paragraph essay in its diminutive form. Still, students ARE learning the form; students often submit news articles—even after weeks of training—that look just like the five-paragraph essay. If this happens in your classes try a lesson that helps students compare the two forms (Chapter 5), an exercise that may need to be repeated and referred to again and again.

For some students, writing a journalism article may seem extremely different from anything they’ve encountered before.  This is particularly true if their writing assignments have been purely formulaic.  Rather than dismiss all of the work they have done in the past, though, teachers can take advantage of their existing knowledge to help them understand the structure and expectations of journalism.  While many students have never analyzed their report-writing as a genre itself (students often think of it as the “only” kind of writing for school), drawing their attention to these points can help them make the transition to different kinds of writing.

Helping students understand how something is the same/different from something else is a key teaching technique.  Asking students to describe what it means to write a report can help teachers transfer skills from one task to the other.  We do not suggest having this conversation too early in the process, however.  Students do not need to know about a lede or the 5 W’s before they’ve chosen a topic or done any research.  When students are close to writing, though, this discussion can help them get started.

A “Report” or “Essay” A News Article
Has a beginning-middle-end structure
*Hooks the reader by not giving away too much information early
*Often saves some of the most important information for late in the paper
*Ends with a concluding paragraph
Follows the Inverted Triangle structure
*Begins with a lede and the 5W’s—all important information is given in the first part of the article
*After the initial paragraph, following paragraphs get more and more detailed but less and less important
*Does not have a concluding paragraph
Often includes a thesis statement
Thesis statements are inherently argumentative and must be proven correct.  Papers are focused around the thesis.
Purely informational, never argumentative
No thesis statements.  If an issue is controversial, both sides are reported.
Articles are focused around the topic, which is clearly defined in the first paragraph/s.
Usually has transitions and multi-sentence paragraphs Written very simply and concisely.  Paragraphs may be one sentence long.  Formal transitions (first, second, etc) are not always necessary.
Often privileges “library” sources as most credible
Books and database articles are preferred.  May have rules such as “no .com” or “no Wikipedia.”  Credibility is often treated as a yes/no issue without consideration of writer’s purpose or author/publication bias.
Credible websites a key source of information; first-person reporting valued
Websites have much more recent information than books or even database articles.  Websites cannot be flatly categorized as “credible” or not; evaluation must be done with an understanding of why a source might be used.  Biases of authors, publications, websites, and individuals quoted must be evaluated.
Information attributed in academic style
APA or MLA are the most common.  Both styles involve in text citations and full reference list at the end of the text.
Information attributed within the text of the writing.  Hyperlinks to sources provided when possible.  Website links provided within the article as necessary.
Attributions must include enough information to establish credibility (author’s full name, degrees held, current job, etc).  If information is quoted from another published source, this source must be  identified (In a July 31, 2010 New York Times article, Jane Doe, the lead scientist for A Scientific Research Lab, was quoted saying, “xx”)


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