The Ultimate Guide to the 5-Paragraph Essay

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  • M.Ed., Education Administration, University of Georgia
  • B.A., History, Armstrong State University

A five-paragraph essay is a prose composition that follows a prescribed format of an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph, and is typically taught during primary English education and applied on standardized testing throughout schooling.

Learning to write a high-quality five-paragraph essay is an essential skill for students in early English classes as it allows them to express certain ideas, claims, or concepts in an organized manner, complete with evidence that supports each of these notions. Later, though, students may decide to stray from the standard five-paragraph format and venture into writing an  exploratory essay  instead.

Still, teaching students to organize essays into the five-paragraph format is an easy way to introduce them to writing literary criticism, which will be tested time and again throughout their primary, secondary, and further education.

Writing a Good Introduction

The introduction is the first paragraph in your essay, and it should accomplish a few specific goals: capture the reader's interest, introduce the topic, and make a claim or express an opinion in a thesis statement.

It's a good idea to start your essay with a hook (fascinating statement) to pique the reader's interest, though this can also be accomplished by using descriptive words, an anecdote, an intriguing question, or an interesting fact. Students can practice with creative writing prompts to get some ideas for interesting ways to start an essay.

The next few sentences should explain your first statement, and prepare the reader for your thesis statement, which is typically the last sentence in the introduction. Your  thesis sentence  should provide your specific assertion and convey a clear point of view, which is typically divided into three distinct arguments that support this assertation, which will each serve as central themes for the body paragraphs.

Writing Body Paragraphs

The body of the essay will include three body paragraphs in a five-paragraph essay format, each limited to one main idea that supports your thesis.

To correctly write each of these three body paragraphs, you should state your supporting idea, your topic sentence, then back it up with two or three sentences of evidence. Use examples that validate the claim before concluding the paragraph and using transition words to lead to the paragraph that follows — meaning that all of your body paragraphs should follow the pattern of "statement, supporting ideas, transition statement."

Words to use as you transition from one paragraph to another include: moreover, in fact, on the whole, furthermore, as a result, simply put, for this reason, similarly, likewise, it follows that, naturally, by comparison, surely, and yet.

Writing a Conclusion

The final paragraph will summarize your main points and re-assert your main claim (from your thesis sentence). It should point out your main points, but should not repeat specific examples, and should, as always, leave a lasting impression on the reader.

The first sentence of the conclusion, therefore, should be used to restate the supporting claims argued in the body paragraphs as they relate to the thesis statement, then the next few sentences should be used to explain how the essay's main points can lead outward, perhaps to further thought on the topic. Ending the conclusion with a question, anecdote, or final pondering is a great way to leave a lasting impact.

Once you complete the first draft of your essay, it's a good idea to re-visit the thesis statement in your first paragraph. Read your essay to see if it flows well, and you might find that the supporting paragraphs are strong, but they don't address the exact focus of your thesis. Simply re-write your thesis sentence to fit your body and summary more exactly, and adjust the conclusion to wrap it all up nicely.

Practice Writing a Five-Paragraph Essay

Students can use the following steps to write a standard essay on any given topic. First, choose a topic, or ask your students to choose their topic, then allow them to form a basic five-paragraph by following these steps:

  • Decide on your  basic thesis , your idea of a topic to discuss.
  • Decide on three pieces of supporting evidence you will use to prove your thesis.
  • Write an introductory paragraph, including your thesis and evidence (in order of strength).
  • Write your first body paragraph, starting with restating your thesis and focusing on your first piece of supporting evidence.
  • End your first paragraph with a transitional sentence that leads to the next body paragraph.
  • Write paragraph two of the body focussing on your second piece of evidence. Once again make the connection between your thesis and this piece of evidence.
  • End your second paragraph with a transitional sentence that leads to paragraph number three.
  • Repeat step 6 using your third piece of evidence.
  • Begin your concluding paragraph by restating your thesis. Include the three points you've used to prove your thesis.
  • End with a punch, a question, an anecdote, or an entertaining thought that will stay with the reader.

Once a student can master these 10 simple steps, writing a basic five-paragraph essay will be a piece of cake, so long as the student does so correctly and includes enough supporting information in each paragraph that all relate to the same centralized main idea, the thesis of the essay.

Limitations of the Five-Paragraph Essay

The five-paragraph essay is merely a starting point for students hoping to express their ideas in academic writing; there are some other forms and styles of writing that students should use to express their vocabulary in the written form.

According to Tory Young's "Studying English Literature: A Practical Guide":

"Although school students in the U.S. are examined on their ability to write a  five-paragraph essay , its  raison d'être  is purportedly to give practice in basic writing skills that will lead to future success in more varied forms. Detractors feel, however, that writing to rule in this way is more likely to discourage imaginative writing and thinking than enable it. . . . The five-paragraph essay is less aware of its  audience  and sets out only to present information, an account or a kind of story rather than explicitly to persuade the reader."

Students should instead be asked to write other forms, such as journal entries, blog posts, reviews of goods or services, multi-paragraph research papers, and freeform expository writing around a central theme. Although five-paragraph essays are the golden rule when writing for standardized tests, experimentation with expression should be encouraged throughout primary schooling to bolster students' abilities to utilize the English language fully.

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How to write a perfect essay

Need to write an essay? Does the assignment feel as big as climbing Mount Everest? Fear not. You’re up to the challenge! The following step-by step tips from the Nat Geo Kids Almanac will help you with this monumental task. 

Sometimes the subject matter of your essay is assigned to you, sometimes it’s not. Either way, you have to decide what you want to say. Start by brainstorming some ideas, writing down any thoughts you have about the subject. Then read over everything you’ve come up with and consider which idea you think is the strongest. Ask yourself what you want to write about the most. Keep in mind the goal of your essay. Can you achieve the goal of the assignment with this topic? If so, you’re good to go.

WRITE A TOPIC SENTENCE

This is the main idea of your essay, a statement of your thoughts on the subject. Again, consider the goal of your essay. Think of the topic sentence as an introduction that tells your reader what the rest of your essay will be about.

OUTLINE YOUR IDEAS

Once you have a good topic sentence, you then need to support that main idea with more detailed information, facts, thoughts, and examples. These supporting points answer one question about your topic sentence—“Why?” This is where research and perhaps more brainstorming come in. Then organize these points in the way you think makes the most sense, probably in order of importance. Now you have an outline for your essay.

ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, WRITE!

Follow your outline, using each of your supporting points as the topic sentence of its own paragraph. Use descriptive words to get your ideas across to the reader. Go into detail, using specific information to tell your story or make your point. Stay on track, making sure that everything you include is somehow related to the main idea of your essay. Use transitions to make your writing flow.

Finish your essay with a conclusion that summarizes your entire essay and 5 restates your main idea.

PROOFREAD AND REVISE

Check for errors in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and grammar. Look for ways to make your writing clear, understandable, and interesting. Use descriptive verbs, adjectives, or adverbs when possible. It also helps to have someone else read your work to point out things you might have missed. Then make the necessary corrections and changes in a second draft. Repeat this revision process once more to make your final draft as good as you can.

Download the pdf .

Homework help

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Teaching the Five-Paragraph Essay Resource Packet

Tips and resources for teaching the five-paragraph essay

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Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay: Tips to Make It Easier

Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay: Tips to Make It Easier

Even though students start learning about the 5-paragraph essay in middle school (sometimes even elementary!), it seems like they magically forget everything by high school. In this post, I hope to share some tips for teaching the 5-paragraph essay to teens.

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #1: Know Your Success Criteria

Before even discussing the 5-paragraph essay with students, make sure you know your own success criteria.

Success criteria are the standards by which you’ll measure students’ ability with the task. 

There are multiple ways to approach the 5-paragraph essay, and every teacher has his or her preferences. Maybe for you starting the essay with a rhetorical question is just too blase, and you expect a more exciting hook. Perhaps you expect seven sentences in a body paragraph while your colleague is content with five. 

Make sure you know what success looks like in your classroom before you begin teaching anything to students. 

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #2: Don’t Do It In Isolation

Teaching the 5-paragraph essay just for the sake of it is never going to work. Students need buy-in before they’ll even think about attempting something hard. 

So try to avoid a unit that’s just about writing a 5-paragraph essay. Instead, make sure students have a compelling topic to write about.

This could be a literary analysis essay–especially if the novel in question is a hit with students. 

It could also be a research paper in which students can choose between engaging and controversial topics. 

Give students the topic about which they’ll be writing first. (I would even give them the actual essay assignment before talking about how to write an essay.)

If you can get them to care about the content of their essay, getting them to understand the format will be much easier. 

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Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #3: Break It Down Piece By Piece

This is where high school teachers mess up. They assume that, because students have probably done this before in earlier grades, they can rush the essay writing process. Sadly, you can’t.

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

While some students might be able to write a 5-paragraph essay in their sleep, a lot will have completely forgotten the format. Or they’ll struggle with citations and tracking their sources. Or they remember what the thesis statement is but can’t start their body paragraphs. 

For most students, there are going to be holes in their knowledge. Go over the format of the 5-paragraph essay slowly.

In my 5-Paragraph Essay Mini-lessons resource , I break down the 5-paragraph essay into five lessons: an overview, the introduction paragraph, the body paragraphs, the conclusion paragraph, and citing sources. 

You could break this down even further and spend an entire day talking about thesis statements or writing conclusion sentences. 

Basically, while you can teach the 5-paragraph essay too quickly, it’s almost impossible to go too slowly.  

(Want to break down the 5-paragraph essay even further or have plenty of time to build up students’ skills? Try teaching claim, evidence, and reasoning skills first! This will make a huge chunk of the 5-paragraph essay a breeze for your students!)

Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #4: Provide Examples

Just like with everything else you teach, you can’t provide too many examples for students. 

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

When it comes to the 5-paragraph essay, you should even present examples for the pieces of paragraphs. (“Here are some examples of thesis statements…” and “Here are some examples of clinchers…” etc.)

If possible, however, I recommend you not show examples using the same topic that your students will be using for their papers. It’s too tempting for students to copy. 

Instead, model for students how they can rephrase the essay question you gave them and fill in the blanks to create their own thesis statement. Or create sentence starters to help struggling students begin their claims. 

Don’t show them a completely done essay on their topic; give them tools to help them get there on their own. 

But do use examples from other essay topics, so students can learn what a strong essay looks like. 

Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #5: Don’t Write It Chronologically

When I have students write an essay, I never have them write it from beginning to end. 

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Instead, we spend a day writing our thesis statements. The next day, we write all of our claims. The day after, we gather and construct our evidence, and so on. 

I encourage my students to write in the order of what is most important to the overall essay–not in chronological order.  (And I use the most scaffolded outline in this resource to do so.)

Writing a hook (the first sentence of the essay) can require some creative thinking. For some students, this will completely stall them out for days–even weeks–if they let it. And while they may end the unit with the world’s greatest hook, they’ll still have the rest of the essay to write.

Instead, if I can get students to start with the thesis statement, the rest of the essay will be easier. They’ll know their stance and their major ideas. 

Plus, you can grade an essay if it has a few strong ideas strung together. You can’t even begin grading an essay that just has a few sentences of the introduction. 

Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay Tip #6: Let Them Use Tools

No, I don’t mean you should accept ChatGPT essays. 

But students could use ChatGPT to ask questions about their topic if they get stuck. They shouldn’t, of course, use this as a source in their essay, but it could help get some struggling students thinking about their major supporting arguments. 

Students should also be allowed to use citation generators like EasyBib.com or CitationMachine.net.  

I, personally, have never formatted a citation by hand since learning about these tools, and if a real-world English teacher isn’t manually citing sources then students shouldn’t certainly have to. 

Instead, make sure students know what proper citations look like and teach them how to use these websites–and their limitations. 

Help students use these websites and double-check the generator’s work, rather than teaching them the useless (and time-consuming) skill of creating citations manually.  

There are all kinds of accessibility tools out there, too. Students who struggle to read should be allowed a screen reading extension–especially for research-heavy papers. 

If you have struggling writers, reach out to your school’s librarian or tech guru to see what kind of software your school computers might already be equipped with to help make essay writing easier for your students.  

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Teaching the 5-paragraph essay probably won’t be the most fun you have in your classroom. But, if you break it down, go slow, and provide plenty of examples, you might be able to avoid a mental breakdown grading those same papers. 

If you’d like to make teaching the 5-paragraph essay as easy as possible on yourself, check out my 5-paragraph essay resources. 

Five-Paragraph Essay Lesson Plan: Producing Writing

*Click to open and customize your own copy of the Five-Paragraph Essay Lesson Plan .

This lesson accompanies the BrainPOP topic, Five-Paragraph Essay , and supports the standard of developing an organized piece of writing with a clear thesis, relevant details, and a concluding statement. Students demonstrate understanding through a variety of projects.

Step 1: ACTIVATE PRIOR KNOWLEDGE

As a class, or individually, have students read Tim’s model essay, The Case For a Longer School Year. Ask:

  • What argument is Tim making in his essay?
  • What are his reasons or evidence for his argument?
  • Is Tim’s argument persuasive? Why or why not?
  • What is the purpose of the first paragraph? middle paragraphs? Last paragraph?

Step 2: BUILD KNOWLEDGE

  • Read aloud the description on the Five-Paragraph Essay topic page . 
  • Play the Movie , pausing to check for understanding.

Step 3: APPLY and ASSESS 

Assign the Five-Paragraph Essay Quiz , prompting students to apply essential literacy skills while demonstrating what they learned about this topic.

Step 4: DEEPEN and EXTEND

Students express what they learned about writing five-paragraph essays while practicing essential literacy skills with one or more of the following activities. Differentiate by assigning ones that meet individual student needs.

  • Make-a-Movie : Produce a movie where you present a persuasive argument that follows the format of a five-paragraph essay. 
  • Make-a-Map : Create a concept map that shows the features of each paragraph in a five-paragraph essay. 
  • Creative Coding : Code a meme that shows the benefits of using the five-paragraph essay format.

More to Explore

Related BrainPOP Topics : Deepen understanding of the writing process with these topics: Types of Writing , Writing in Sequence , Research , and Outlines . 

Teacher Support Resources:

  • Pause Point Overview : Video tutorial showing how Pause Points actively engage students to stop, think, and express ideas.  
  • Learning Activities Modifications : Strategies to meet ELL and other instructional and student needs.
  • Learning Activities Support : Resources for best practices using BrainPOP.

Lesson Plan Common Core State Standards Alignments

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

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how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Teaching with a Five-Paragraph Essay Example

Looking for a five-paragraph essay example? Look and listen in as a fourth grade teacher models this strong writing structure for her students.

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Ms. Sneed Grades Her Kids’ Paragraphs

As our favorite fourth grade teacher graded her class’s latest paragraphs, she let out a satisfied sigh. First they tackled paragraph structure. Then they learned to elaborate. Additionally, they improved their writing by varying sentences and using transitions. Now that they had the writing strategies down, her kids were ready to scaffold from one paragraph to the five-paragraph essay .

Purposefully tackling each genre of writing – then scaffolding from shorter to longer – was sure to work for her.

A Five-Paragraph Essay Example

Ms. Sneed turned and opened her laptop. With just a few clicks, she found it. Her favorite prompt, You Should Try It , asked kids to persuade others to try an activity – in five paragraphs.

Teaching Paragraph by Paragraph

The following Monday, Ms. Sneed stood in front of her class. “Today,” she said, “you will learn how to write a longer essay.”

Several kids looked a little unsure, but their teacher continued. “For now, I’ll take you through a five-paragraph essay example. That should ease your concerns.”

First Paragraph

Ms. Sneed projected a sample. “The first paragraph, or introduction, includes a thesis statement and supportive factual reasons.”

With the mention of a new term, thesis statement , more kids looked uncomfortable. Some squirmed in their seats.

“Now I know the term  thesis statement is new, but no worries! You know it as a topic sentence. However, the thesis is the main idea of a multi-paragraph composition.”

The teacher read the paragraph aloud. “Can anyone pick out the thesis for this persuasive essay?” she asked.

One student slowly raised his hand. “Wouldn’t you like to try water skiing?”

“Yes! Although it’s written as a question, this sentence offers an opinion. Furthermore, the entire essay supports this thesis. Can you find the author’s three supporting reasons?”

Using the five-paragraph essay example, the class soon established the supporting details too: improving health, impressing friends, and teaching them to ski.

When you use a five-paragraph essay example, study the first paragraph first. It establishes the thesis, or main idea, as well as key details.

Second Paragraph

“Now let’s look at the second paragraph,” Ms. Sneed said.

The second paragraph in the five-paragraph essay example discusses the first key detail. In this passage, it's about the benefits of water skiing to health.

“You identified one of the main details as health. As you can see, this paragraph expands on that reason.”

“That’s just what we were doing with one paragraph,” piped up a girl in the back row.

“Um-hm. True. But writing in five paragraphs gives you more room to elaborate.”

The kids seemed to relax in their seats. This wasn’t so bad after all.

Third Paragraph

With no further ado, she pulled up the third paragraph. “See, paragraph #3 discusses the second main supportive detail.”

In the third paragraph, another key detail, water skiing tricks, is discussed.

After they read the paragraph aloud, Ms. Sneed asked, “Who can find the topic sentence of this paragraph?”

“Isn’t it the first sentence?” said a boy with purple glasses.

Ms. Sneed nodded. “Easy peasy. The main idea of this paragraph, as we said before, is the second reason.”

Fourth Paragraph

For the fourth paragraph, Ms. Sneed tried a new tactic. “Okay, think-pair-share! Find the the topic sentences and smaller details that support it.” Her students knew what this meant. Immediately, they turned to their seat partners and began to discuss.

The fourth paragraph of the five-paragraph essay example explains the third key and final key detail: teaching others to water ski.

After a few minutes, groups began to share:

“The first sentence is the topic sentence again,” said the first spokesperson.

“And the details are the steps in teaching,” said the second.

“Ahh, a sequence paragraph inside a five-paragraph persuasive essay,” Ms. Sneed remarked. That famous teacher smile spread across her face.

Fifth Paragraph

“Here we have the final paragraph, or conclusion,” the teacher continued.

Beginning writers can frame their five-paragraph essays by repeating the thesis, key details, and a conclusion that matches the hook.

After she read the paragraph aloud, Ms. Sneed pointed out the restated thesis statement and details. “It’s a repeat of the first paragraph in different words.”

A Five-Paragraph Essay Example – and a Hamburger!

Quickly, strode toward the board. She picked up a marker and sketched a hamburger with three patties. “Does this look familiar?”

Everyone smiled and nodded. Ms. Sneed’s favorite analogy for an writing a paragraph !

“We just used this again,” their teacher said. “The top bun is the first paragraph. It introduces the main idea with a thesis statement and supporting details. The first hamburger patty explores the first detail; the second, the second; and the third, the third! Finally, the bottom bun wraps it all up with a restatement of the thesis and details. This helps you write, as well as find the main idea and supporting details .”

“It’s just a giant version of the paragraph,” said a small girl in the front corner.

“Yep,” replied Ms. Sneed. “Not hard at all – if you know what you’re doing. Over the next few months, we’ll write more of these essays in our ELA block . Then you’ll feel even more confident.”

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

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how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Teaching How to Write a Five Paragraph Essay

Having already taught your students how to write a FIVE SENTENCE COMPARISON PARAGRAPH  you have the base materials required to construct a Five Paragraph Essay Outline.

While the Five Paragraph Essay is far from the best form for students to express their ideas, the organizational skills learned while writing a five paragraph essay will built the essential foundation required for their future progress.

Though we will move quickly from how to write a five paragraph essay to writing a more organic multi-paragraphed essay, all teachers must have a handle on how to teach the fundamental skills.

seasons-of-the-year-1127760_960_720

Instruct students to sit in groups of five and provide them with the following quotation, cut up into the five individual sentences:

Summer is better than winter because it offers comfort and freedom.  In the summer people wear shorts and sandals which allow their skin to breath, taking in the fresh air while being warmed by the afternoon sun.  Not only that but the days are longer offering time to swim in neighbourhood pools, bike along wooded paths, and sit outside in the shade of large oak trees reading a new book.  Also, summer brings the Warped Tour music festival, Ribfests, and community BBQs that end in firework displays that turn the night sky red, green, and orange.  During the summer one is granted the opportunity to explore in comfort, from the moment the sun rises until the sun sets fifteen hours later.

Instruct students that they will be rebuilding the paragraph in the most logical manner.

Each group member will then be required to write a justification for why they placed their sentence in the order they did.  Ideally they will come up with some of the following reasons:

  • The first sentence offers a clear opinion, setting up the rest of the paragraph
  • The third and fourth sentences can not be second due to their transitional words, “not only that”, and “also”.
  • the final sentence rephrases the opening opinion while offering a transition into the first body paragraph.
  • The second sentence adds a deeper explanation for the stated opinion, while being free from transitional words, and also being connected to the final sentence’s transition

WhatBinderDotCom - Essay Planning Sheet

Once students have explored the introductory paragraph, provide them with the  ESSAY PLANNING SHEET  (PDF provided in the Resource section at the bottom of this page).

Students will fill out as much of this sheet as possible, based on their current paragraph.  They will start by addressing the thesis of the piece.

Teaching how to Write a Thesis

A strong Thesis has two main parts, the theme the essay will be addressing, and the specific focus that the writer will use to hone their ideas.

You can teach students that the theme is their main thought, and the focus is why someone should care about it.  For example, if you just said, “Summer is better than winter?” why would anyone care about what you had to say.  It fails the “So what?” test.

“Summer is better than winter.” “So what?” “…”

If you can answer “So what?” then you will most likely have a solid foundation for an argument.

“Summer is better than winter.” “So what?” “So, you have more comfort and freedom.” “Ohh, o.k.”

Filling out the Essay Outline Sheet

Students should have the following information based on the paragraph.

ESSAY THEME: Summer is better than Winter. FOCUS:  Summer offers more comfort and freedom. THESIS:  Summer is better than Winter because it offers more comfort and freedom. TOPIC 1: Clothing options SUBTOPIC 1:  Wearing shorts and sandals SUBTOPIC 2:  Loose clothing allows comfort outside SUBTOPIC 3 (Optional): TOPIC 2:  The days are longer SUBTOPIC 1: More time for friends (swimming) SUBTOPIC 2:  More time for solitary activities (reading) SUBTOPIC 3 (Optional):  More time for exercise (biking) TOPIC 3:  More festivals SUBTOPIC 1:  Music festivals (Warped Tour) SUBTOPIC 2:  Food Festivals (Rib Fests) SUBTOPIC 3 (Optional):  Community events (Fireworks)

Once students have filled out the essay outline sheet based on the information provided from the exemplar paragraph, they should begin filling out the “evidence” column.  They should have at least one  SPECIFIC DETAIL  per subtopic.

For example: Warped Tour, 2019 – Cleveland Ohio – June 8th ( https://vanswarpedtour.com/ )

At this stage it’s more important that they’ve recorded their evidence, and know where it’s from, rather than being focused on the correct MLA or APA way to embed and cite their examples.  After all, this is just an outline.

Personal Devices

This is a great opportunity for students to use their personal devices to research specific details.  You may want to take five minutes to teach a mini-lesson on specific vs. vague details.

Once students have completed their outline, and recorded specific details you can move on to having them write a body paragraph.

Writing a Body Paragraph

Explain to your students that a FIVE PARAGRAPH ESSAY  is…  FIVE PARAGRAPHS .  I know this will come as a shock to them, but they may wonder what each of the paragraphs are.   Of course, the five paragraphs are:

  • Introduction

You can explain to students that the opening paragraph they assembled acts as the introduction paragraph, and that each of the three body paragraphs will explore one of the three topics it set out.

You can then provide them with an example of a body paragraph, demonstrating how each subtopic and its supporting evidence, can be integrated to form a coherent paragraph.  Each subtopic should have two or three clear sentences devoted to it.

During the summer months there are far more festivals that provide opportunities for self-expression, and entertainment.  Music festivals take place in large fields where stages have to be quickly assembled and disassembled as the festival moves across the country.  This rapid construction, and comfortable gathering place for people to stand outside can only be accomplished during the summer.  For the comfort of both fans and musicians, The Warped Tour hosts its three shows between “June 8th [in] Cleveland, OH” and “July 20 [in] Mountain View, CA”.  On top of music festivals, summer is also when food festivals attract large crowds.  As they, too, tour from city to city large open air spaces must be free from snow and ice to attract those seeking the finest BBQ their country has to offer.  In Toronto, Canada “Gates open June 28th” for “Toronto Ribfest”.  Providing an opportunity for friends and family to eat together long into the night before the “9:03pm sunset” is something that winter can not match.  Finally, community events such as large firework displays “along the beach, celebrating the birth of [the] nation” can only be appreciated during the warmer months.  Volleyball, picnics, swimming, and bright explosions high in the sky are only ever combined when the water is free from ice, and the air free from snow.  Though music festivals can be expensive, bands often offer free shows during food festivals and community events, allowing those on a budget to fully experience and enjoy everything that summer offers.

Highlight that this paragraph is approximately  250 WORDS.  Most five paragraph essays are given a 1000 WORDS  word count.  This will fit that model:

  • Introduction – 125 Words
  • Body Paragraph 1 – 250 Words
  • Body Paragraph 2 – 250 Words
  • Body Paragraph 3 – 250 Words
  • Conclusion – 125 Words

Next, ensure they understand that each SUBTOPIC  had at least two or three sentences devoted to it, before the paragraph concluded with a transitional and summarizing sentence.

They should also note that each of the subtopics is supported with at least one quotation.

Releasing Responsibility

Allow students to choose either  TOPIC 1  or  TOPIC 2 to develop as their own body paragraph.

If possible, assign different topics to different groups, so that you have at least one group working on  TOPIC 1  and one group working on  TOPIC 2 .

After twenty minutes, have each group write their paragraph on chart paper, and display them in your class.  You will now have an  Introduction ,  Body Paragraph 1 ,  Body Paragraph 2 , and a  Body Paragraph 3 .

Consolidation

To conclude the lesson, and the essay, explain to students that a conclusion should rewrite the information from the introduction, while hammering home any last points they want the reader to take away.

By now, students have a mostly-complete five paragraph essay in front of them.  They should now write the concluding paragraph on a half-sheet of paper, and hand it in as an Exit Card before they leave for the day.

Essay Outline Sheet – WhatBinderDotCom.pdf

What’s Next?

Now that students know how to write a  FIVE PARAGRAPH ESSAY  we will quickly show them why no one actually writes essays that way, and why – going forward – they should avoid writing essays like that as well.

They will learn that a  MULTI-PARAGRAPHED ESSAY  is just as easy to write, and can be written with the same organizational sheets.  This one step will take their work from being ready for the classroom, to being ready for the world at large.

Navigate the Essay Unit

  • How to Teach Essay Writing Skills
  • Identifying and Avoiding Common Essay Problems
  • Teaching how to Write a Five Paragraph Essay
  • Understanding that Five Paragraph Essays do not Exist in the Wild
  • The Importance of Supporting Your Claims with Evidence
  • Embedding Quotations as Supporting Evidence
  • Teaching how to Go from Text, to Outline, to Essay
  • Student Learning through Digital Editing and Revision
  • Release of Responsibility: Writing the Final Essay

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This is super helpful; a life-saver for me, actually. I am a grade one teacher tossed into grade seven this year (due to making class sizes smaller because of COVID) Thank you so much for posting your knowledge free-of-charge for people like me to access freely! Much appreciated!

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Layers of Learning

Family-Style Homeschooling

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Five-Paragraph Essays

Writer’s Workshop is a writing program your whole family, from emergent writers right up to Mom and Dad can explore together. This is a sample exercise about writing five-paragraph essays. Try it with all your kids.

Reports & Essays Cover

This Writer’s Workshop exercise is from Writer’s Workshop Reports and Essays, In Writer’s Workshop Reports and Essays , you will learn skills to help you write everything from a simple book report to a college-ready five-paragraph essay. You’ll take your writing clear through the writing process to publication. Join us for a family-style writing program in Writer’s Workshop .

There’s nothing magical about five-paragraph essays, either in the length or in the exact structure, but they provide the backbone for writing essays and papers of any length and any structure.

Before embarking on five-paragraph essays, you’ll want to practice writing shorter reports like book reports, animal reports, one-paragraph summaries, and short fact-based papers. You’ll find exercises to walk you through all of these (plus lots more!) in Reports & Essays . Once you’ve practiced with those, you’re ready for five-paragraph essays. 

Step 1 Mini-Lesson

Start each Writer’s Workshop lesson off with a 5-10 minute mini -lesson with all of your kids. The sidebars of each Writer’s Workshop unit are lined with mini-lesson ideas to choose between. For this lesson, find the errors in this sentence and correct them together.

mrs brown seen her cow over in the neigbors feeld and she ran after it all daye long

Answer Key: Mrs. Brown saw her cow over in the neighbor’s field, and she ran after it all day long.

Step 2 Exercise: Five-Paragraph Essay

Spend most of your Writer’s Workshop time on the exercise. You’ll finish some exercises in a day while others can spread over several days of your Writer’s Workshop time. The activities are all flexible and can be tailored to your family.

Before kids begin writing, they can outline their ideas as a prewrite for the essay.  Your kids can fill in this simple form to help create an outline.  Click here  to get this printable.

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Structure of A Five-Paragraph Essay

Five-paragraph essays are arguably the most important essays for kids to learn for high school and college. Once this format is mastered, writers can apply these skills to essays and reports of any length and varying formats.

Early on, kids learn to write sentences. Related sentences are then joined together to form paragraphs. Eventually, related paragraphs are joined together to form essays. The most important skills for writing essays include being able to organize and tie related ideas together into one meaningful essay.

The Importance of Five-Paragraph Essays

The reason five paragraph essays are so terrific for developing writers is because of the high level of structure. Writers are told exactly what goes where and in which order to put it.  As a student just beginning, that structure is so helpful! It is true that before you can break the rules you have to understand them well and that is what the five-paragraph essay does – it gives a great foundation for the rules so that students become comfortable with essays and feel confident in their writing.

Basically, there are five paragraphs and each paragraph has four to five sentences.  When you first start, give a defined subject, perhaps something you are studying in history or science or something that they are interested in outside of their studies.  Then make an outline together, following the structure below.

Five-Paragraph Essay Structure

The structure of a five paragraph essay is:

I. Introduction

A. The main theme of the paper B.  Point one C. Point two D. Point three E. Transition sentence

II. Point one

A. Supporting point B. Supporting point C. Supporting point D. Transition sentence

III. Point Two

IV. Point three

V. Conclusion

A. Why your ideas about the subject are correct B. What you proved in the previous paragraphs C. A summary of your conclusions that ties back to your introduction.

A 12-year-old’s First Five Paragraph Essay

My son’s first five-paragraph essay was on “Mistakes My Parents Make That I Will Not.”  We purposely kept it light and fun since this was an intimidating writing project to begin with.

I helped him brainstorm and come up with the ideas for each supporting point of his paper.  We wrote out the outline together and then he turned each part of the outline into a complete sentence, keeping it in the order of the outline.  The ideas and writing are all his, with guidance from me. 

Mistakes My Parents Make That I Will Not

My parents make a lot of mistakes that I will not. Parents leave their kids to make dinner, make them write five-paragraph essays, and make kids wait until they are sixteen to drive a car. If your parents don’t make you do any of that, you do not have to keep reading.

Parents should not leave their kids to make dinner because they cannot always handle it. Sometimes kids don’t know what they are doing. Sometimes the dinner does not turn out good. Usually, the kids give up, or the parents take over anyway.

Parents should not make kids write five paragraph essays. Most of the time kids are sulky and drag it out. Also, parents keep bugging them and make them sulkier. Five paragraph essays are useless anyway and cause contention for no reason.

Parents should not make their kids wait until they are sixteen to drive a car.  Most kids want to drive sooner. Some kids are capable of driving sooner. Parents would not have to drive their kids everywhere.

I know I will not make these mistakes when I grow up.   My kids will have dinner served to them every night or maybe they will help with dinner, but they won’t have to do it all. My kids will not have to do very much writing at all unless they want to. I will let my kids drive as soon as they can reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel. The world will be nicer if parents would just let kids do what they want.

This exercise will go into the Journal section of the Writer’s Notebook.

Step 3: Writing Project

Most exercises stay in the Writer’s Notebook to be used as a reference, for inspiration, or to be tossed at a later date. About once a month, one piece of writing should be taken clear through the writing process. In Writer’s Workshop, this one piece is your writing project. It is the only assignment during the month that is graded, while the others merely help to develop skills.

If I were to guide my child through taking this exercise through the writing process I would encourage him to explore some of the topics he discussed further. We would address logic gaps and work on expanding his ideas more fully. We would also learn how to add smoother transitions as he moved through his ideas. He would revise and edit his essay, creating a polished copy to share and add to the Writing section of his Writer’s Notebook.

You can learn details about the writing process and how to mentor writers in the Writer’s Workshop Guidebook .

Step 4: Evaluating Writing

Every piece of writing that makes it to publication needs to be shared before an audience and then evaluated. The audience should cheer for the writer and ask curious and positive questions about the writing when appropriate. Evaluations are designed to help the writer grow, not just to create a grade. Every Writer’s Workshop unit comes with specific helps for the mentor, including a rubric that is specific to the genre being taught. General writing evaluation criteria and strategies are taught to the parent or mentor in the Writer’s Workshop Guidebook .

What You’ll Find in Every Writer’s Workshop Unit

You’ll find printables in every Writer’s Workshop unit. They are tools for helping kids learn the writing process, skills, and ways to write in specific genres. They make lessons in a family-school setting a little more manageable for parents too.

Ideas Banks

In each unit, kids will be doing a variety of writing exercises as well as one project. They will learn to take their project through the writing process, incorporating what they’ve learned during the exercises in the unit. Each unit has a big idea bank for kids to choose from so they can find something meaningful to choose for their project.

Every unit also includes a rubric to help parents or mentors know how to give feedback that will help writers grow. Rubrics are tools writers can use to self-check, and mentors can use to know what to look for in each writing genre. We never just slap a grade on writing. Every bit of feedback is a tool to improve and grow.

More Writer’s Workshop

Writer's Workshop Category

Learn more about Writer’s Workshop and how it can help you create writers (not just grammar workbook filler-outers!). We invite you to check out the Writer’s Workshop Curriculum Guide . Then see how Layers of Learning can change your whole homeschool into a happy, hands-on family school with the Writer’s Workshop Guidebook . We believe learning is about exploring! If you like exploring, you’ll love the rest of the Layers of Learning program too – history, geography, science, and art, all taught with your whole family exploring together.

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Try family-style homeschooling now with free samples of four Layers of Learning units when you subscribe. You'll get to try family-style history, geography, science, and arts with your children.

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4 thoughts on “Five-Paragraph Essays”

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I had a great teacher in 10th grade who really taught me the 5 paragraph essay well. That skill got me through the rest of high school and college and is something I still use.

Once you can write a good 5 paragraph essay shorter answers or longer reports are a breeze.

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As a teacher, I start teaching a 3-paragraph essay as early as the 3rd grade. It follows this same format and I have found this is the easiest way to teach students to write paragraphs.

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I saw a teacher’s post not long ago on how to teach 5 paragraph essays to young elementary students. I was blown away. I love it because the sooner kids learn the formula the more comfortable they are. By the time they have enough knowledge and maturity to have actual ideas of their own they can smoothly transition to a bit more fluidity in their writing. Thanks for the comment!

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I teach what’s called “MEAL” paragraphs to middle school kids, which are organized Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, Link instead of support, support, support.

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Literacy Ideas

Essay Writing: A complete guide for students and teachers

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P LANNING, PARAGRAPHING AND POLISHING: FINE-TUNING THE PERFECT ESSAY

Essay writing is an essential skill for every student. Whether writing a particular academic essay (such as persuasive, narrative, descriptive, or expository) or a timed exam essay, the key to getting good at writing is to write. Creating opportunities for our students to engage in extended writing activities will go a long way to helping them improve their skills as scribes.

But, putting the hours in alone will not be enough to attain the highest levels in essay writing. Practice must be meaningful. Once students have a broad overview of how to structure the various types of essays, they are ready to narrow in on the minor details that will enable them to fine-tune their work as a lean vehicle of their thoughts and ideas.

Visual Writing

In this article, we will drill down to some aspects that will assist students in taking their essay writing skills up a notch. Many ideas and activities can be integrated into broader lesson plans based on essay writing. Often, though, they will work effectively in isolation – just as athletes isolate physical movements to drill that are relevant to their sport. When these movements become second nature, they can be repeated naturally in the context of the game or in our case, the writing of the essay.

THE ULTIMATE NONFICTION WRITING TEACHING RESOURCE

essay writing | nonfiction writing unit | Essay Writing: A complete guide for students and teachers | literacyideas.com

  • 270  pages of the most effective teaching strategies
  • 50+   digital tools  ready right out of the box
  • 75   editable resources  for student   differentiation  
  • Loads of   tricks and tips  to add to your teaching tool bag
  • All explanations are reinforced with  concrete examples.
  • Links to  high-quality video  tutorials
  • Clear objectives  easy to match to the demands of your curriculum

Planning an essay

essay writing | how to prepare for an essay | Essay Writing: A complete guide for students and teachers | literacyideas.com

The Boys Scouts’ motto is famously ‘Be Prepared’. It’s a solid motto that can be applied to most aspects of life; essay writing is no different. Given the purpose of an essay is generally to present a logical and reasoned argument, investing time in organising arguments, ideas, and structure would seem to be time well spent.

Given that essays can take a wide range of forms and that we all have our own individual approaches to writing, it stands to reason that there will be no single best approach to the planning stage of essay writing. That said, there are several helpful hints and techniques we can share with our students to help them wrestle their ideas into a writable form. Let’s take a look at a few of the best of these:

BREAK THE QUESTION DOWN: UNDERSTAND YOUR ESSAY TOPIC.

Whether students are tackling an assignment that you have set for them in class or responding to an essay prompt in an exam situation, they should get into the habit of analyzing the nature of the task. To do this, they should unravel the question’s meaning or prompt. Students can practice this in class by responding to various essay titles, questions, and prompts, thereby gaining valuable experience breaking these down.

Have students work in groups to underline and dissect the keywords and phrases and discuss what exactly is being asked of them in the task. Are they being asked to discuss, describe, persuade, or explain? Understanding the exact nature of the task is crucial before going any further in the planning process, never mind the writing process .

BRAINSTORM AND MIND MAP WHAT YOU KNOW:

Once students have understood what the essay task asks them, they should consider what they know about the topic and, often, how they feel about it. When teaching essay writing, we so often emphasize that it is about expressing our opinions on things, but for our younger students what they think about something isn’t always obvious, even to themselves.

Brainstorming and mind-mapping what they know about a topic offers them an opportunity to uncover not just what they already know about a topic, but also gives them a chance to reveal to themselves what they think about the topic. This will help guide them in structuring their research and, later, the essay they will write . When writing an essay in an exam context, this may be the only ‘research’ the student can undertake before the writing, so practicing this will be even more important.

RESEARCH YOUR ESSAY

The previous step above should reveal to students the general direction their research will take. With the ubiquitousness of the internet, gone are the days of students relying on a single well-thumbed encyclopaedia from the school library as their sole authoritative source in their essay. If anything, the real problem for our students today is narrowing down their sources to a manageable number. Students should use the information from the previous step to help here. At this stage, it is important that they:

●      Ensure the research material is directly relevant to the essay task

●      Record in detail the sources of the information that they will use in their essay

●      Engage with the material personally by asking questions and challenging their own biases

●      Identify the key points that will be made in their essay

●      Group ideas, counterarguments, and opinions together

●      Identify the overarching argument they will make in their own essay.

Once these stages have been completed the student is ready to organise their points into a logical order.

WRITING YOUR ESSAY

There are a number of ways for students to organize their points in preparation for writing. They can use graphic organizers , post-it notes, or any number of available writing apps. The important thing for them to consider here is that their points should follow a logical progression. This progression of their argument will be expressed in the form of body paragraphs that will inform the structure of their finished essay.

The number of paragraphs contained in an essay will depend on a number of factors such as word limits, time limits, the complexity of the question etc. Regardless of the essay’s length, students should ensure their essay follows the Rule of Three in that every essay they write contains an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

Generally speaking, essay paragraphs will focus on one main idea that is usually expressed in a topic sentence that is followed by a series of supporting sentences that bolster that main idea. The first and final sentences are of the most significance here with the first sentence of a paragraph making the point to the reader and the final sentence of the paragraph making the overall relevance to the essay’s argument crystal clear. 

Though students will most likely be familiar with the broad generic structure of essays, it is worth investing time to ensure they have a clear conception of how each part of the essay works, that is, of the exact nature of the task it performs. Let’s review:

Common Essay Structure

Introduction: Provides the reader with context for the essay. It states the broad argument that the essay will make and informs the reader of the writer’s general perspective and approach to the question.

Body Paragraphs: These are the ‘meat’ of the essay and lay out the argument stated in the introduction point by point with supporting evidence.

Conclusion: Usually, the conclusion will restate the central argument while summarising the essay’s main supporting reasons before linking everything back to the original question.

ESSAY WRITING PARAGRAPH WRITING TIPS

essay writing | 1 How to write paragraphs | Essay Writing: A complete guide for students and teachers | literacyideas.com

●      Each paragraph should focus on a single main idea

●      Paragraphs should follow a logical sequence; students should group similar ideas together to avoid incoherence

●      Paragraphs should be denoted consistently; students should choose either to indent or skip a line

●      Transition words and phrases such as alternatively , consequently , in contrast should be used to give flow and provide a bridge between paragraphs.

HOW TO EDIT AN ESSAY

essay writing | essay editing tips | Essay Writing: A complete guide for students and teachers | literacyideas.com

Students shouldn’t expect their essays to emerge from the writing process perfectly formed. Except in exam situations and the like, thorough editing is an essential aspect in the writing process. 

Often, students struggle with this aspect of the process the most. After spending hours of effort on planning, research, and writing the first draft, students can be reluctant to go back over the same terrain they have so recently travelled. It is important at this point to give them some helpful guidelines to help them to know what to look out for. The following tips will provide just such help: 

One Piece at a Time: There is a lot to look out for in the editing process and often students overlook aspects as they try to juggle too many balls during the process. One effective strategy to combat this is for students to perform a number of rounds of editing with each focusing on a different aspect. For example, the first round could focus on content, the second round on looking out for word repetition (use a thesaurus to help here), with the third attending to spelling and grammar.

Sum It Up: When reviewing the paragraphs they have written, a good starting point is for students to read each paragraph and attempt to sum up its main point in a single line. If this is not possible, their readers will most likely have difficulty following their train of thought too and the paragraph needs to be overhauled.

Let It Breathe: When possible, encourage students to allow some time for their essay to ‘breathe’ before returning to it for editing purposes. This may require some skilful time management on the part of the student, for example, a student rush-writing the night before the deadline does not lend itself to effective editing. Fresh eyes are one of the sharpest tools in the writer’s toolbox.

Read It Aloud: This time-tested editing method is a great way for students to identify mistakes and typos in their work. We tend to read things more slowly when reading aloud giving us the time to spot errors. Also, when we read silently our minds can often fill in the gaps or gloss over the mistakes that will become apparent when we read out loud.

Phone a Friend: Peer editing is another great way to identify errors that our brains may miss when reading our own work. Encourage students to partner up for a little ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’.

Use Tech Tools: We need to ensure our students have the mental tools to edit their own work and for this they will need a good grasp of English grammar and punctuation. However, there are also a wealth of tech tools such as spellcheck and grammar checks that can offer a great once-over option to catch anything students may have missed in earlier editing rounds.

essay writing | Perfect essay writing for students | Essay Writing: A complete guide for students and teachers | literacyideas.com

Putting the Jewels on Display: While some struggle to edit, others struggle to let go. There comes a point when it is time for students to release their work to the reader. They must learn to relinquish control after the creation is complete. This will be much easier to achieve if the student feels that they have done everything in their control to ensure their essay is representative of the best of their abilities and if they have followed the advice here, they should be confident they have done so.

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ESSAY WRITING video tutorials

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how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Last updated on July 29, 2023 by Not So Wimpy Teacher

The Best Way to Teach Students Paragraph Writing

Cover image for The Best Way to Teach Students Paragraph Writing with a blank notebook and pink pen on a table

I’m not a betting girl . . . but if I were, I’d bet that many of you start the year with a unit about paragraph writing. Am I right? 

I thought so. It’s pretty common to begin your writing instruction with a unit on “how to write a paragraph.” Typical lessons include what a paragraph is, how to write topic sentences and conclusions, and how to construct the perfect five-sentence paragraph.

But after teaching for a couple of years, I stopped teaching paragraph writing at the beginning of the year. And after you read this post, maybe you will too.

By the way, I recorded a video talk about paragraph writing. You can watch it here !

Keep reading more below.

Paragraph Writing is Boring

When I was a new teacher, I too started my writing lessons with the paragraph unit. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. But I quickly realized that my students were bored to tears. 

At first, I thought, oh well, learning how to write paragraphs isn’t very much fun. But it’s a skill students need to learn, so they’ll just have to deal with it. 

Blonde boy lying with head on desk

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn’t okay. I didn’t want my kids to be bored. I didn’t want them to think that writing was dull. And I definitely didn’t want them to dread writing workshop. 

I wanted writing workshop to be fun. I wanted it to be something my students looked forward to and got excited about. I wanted them to know that writing was going to be different in my classroom.

We all know that how you start the year sets the tone for your entire school year. I did not want to send the message that writing workshop was going to be a drag. But starting with the driest topic certainly wasn’t helping to convince my students that writing is fun.

Students Don’t Care About Paragraphs

The truth is students just don’t get excited about paragraphs. They don’t care about, or even really understand topic sentences. Transition words, hooks, reasons, and examples . . . none of those things really matter to most students. At least not right away.

I decided to flip my instruction around and start with something a little more exciting. A writing lesson the students found interesting. I thought that if I could get them invested in writing, then when I introduced the boring stuff, like paragraph writing, they would be more willing to work on it.

And I was right. Once I got kids hooked on writing, they wanted to be better writers. They were more willing to work on their paragraphs when those paragraphs became an important part of telling a story they cared about.

Paragraphs Aren’t One Size Fits All

Think about it for a minute…

What does a paragraph look like in this blog post? In a Charles Dickens novel? In your favorite psychological thriller, memoir, or chick lit? 

The reality is that paragraphs are not all 5-7 sentences long. They come in many shapes and sizes. The length of a paragraph depends greatly on the type of writing. And many of the types of writing that we teach our students don’t have standard 5-sentence paragraphs.

Take personal narratives, for example. You teach your students to start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. This means that most paragraphs are only one or two sentences long.

Why spend weeks teaching your students that a paragraph has five sentences only to immediately launch into the exceptions to that rule in the next unit? That’s super confusing for kids.

Teach Paragraph Writing in Context

I’ve got good news, though. You don’t need a separate unit for teaching paragraphs. Rather, you can teach paragraph writing within each specific genre of writing. That’s what I do.

I don’t launch each unit with a lesson on paragraph writing, either. First, I get the kids writing. I let them put their ideas on paper and start crafting their masterpiece. Then, a few weeks in, once they are invested in the writing, I introduce a lesson on paragraphs specific to the genre we’re working on. It’s just one of many mini lessons I teach about the genre.

Personal Narrative Paragraph Writing

When I teach personal narrative, I show kids how to start a new paragraph every time a new character speaks. I also model how to use quotation marks and punctuation.

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Informational Essay Paragraph Writing

As we move on to other types of writing, I repeat my paragraph lesson specific to each new genre. When I teach informational writing, I explain how every subtopic in their outline becomes its own paragraph. I also teach them about topic sentences, details, and concluding sentences. 

This is the typical paragraph many of us think of when we think of teaching paragraphs. It makes sense to teach it inside the informational writing unit because it is appropriate for that genre. 

Opinion Paragraph Writing

In opinion writing, the paragraphs are similar to informational writing. There is a topic sentence and a conclusion and supporting details in between. But the important thing for students to understand is that each of the reasons that support their opinion becomes its own paragraph. 

Fiction Paragraph Writing

Finally, when I get to fiction writing, the paragraphs become eclectic. Some paragraphs may be one sentence long when students are writing dialogue. Others may be long and chock full of details. When students describe the setting or a character’s thoughts, they may have long, descriptive paragraphs. This variation in length makes the writing more interesting.

I typically teach fiction writing last. So students have already learned about many different types of paragraphs, and they can combine them into one story that is interesting to read.  

Perfect Paragraphs Are Not the Goal

At the end of the year, not all of your students will write perfect paragraphs. That’s okay.

They are children. They will continue to practice writing paragraphs year after year, all the way through high school and beyond.

I’ve played around with the paragraph formatting in this blog post a couple of times. And I’ve been writing paragraphs for a really long time.

What you are looking for is growth, not perfection. Do they indent? Are they switching paragraphs when ideas change? Are they using more than one paragraph in their writing? 

Teaching writing is about so much more than using paragraphs correctly. You are looking for a story with strong details. You want to see a supported opinion. You want to see that students know how to reference texts and summarize information. All of those things are much more important than perfect paragraphs.

Want to learn how to plan an entire year of writing at one time? Check out this post .

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

FREE Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Paragraph Writing

If you want more information about how to teach paragraph writing, download my Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Paragraph Writing. You’ll love this surprisingly simple way to teach paragraph writing to kids in grades 2-5 . It will help your students fall in love with writing and learn how to write a variety of paragraphs. Check out this step-by-step lesson you can use with any genre.

Work With Me

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

Want to learn more about teaching writing? Awesome! 

Writing is my jam. And I’ve created an online professional development course for teachers about how to make teaching writing easier, more effective, and a heck of a lot more fun. Check out my Not So Wimpy Writing Masterclass today.

I specifically developed this online professional development course for teachers in grades 2-5 to help simplify writing workshop and provide the tools and strategies you need to be a more confident writing teacher.

You’ll learn:

  • A process for teaching writing that makes it simple, effective, and even joyful to teach writing —for you and your students, too.
  • How to create manageable mini-lessons to teach—and have your students stay on task for independent writing time.
  • Where to find time every day for writing instruction—and weekly conference time for all of your students.
  • How to help ALL your students get the skills they need to become better writers— and perform well on standardized tests.

Most importantly, teaching writing will be easy, breezy, and beautiful—and your students will actually love to write!

The best part is this professional development takes place completely online. You can do it when you want, where you want, wearing what you want. And you get lifetime access to the course. So you can watch it on your time and go back and rewatch it whenever you want. 

​​ Registration for the Not So Wimpy Writing Masterclass is currently closed. Be sure to sign up for the Waitlist so you will be the first to know when we open it again. Sign up now so you don’t miss out!

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

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12 comments.

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May 24, 2021 at 8:05 am

Is the Best Way to Teach Paragraph Writing a free item? If so please email it to me. Thanks.

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May 24, 2021 at 7:39 pm

The Writing Pacing Guide is a free resource. To have it delivered to your inbox, please follow the link in the article. Thank you!

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June 7, 2021 at 2:36 pm

I am an alumni of your terrific writing course but still have a question. Why aren’t the mentor texts indented? They’re just double spaced between. You even mentioned indenting above. I’ve wanted to know this since I started with your material but never asked. I have my students indent and add the double spacing between.

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June 10, 2021 at 6:53 am

I’ve thought the same thing. I know you mention something about it, but can aome mentor texts show indentation so students see the difference?

June 11, 2021 at 1:26 am

Hi Susan, Thanks for your question. The age of digital media changed everything! Some style guides for grammar and formatting changed as well. According to the style guides, it is acceptable to indent or skip a line between paragraphs. It’s not recommended that students do both. It’s one or the other. I think it’s important that students see text in both ways and have conversations about the different formats.

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February 23, 2023 at 11:31 pm

Hi! May I ask what style guides you follow?

February 28, 2023 at 12:13 am

Hi Dianne, Our informational writing bundle includes lessons on the importance of citations and the information needed to cite. As teachers have different expectations on which style to use when creating citations, we leave it up to the teacher which style guide to use. When writing essays in grades 2-5 it’s important for students to maintain the same voice throughout the paper. The revision lessons guide them with that skill.

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November 10, 2021 at 6:42 am

I love the layout of all the info

November 10, 2021 at 6:44 am

Im lookingforward to getting more info from you. The literature on paragraph writing has been very useful to me

November 10, 2021 at 10:22 am

You’ll find the writing pacing guide to also be useful. To have it delivered to your inbox, follow the link in the article.

Wonderful website. Great resources

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March 21, 2024 at 1:33 pm

Thank you. This looks wonderful!

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how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

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Overview of Elementary School Writing Expectations (Grades 1-5)

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Looking at the “ English–Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools ” one can see why it can be a challenge to figure out exactly what you want your students to accomplish this year.

Notice the writing content standard “Writing Strategies 1.0” is word for word the same in Grade 1 as in Grade 4 . In grade 5 there is a subtle switch to using the word “ essays ”

Grade 1 Writing Strategies 1.0 Students write clear and coherent sentences and paragraphs that develop a central idea. Their writing shows they consider the audience and purpose. Students progress through the stages of the writing process (e.g., prewriting, drafting, revising, editing successive versions).

Grade 4 Writing Strategies 1.0 Students write clear, coherent sentences and paragraphs that develop a central idea. Their writing shows they consider the audience and purpose. Students progress through the stages of the writing process (e.g., prewriting, drafting, revising, editing successive versions).

Grade 5 Writing Strategies 1.0 Students write clear, coherent, and focused essays . The writing exhibits the students’ awareness of the audience and purpose. Essays contain formal introductions, supporting evidence, and conclusions. Students progress through the stages of the writing process as needed.

Elementary School Writing Standards Grady by Grade

When you read most state writing standards it’s often hard to tell exactly what the differences are from one year to the next. True, that when you compare 1st grade to 5th grade you can easily see the differences, but from one year to the next… you have to read carefully.

Each year a few words are changed, a few concepts are made more complex, and a few concepts are added.

The reason the changes are so subtle is that our brains don’t handle “ brand new information ” very well. The majority of a school year is review, along with integrating the new information with the old. (The above example illustrates this point.)

Summary of Elementary School Writing Expectations Grade by Grade

These summaries should provide a good overview of how students progress in their writing year by year.

GRADE 1 WRITING EXPECTATIONS Students write main ideas with supporting details. Students may not have the skills needed to write a closing sentence for their paragraphs. Students experiment with prewriting organizers but there is not a great connection between their prewriting and their writing. Students are able to focus their writing to a prompt and their stories do have a beginning middle, and end. Students use correct simple sentence structure and from time to time you may see new and interesting words in their word choice. Many of their sentences will have the same basic structure. Day by day spelling and punctuation improves. Students need help with editing. They are not very successful at self-editing.

GRADE 2 WRITING EXPECTATIONS Students have added a concluding sentence to the main idea and supporting details creating proper paragraph structure with a beginning, middle, and ending. Students understand prewriting and are able to connect their prewriting to their writing. Their narratives (stories) have a clear beginning, middle, and ending. There is some variety to their sentences, not all sentences start the same. Students are developing skill in applying verbs and adjectives. Spelling and punctuation are of growing importance. Students are using many of the verb tenses correctly. They are capitalizing most proper nouns correctly and using a variety of punctuation. Students can do basic editing. They understand the concept of “trying to make it better.” They also understand the stages of the writing process. Students know how to use a dictionary, but it’s going to take them a while to check all those words they are not sure about.

GRADE 3 WRITING EXPECTATIONS Students’ paragraphs contain more effective details. Details are more specific and provide reasons and facts. Students are getting better at “proving their main idea.” Students use declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory sentences correctly. A lot of their writing is based on personal experience or creative stories. They are not adept at researching. Their narratives (stories) contain some skill in applying story elements including character and conflict/resolution. However, the stories are simple and may not address all the story elements. Students use varied sentence structure and interesting vocabulary. This means a unique voice is starting to develop. Spelling and grammar are now “mistakes” because they have heard the rules before. (Consciously incompetent) Students are skilled at the writing process. They understand that it takes using a dictionary and a thesaurus to make their writing its best. Students also learn cursive this year.

GRADE 4 WRITING EXPECTATIONS Students paragraphs are now becoming purpose specific. Inform, persuade etc. Students are writing multi-paragraph compositions. These are not called essays as there is no requirement for a proper introduction, conclusion, or thesis statement. Students are learning to gather data through research and organize their research before writing. Their narratives (stories) incorporate all the story elements. Students are not writing just for themselves anymore. They write for their audience. Friendly letters sound friendly and reports sound like reports. Students continue to grow in their writing and they now get most of the verb tenses correct. Students use quotation marks… in fact they may use them too often. Students are skilled at using resources to edit their work. Students not only correct spelling but get rid of ideas that don’t work. Students polish up paragraphs and structure.

GRADE 5 WRITING EXPECTATIONS All of their prior knowledge is now being put to use in complete essays. Both the term essay and thesis statement are part of their vocabulary and their writing is expected to have effective introductions and conclusions. Last year students learned how to gather information and now it is expected to have an “academic” appearance to it. Students will use transitions that effectively link paragraphs together in a clear line of thought. Their narratives (stories) contain an attention getting narrative hook, conflict along with those pesky complications, yet all is resolved in the end. Fifth graders use complex sentences and write with a purpose. Can you convince someone at the North Pole to buy snow? Well… let’s give it a try! Students are skilled at using a lot of the punctuation that their own parents may have forgotten. When students edit, along with grammar and punctuation, they are interested in editing the quality of ideas and the flow of ideas.

What the Standards Get Right

The fifth grade writing requirement is right on target. 5th graders are expected to write about as well as their parents. Obviously, not as well as all parents, but note the TV show, “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader?” There is a reason that 5th grade was chosen.

The standards also seem to say, “Don’t let children write grammar the wrong way. We don’t want them to practice bad habits. The standards add a little complexity in grammar and mechanics each year, and it is expected to be done correctly.”

What the Standards Get Wrong

The standards are lacking in how they address proper multi-paragraph writing. 1st graders are expected to write stories with a beginning, middle, and ending, yet the word multi-paragraph is not used until 4th grade.

If students can fill a good part of a page, you have to teach them proper paragraph form with a simple introduction, and a simple conclusion. From what I have seen, year after year of practicing the wrong way makes it more difficult to break the habits in the upper grades.

Many teachers teach “simple introductions, simple conclusions and proper paragraph form” long before the state standards explicitly require it. Why? Because the children are ready for it.

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how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

How to Teach Paragraph Writing – Write a Conclusion Sentence

How to Write a Paragraph Conclusion Sentences

Teaching conclusions is one of the most difficult parts of teaching students to write well-written paragraphs.

Students may be able to write a topic sentence and three supporting ideas with details, but when it comes time to add a conclusion sentence, it’s almost like they’ve run out of steam.

To me, this makes it even more important that as a teacher, I spend a good amount of time specifically explaining how to write conclusions, while scaffolding practice before throwing the little birdies out of the nest.

In this third of a four-part series on Teaching Paragraph Writing, I’ll tell you what has worked for me in my classroom…not promising miracles but hoping you’ll be able to take away something here to make the process a bit easier in your classroom.

Missed the other posts? Here they are if you’d like to read them: Topic Sentences ,  Supporting Ideas and Details, and Transitions.

1. Explain the Purpose of a Conclusion Sentence

Here’s where we revisit the idea of a conclusion sentence and look at it more in-depth. We talk about why writers use conclusions…mainly to wrap it all up and to give a signal to the reader that the paragraph or essay is ending.

We also talk about what makes a good conclusion vs. what makes a weak or bad one. Strong conclusions are similar to the topic sentence but not TOO similar. Strong conclusions focus on the big idea of the paragraph and NOT on one of the more minor details. Strong conclusions also stay on topic. No new idea is introduced here.

how to write a five paragraph essay for elementary students

One of the activities I really love doing with my students (and they love it too) is analyzing pre-made conclusion sentences. I put these up on the document projector (no copies for students this first time) and I have students give me a thumbs up or down for each conclusion sentence example. Then we discuss why the example was a good conclusion or not.

This kind of practice is great to help students learn to write conclusion sentences because not only is it non-threatening (way easier than coming up with your own conclusion sentence), it models positive examples while showing students examples to avoid.

On the second day, I hand out a similar worksheet and have students determine (independently or in pairs) if the conclusion is a good one or not. We correct these together and discuss them as we go.

You can sure make up your own conclusion examples if you’d like, but if you’re looking for a print-and-go complete resource for conclusion sentences, I do have one here:

Conclusions in Paragraph Writing

2. Focus on Re-wording the Topic Sentence

One of the ways to make a good conclusion sentence is to reword the topic sentence. We talk about how we can use synonyms and slightly different wording to make the conclusion somewhat similar to the topic sentence but unique enough that it works.

I show students a topic sentence and write it on the SmartBoard if needed. Then I ask them to reword it on whiteboards to make it into a conclusion . This activity helps everyone practice making conclusion sentences. It’s also great for those having trouble, as they’re able to hear other students come up with good examples they might use later.

Once we’ve practiced these, I use some worksheets that are similar to this idea from the conclusions packet and students do independent work with this concept.

3. Use a Different Type of Sentence from the Topic Sentence

When I teach students about topic sentences, I make sure to teach them five basic types of topic sentences including List Statements, Number Words, Occasion-Position, Two Nouns, and Two Commas, and Get Their Attention. See the Topic Sentences post for more information .

Since students already have a good understanding of the five types of topic sentences I teach, I explain to them that one way to make a good conclusion is to use a different type of sentence from the topic sentence to make it into a conclusion.

So, if you used one type of sentence for the topic sentence, choose a different type of sentence for the conclusion. For example, if I used Occasion Position for the topic sentence, I might try using a Number Words sentence for the conclusion. Careful though, generally, “List Statements” don’t work well as a conclusion sentence.

conclusion-sentences-anchor-chart

4. Make an Opinion Statement

One idea that has really helped my students write conclusions is to have them practice writing the conclusion as an opinion statement.

So, if the paragraph is about taking care of a dog, the conclusion could be an opinion statement like Dogs make great pets and are excellent companions. If the paragraph is about a Disneyland trip, the conclusion might be Disneyland is a great place to visit. For some reason, these types of conclusion sentences seem to come more naturally to students than other ones do.

5. Teach Optional Conclusion Transition Words

Teaching students a shortlist of transition words for the conclusion can also be helpful. This provides students with a way to start that last and sometimes difficult sentence.

Plus, it does provide a good signal to the reader that the paragraph is coming to a close. Some words/phrases we use include: As you can see…In conclusion…Finally…Obviously…Clearly…Certainly… I do make sure to tell students that these words are a matter of preference and NOT a must.

6. Conclusion Corrections

One last piece of advice for conclusions. Every year there is a conclusion habit that I work hard to correct. I’m not sure why so many students use these types of conclusions but to me, these conclusions make me cringe.

The weak conclusion students often fall back on starts with “That’s why…” or “Those are the reasons why…” and while I guess their teachers were just giving them a quick and easy way to end a paragraph, I just wish they had NOT given them ones that were this bad!

Sorry, but it’s a soapbox issue for me. If you teach a quick and easy way, please don’t teach a bad habit that needs to be corrected later on. So, my students know that they are not allowed to start conclusions this way and will be “dinged” if they do!

Whew…as I said, conclusions are definitely a concept that can be tough for so many students. The more we practice them though, the more they are able to rise to the occasion. I have seen a tremendous amount of growth in my students each year as writers.

Once again, you can make resources to use to help your students become better paragraph writers but if you’d like a low-prep print and a no-prep digital unit to save time, this might be the resource for you. Click here to take a look at the Complete Paragraph Writing Bundle .

Updated Complete Paragraph Bundle

If you’d like to get more teaching ideas for paragraph writing, here are a few posts you might like:

Topic Sentences

Supporting Ideas and Details

Transitions

5 Tips for More Effective Paragraph Writing

Thanks so much for hanging in there with this long post!

Hope it was useful to you in some way!

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Yellowlees Douglas Ph.D.

The One Method That Changes Your—and All Students’—Writing

Science-based writing methods can achieve dramatic results..

Posted May 14, 2024 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

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  • A systematic writing framework offers a method for dramatically improving the teaching of writing.
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  • A focus on writing style might have limited the method's impacts.

Andy Barbour, Envato

I remember spending hours commenting painstakingly on my students’ papers when I was a graduate student teaching in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. My students loved our classes, and they filled my sections and gave me terrific course evaluations. Yet I could see that their writing failed to change significantly over the course of the semester. I ended up feeling as if I should refund their money, haunted by the blunt instruments we had to teach writing.

As I’ve learned from directing five writing programs at three different universities, methods matter. When I reviewed comments on papers from instructors who taught in my programs, I discovered that the quantity and quality of comments on students’ papers made only a slight impact on writing outcomes. For instance, one notoriously lazy instructor took several weeks to return assignments and only used spelling and grammar checkers to automate comments. But his conscientious colleague made dozens of sharp observations about students’ arguments, paragraphs, and sentences. However, Mr. Conscientious’ students improved perhaps only 10% over Mr. Minimalist’s students. Even then, the differences stemmed from basic guidelines Mr. Conscientious insisted his students write to, which included providing context sentences at the outset of their essay introductions.

Educators have also poured resources into teaching writing, with increasing numbers of hours dedicated to teaching writing across primary, secondary, and higher education . Yet studies continue to find writing skills inadequate . In higher education, most universities require at least a year of writing-intensive courses, with many universities also requiring writing across the curriculum or writing in the disciplines to help preserve students’ writing skills. However, writing outcomes have remained mostly unchanged .

While pursuing my doctorate, I dedicated my research to figuring out how writing worked. As a graduate student also teaching part-time, I was an early convert to process writing. I also taught those ancient principles of logos, ethos, and pathos, as well as grammar and punctuation. Nevertheless, these frameworks only created a canvas for students’ writing. What was missing: how writers should handle words, sentence structure, and relationships between sentences.

Yet researchers published the beginnings of a science-based writing method over 30 years ago. George Gopen, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams created a framework for identifying how to maximize the clarity, coherence, and continuity of writing. In particular, Gopen and Swan (1990) created a methodology for making scientific writing readable . This work should have been a revelation to anyone teaching in or directing a writing program. But, weirdly, comparatively few writing programs or faculty embraced this work, despite Williams, Colomb, and Gopen publishing both research and textbooks outlining the method and process.

Peculiarly, this framework—represented by Williams’ Style series of textbooks and Gopen’s reader expectation approach—failed to become standard in writing courses, likely because of two limitations. First, both Gopen and Williams hewed to a relativistic stance on writing methods, noting that rule-flouting often creates a memorable style. This stance created a raft of often-contradictory principles for writing. For example, Williams demonstrated that beginning sentences with There is or There are openings hijacked the clarity of sentences, then argued writers should use There is or There are to shunt important content into sentence emphasis positions, where readers recall content best. Second, these researchers failed to tie this writing framework to the wealth of data in psycholinguistics, cognitive neuroscience , or cognitive psychology on how our reading brains process written English. For instance, textbooks written by these three principal researchers avoid any mention of why emphasis positions exist at the ends of sentences and paragraphs—despite the concept clearly originating in the recency effect. This limitation may stem from the humanities’ long-held antipathy to the idea that writing is a product, rather than a process. Or even that science-based methods can help teachers and programs measure the effectiveness of writing, one reason why university First-Year Writing programs have failed to improve students’ writing in any measurable way.

Nevertheless, when you teach students how our reading brains work, you create a powerful method for rapidly improving their writing—in any course that requires writing and at all levels of education. Students can grasp how writing works as a system and assess the costs and benefits of decisions writers face, even as they choose their first words. This method also works powerfully to help students immediately understand how, for instance, paragraph heads leverage priming effects to shape readers’ understanding of paragraph content.

Using this method, I and my colleagues have helped students use a single writing assignment to secure hundreds of jobs, win millions in grant funding, and advance through the ranks in academia. However, we’ve also used the same method without modifications in elementary and secondary classrooms to bolster students’ writing by as much as three grade levels in a single year.

Perhaps the time has arrived for this well-kept secret to revolutionizing student writing outcomes to begin making inroads into more writing classrooms.

Gopen, G. D. and J. A. Swan (1990). "The Science of Scientific Writing." American Scientist 78(6): 550-558.

Gopen, George. The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective . Pearson, 2004.

Gopen, George. Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective . Pearson, 2004.

Williams, Joseph. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace . University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Williams, Joseph. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace . Harper Collins, 1994.

Williams, Joseph. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace . Longman, 2002.

Yellowlees Douglas Ph.D.

Jane Yellowlees Douglas, Ph.D. , is a consultant on writing and organizations. She is also the author, with Maria B. Grant, MD, of The Biomedical Writer: What You Need to Succeed in Academic Medicine .

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What I’ve Learned From My Students’ College Essays

The genre is often maligned for being formulaic and melodramatic, but it’s more important than you think.

An illustration of a high school student with blue hair, dreaming of what to write in their college essay.

By Nell Freudenberger

Most high school seniors approach the college essay with dread. Either their upbringing hasn’t supplied them with several hundred words of adversity, or worse, they’re afraid that packaging the genuine trauma they’ve experienced is the only way to secure their future. The college counselor at the Brooklyn high school where I’m a writing tutor advises against trauma porn. “Keep it brief , ” she says, “and show how you rose above it.”

I started volunteering in New York City schools in my 20s, before I had kids of my own. At the time, I liked hanging out with teenagers, whom I sometimes had more interesting conversations with than I did my peers. Often I worked with students who spoke English as a second language or who used slang in their writing, and at first I was hung up on grammar. Should I correct any deviation from “standard English” to appeal to some Wizard of Oz behind the curtains of a college admissions office? Or should I encourage students to write the way they speak, in pursuit of an authentic voice, that most elusive of literary qualities?

In fact, I was missing the point. One of many lessons the students have taught me is to let the story dictate the voice of the essay. A few years ago, I worked with a boy who claimed to have nothing to write about. His life had been ordinary, he said; nothing had happened to him. I asked if he wanted to try writing about a family member, his favorite school subject, a summer job? He glanced at his phone, his posture and expression suggesting that he’d rather be anywhere but in front of a computer with me. “Hobbies?” I suggested, without much hope. He gave me a shy glance. “I like to box,” he said.

I’ve had this experience with reluctant writers again and again — when a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously. Of course the primary goal of a college essay is to help its author get an education that leads to a career. Changes in testing policies and financial aid have made applying to college more confusing than ever, but essays have remained basically the same. I would argue that they’re much more than an onerous task or rote exercise, and that unlike standardized tests they are infinitely variable and sometimes beautiful. College essays also provide an opportunity to learn precision, clarity and the process of working toward the truth through multiple revisions.

When a topic clicks with a student, an essay can unfurl spontaneously.

Even if writing doesn’t end up being fundamental to their future professions, students learn to choose language carefully and to be suspicious of the first words that come to mind. Especially now, as college students shoulder so much of the country’s ethical responsibility for war with their protest movement, essay writing teaches prospective students an increasingly urgent lesson: that choosing their own words over ready-made phrases is the only reliable way to ensure they’re thinking for themselves.

Teenagers are ideal writers for several reasons. They’re usually free of preconceptions about writing, and they tend not to use self-consciously ‘‘literary’’ language. They’re allergic to hypocrisy and are generally unfiltered: They overshare, ask personal questions and call you out for microaggressions as well as less egregious (but still mortifying) verbal errors, such as referring to weed as ‘‘pot.’’ Most important, they have yet to put down their best stories in a finished form.

I can imagine an essay taking a risk and distinguishing itself formally — a poem or a one-act play — but most kids use a more straightforward model: a hook followed by a narrative built around “small moments” that lead to a concluding lesson or aspiration for the future. I never get tired of working with students on these essays because each one is different, and the short, rigid form sometimes makes an emotional story even more powerful. Before I read Javier Zamora’s wrenching “Solito,” I worked with a student who had been transported by a coyote into the U.S. and was reunited with his mother in the parking lot of a big-box store. I don’t remember whether this essay focused on specific skills or coping mechanisms that he gained from his ordeal. I remember only the bliss of the parent-and-child reunion in that uninspiring setting. If I were making a case to an admissions officer, I would suggest that simply being able to convey that experience demonstrates the kind of resilience that any college should admire.

The essays that have stayed with me over the years don’t follow a pattern. There are some narratives on very predictable topics — living up to the expectations of immigrant parents, or suffering from depression in 2020 — that are moving because of the attention with which the student describes the experience. One girl determined to become an engineer while watching her father build furniture from scraps after work; a boy, grieving for his mother during lockdown, began taking pictures of the sky.

If, as Lorrie Moore said, “a short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage,” what is a college essay? Every once in a while I sit down next to a student and start reading, and I have to suppress my excitement, because there on the Google Doc in front of me is a real writer’s voice. One of the first students I ever worked with wrote about falling in love with another girl in dance class, the absolute magic of watching her move and the terror in the conflict between her feelings and the instruction of her religious middle school. She made me think that college essays are less like love than limerence: one-sided, obsessive, idiosyncratic but profound, the first draft of the most personal story their writers will ever tell.

Nell Freudenberger’s novel “The Limits” was published by Knopf last month. She volunteers through the PEN America Writers in the Schools program.

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Generative AI has the potential to support teachers with writing instruction and feedback. The purpose of this study was to explore and compare feedback and data-based instructional suggestions from teachers and those generated by different AI tools. Essays from students with and without disabilities who struggled with writing and needed a technology-based writing intervention were analyzed. The essays were imported into two versions of ChatGPT using four different prompts, whereby eight sets of responses were generated. Inductive thematic analysis was used to explore the data sets. Findings indicated: (a) differences in responses between ChatGPT versions and prompts, (b) AI feedback on student writing did not reflect provided student characteristics (e.g., grade level or needs; disability; ELL status), and (c) ChatGPT’s responses to the essays aligned with teachers’ identified areas of needs and instructional decisions to some degree. Suggestions for increasing educator engagement with AI to enhance teaching writing is discussed.

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The advances in Generative Artificial Intelligence (generative AI) have transformed the field of education introducing new ways to teach and learn. Its integration is fast growing in all areas of education, including special education (Marino et al., 2023 ). Generative AI has the potential to increase the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education by providing additional assistive supports (Garg and Sharma, 2020 ; Zdravkova, 2022 ). Specifically, large language models like the one used by a popular AI tool, ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) can generate human-like responses to prompts, similar to a conversation. It can facilitate learning for students with and without high-incidence disabilities (e.g., learning disabilities, ADHD) who struggle with writing (Barbetta, 2023 ). While experts continue to investigate the future of writing in the ChatGPT era, it is evident that it will significantly alter writing instruction (Wilson, 2023 ). ChatGPT can support students in choosing a topic, brainstorming, outlining, drafting, soliciting feedback, revising, and proofreading (Trust et al., 2023 ). This tool may also be a helpful resource for teachers in providing feedback on students’ writing. Timely and quality feedback by ChatGPT can encourage the use of higher-level thinking skills while improving the writing process including the planning, writing, and reviewing phases of that process (Golinkoff & Wilson, 2023 ).

Writing Instruction and Feedback for Struggling Writers

The writing process may be challenging for some students for many reasons. For example, planning is the first step of writing, but many students don’t systematically brainstorm. Instead, they move directly into drafting their sentences which may, in turn, be disjointed and not effectively communicated (Evmenova & Regan, 2019 ). Students, particularly those with high-incidence disabilities may not produce text or compose limited text, struggling with content generation, vocabulary, and the organization of ideas (Chung et al., 2020 ). While multilinguism is an asset, we have observed similar challenges with writing among English Language Learners in our research (Hutchison et al., 2024 ). The cognitive demands needed for drafting a response leave many students at no capacity to then edit or revise their work (Graham et al., 2017 ). Therefore, teachers should provide scaffolds to break down the complex process of writing so that it is sequential and manageable, progressing from simple to more complex concepts and skills.

Instruction for struggling writers is typically characterized as systematic and explicit (Archer & Hughes, 2011 ; Hughes et al., 2018 ). In order to provide explicit instruction, teachers should be guided by ongoing student data. Specifically, special and general education teachers of writing should collaboratively, systematically, and continuously monitor and responsively adjust instruction based on student progress (Graham et al., 2014 ). Formative assessments of writing inform feedback that a teacher provides a learner. McLeskey et al., ( 2017 ) describes:

Effective feedback must be strategically delivered, and goal directed; feedback is most effective when the learner has a goal, and the feedback informs the learner regarding areas needing improvement and ways to improve performance… Teachers should provide ongoing feedback until learners reach their established learning goals. (p. 25)

Various formative assessments are available to guide feedback in writing, with rubrics being one frequently used method, which we will explore in the following section.

Supporting Writing by Struggling Writers

School-aged students are required to show progress towards mastery of writing independently in order to be successful at school, future work, and in their personal lives (Graham, 2019 ). Thus, educators continuously look for tools to increase and support learner agency and independence including in writing (Edyburn, 2021 ). Over the past decade, the authors have developed a digital tool to support learner autonomy, access, and independence during essay composition as part of a federally funded, design-based research project referred to as WEGO: Writing Effectively with Graphic Organizers (Evmenova et al., 2018–2023 ). This tool is a technology-based graphic organizer (or TBGO) that embeds numerous evidence-based strategies and universally designed supports for students as well as an analytic rubric for teachers to evaluate student products and providing feedback. A detailed description of the tool can be found elsewhere (students’ features: Evmenova et al., 2020a ; teachers’ features: Regan et al., 2021 ).

The TBGO was developed to support upper elementary and middle school students with and without high-incidence disabilities to compose multiple genres of writing including persuasive (Evmenova et al., 2016 ), argumentative (Boykin et al., 2019 ), and/or personal narrative writing (Rana, 2018 ). The TBGO has also been effectively used by English Language Learners (Day et al., 2023 ; Boykin et al., 2019 ). In addition, it includes a dashboard that allows a teacher or caregiver to personalize instruction: assign prompts and support features embedded in the TBGO. After the student has an opportunity to write independently, the teacher can engage in what we refer to as data-driven decision making (or DDDM; Park & Datnow, 2017 ; Reeves and Chiang, 2018 ).

Teachers’ DDDM

A common formative assessment of writing used in classrooms is a rubric. In order to facilitate the DDDM process within the TBGO, various data are collected by the tool and provided to teachers including final writing product, total time spent actively using the tool, video views and duration, text-to-speech use and duration, audio comments use and duration, transition words use, total number of words, number of attempts to finish. A teacher first evaluates those data as well as student’s writing using a 5-point rubric embedded in the teacher dashboard of the TBGO (a specific rubric is available at  https://wego.gmu.edu ). Based on the rubric, a teacher identifies an area of need organized by phases of the writing process: Planning (select a prompt; select essay goal; select personal writing goal; brainstorm); Writing (identify your opinion, determine reasons, explain why or say more, add transition words, summarize, check your work); and Reviewing: Revise and Edit (word choice, grammar/spelling, punctuation, capitalization, evaluate). Then, a teacher provides specific instructional suggestions when the students’ score does not meet a threshold (e.g., content video models, modeling, specific practice activities). Once teachers select a targeted instructional move that is responsive to the identified area on the writing rubric, they record their instructional decision in the TBGO dashboard. The student’s work, the completed rubric, and the instructional decision is stored within the teacher dashboard. Recent investigations report that teachers positively perceive the ease and usability of the integrated digital rubric in the TBGO (see Regan et al., 2023a ; b ). Although promising, the teachers in those studies used DDDM with only a few students in their inclusive classes.

Efficient and Effective DDDM

The current version of the TBGO relies on teachers or caregivers to score student writing using an embedded rubric and to subsequently provide the student(s) with instructional feedback. In a classroom of twenty or more students, scoring individual essays and personalizing the next instructional move for each student is time consuming, and teachers may not regularly assess or interpret students’ writing abilities in the upper grades, especially (Graham et al., 2014 ; Kiuhara et al., 2009 ). Generative AI or chatbots are arguably leading candidates to consider when providing students with instructional feedback in a more time efficient manner (Office of Educational Technology, 2023 ). For example, automated essay scoring (AES) provides a holistic and analytic writing quality score of students’ writing and a description as to how the student can improve their writing. Recent research on classroom-based implementation of AES suggests its potential; but questions have been raised as to how teachers and students perceive the scores, and how it is used in classroom contexts (Li et al., 2015 ; Wilson et al., 2022 ). Other investigations remark on the efficiency and reliability among AES systems (Wilson & Andrada, 2016 ) and the consistency of scores with human raters (Shermis, 2014 ). More recently, a large-language model (specifically, GPT-3.5 version of ChatGPT) was prompted to rate secondary students’ argumentative essays and chatbot’s responses were compared to humans across five measures of feedback quality (see Steiss et al., 2023 ). Although GPT-3.5 included some inaccuracies in the feedback and the authors concluded that humans performed better than ChatGPT, the comparisons were remarkably close.

A greater understanding of what generative AI tools can do to support classroom teachers is needed. First, leveraging technology, with the use of automated systems, or logistical tools, can potentially improve working conditions for both general and special education teachers (Billingsley & Bettini, 2017 ; Johnson et al., 2012 ). Also, although educators see the benefits of AI and how it can be used to enhance educational services, there is urgent concern about the policies needed around its use and how it is ever evolving. For example, when writing this manuscript, GPT-4 evolved, but at a cost, this latter version may not be widely accessible for educators or students. With the fast adoption of AI, the Office of Educational Technology states that “it is imperative to address AI in education now to realize and mitigate emergent risks and tackle unintended consequences” (U.S. Department of Education, 2023 , p. 3). A first step in addressing AI in education is to understand what AI can do, and how its use supports or hinders student learning and teacher instruction. In this case, we focus on teachers’ writing instruction and feedback.

As we learn more about AI tools, it becomes obvious that AI literacy skills will need to be developed as part of digital skills by both teachers and students (Cohen, 2023 ). The importance of how we use chatbots, how we prompt them, and what parameters we use to direct the responses of chatbots becomes paramount.

Thus, the purpose of this study was to explore feedback and instructional suggestions generated by different AI tools when using prompts providing varying specificity (e.g., a generic 0–4 rating vs. analytic rubric provided) to help guide teachers of writing in their use of these tools. The purpose of including two versions of ChatGPT was not to criticize one and promote the other; but rather to understand and leverage their similarities and differences, given the same prompt. The research questions were:

RQ1: What is the difference between responses generated by GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 given prompts which provide varying specificity about students’ essays?

RQ2: What is the nature of the instructional suggestions provided by ChatGPT for students with and without disabilities and/or ELLs (aka struggling writers)?

RQ3: How does the formative feedback provided by GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 compare to the feedback provided by teachers when given the same rubric?

Data for this study were selected from a large intervention research study (led by the same authors) for a secondary data analysis. Specifically, while previous studies focused on the improvements in students’ writing outcomes (e.g., both quantity and quality of written essays) as well as explored how teachers provide feedback on students’ writing, the unique focus of this paper was on the use of AI to provide writing feedback (something we have not done before). The data included 34 persuasive student essays, a teacher’s completed analytic rubric evaluating the essay, and a teacher’s data-driven decisions with instructional feedback in the area of Writing and Reviewing (essays with the teachers’ DDDM in the area of Planning were excluded). We purposefully selected essays completed by students with various abilities and needs in different grade levels who struggled with writing and needed the TBGO intervention.

Participants

The 34 essays used in this study were written by 21 girls and 13 boys. Students ranged in age 8–13 and were in grades 3–7. The majority (59%) were White, 21% were Hispanic, 3% were African American, and 17% were other. Among the students, 41% were identified with high-incidence disabilities (learning disabilities, ADHD); 24% were English language learners (with a variety of primary languages); and 35% were struggling writers as reported by teachers. Teachers identified struggling writers as those who consistently demonstrated writing performance below grade level expectations (e.g., needing extra support with writing mechanics, cohesive and well-organized ideas).

Study Context

The data used in this study were collected in two separate settings: two inclusive classrooms in a suburban, private day school and an after-school program in a community center serving economically disadvantaged families. The same essay writing procedures were used in both settings. All students were first asked to write a persuasive opinion-based essay in response to one of two prompts validated by previous research (Regan et al., 2023b ). Examples of the prompts included:

Some students go to school on Saturday. Write an essay on whether or not students should go to school on Saturdays.

Some people believe kids your age should not have cell phones. Using specific details and examples to persuade someone of your opinion, argue whether or not kids your age should have cell phones.

After the pretest, students were introduced to the technology-based graphic organizer (TBGO) with embedded evidence-based strategies and supports. The instruction lasted 5–6 lessons. Then students were asked to use the TBGO to practice independent essay writing without any help from the teachers. As the TBGO is a Chrome-based web application and works on any device with a Chrome browser installed, each student used their own device/laptop and individual login credentials to access the TBGO. After completing the independent writing, teachers reviewed students’ products and completed the analytic rubric built into the TBGO’s teacher dashboard. They identified one primary area of need and determined an instructional decision that should take place in order to address the existing area of need. The instructional decisions included whole- and small-group activities (especially in those cases when multiple students demonstrated the same area of need); independent activities (including watching video models embedded within the TBGO); as well as individual teacher-student check-ins to discuss the area of need and future steps. A posttest with the TBGO and a delayed posttest without the TBGO were later administered. The essays used in the current study were from an independent writing phase since those included teachers’ DDDM. On average, essays had 133.44 ( SD  = 57.21; range 32–224) total words written. The vast majority included such important persuasive essay elements such as a topic sentence introducing the opinion, distinct reasons, examples to explain the reasons, summary sentence, and transition words. While this provides some important context, the quantity and quality of students’ writing products is not the focus of the current study and is reported elsewhere (Boykin et al., 2019 ; Day et al., 2023 ; Evmenova et al., 2016 , 2020b ; Regan et al., 2018 , 2023b ).

Data Sources

The existing 34 essays were imported into two different versions of the ChatGPT generative AI: GPT-3.5 version of ChatGPT (free version) and GPT-4 (subscription version). Four different prompts were used in both ChatGPT versions (see Table  1 ). As can be seen in Table  1 , the different prompts included (1) using a specific analytic rubric (when a rubric from the TBGO was uploaded to ChatGPT); (2) asking for a generic 0–4 rating (without any additional specifics regarding scoring); (3) no rubric (asking to identify the area of need without any rubric); (4) no information (asking to provide generic feedback without any information about the student in the prompt). Each prompt type constituted its own GPT chat. Thus, eight sets of responses (or eight different chats) were generated by ChatGPT. A prompt tailored to include the student’s essay as well as the specific student characteristics and the essay topic when applicable (according to the prompt samples presented in Table  1 ) was pasted into the chat. After GPT had a chance to react and provide feedback, the next prompt was pasted into the same chat. Thus, each chat included a total of 34 prompts and 34 GPT outputs. Each chat was then saved and analyzed.

Data Analysis and Credibility

Inductive thematic analysis was used to explore how generative AI can be used to provide writing feedback and guide writing instruction for struggling writers (Guest et al., 2011 ). First, each set of ChatGPT responses (or each GPT chat) was analyzed individually, and reoccurring codes across responses were grouped into categories. The four members of the research team were randomly assigned to analyze two GPT sets each. Each member generated a list of codes and categories within a chat that were the shared with the team and discussed. During those discussions, the patterns within categories were compared across different sets to develop overarching themes in response to RQ1 and RQ2. The trustworthiness of findings was established by data triangulation across 34 writing samples and eight sets of feedback. Also, peer debriefing was used throughout the data analysis (Brantlinger et al., 2005 ).

To answer RQ3, frequencies were used to compare teachers’ and ChatGPT scores on the analytic rubric and suggested instructional decisions. First, two researchers independently compared teachers’ and ChatGPT scores and suggestions. Since the same language from the rubric was used to identify the area of need, the comparisons were rated as 0 = no match; 1 = match. For instructional suggestions, the scale was 0 = no match; 1 = match in concept, but not in specifics; and 2 = perfect match. Over 50% of comparisons were completed by two independent researchers. Interrater reliability was established using point-by-point agreement formula dividing the number of agreements by the total number of agreements plus disagreements and yielding 100% agreement.

RQ1: Differences in AI Responses

In effort to answer RQ1 and explore the differences between responses generated by different ChatGPT versions when given prompts with varying specificity, we analyzed eight sets of responses. While the purpose was not to compare the sets in effort to find which one is better, several patterns have been observed that can guide teachers in using ChatGPT as the starting point for generating writing feedback to their struggling writers. The following are the six overarching themes that emerged from this analysis.

Predictable Pattern of Response

As can be seen in Table  2 , all sets generated excessive amounts of feedback (average length: M  = 383; SD  = 109.7; range 258–581 words) and followed a consistent, formulaic, and predictable pattern of responses across all the writing samples. While the layout and headers used to organize the responses differed across different ChatGPT versions and prompts, the layout and headers were consistent within each set. That said, it was also observed in all ChatGPT sets that the organization and headings found in a response changed slightly towards the end of the run for the 34 writing samples. It is unclear whether this pattern change may happen after a certain number of entries (or writing samples in our case) were entered into the ChatGPT run or if this shift in pattern occurs randomly. Similarly, we also observed that the later responses seemed to be more concise and lacked details which were observed earlier in the same set.

Specific Analytic Rubric

Both GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 provided responses organized into nine categories matching those included in the uploaded rubric. Each category included 1–2 sentences of feedback along with a numerical rating on a 0–4 scale. An overall holistic score was also calculated at the end along with a summary of the student’s overall strengths and weaknesses.

Generic 0–4 Rating

For each writing sample, GPT-3.5 consistently included an evaluation of student writing using four criteria-based categories: Content, Organization, Language Use (punctuation, spelling, and grammar), and Development of Ideas. Two to three bullet points of feedback were listed under each category along with a numeric rating on a 0–4 scale for each. The scale was not defined or explained. An overall holistic score was totaled at the end along with a summary of feedback presented in a bulleted list.

GPT-4’s response to the first writing sample included a definition of what each point on the scale meant (e.g., 4 = writing is clear, well-organized, well-developed, with effectively chosen details and examples presented logically, and few to no errors in conventions). In all consecutive responses, an introductory paragraph identified an overall bold-faced score (0–4) and an overview of what the student did and did not demonstrate in the writing. The following areas of writing were discussed across essays: Organization, Development, Main Idea, Reasons, Examples, Coherence, and Grammar.

Each response in GPT-3.5 began with “One area of need is…” followed by two sentences including how to address the need. Areas of need for instruction identified by ChatGPT included a high frequency of subject-verb agreement as parts of sentence structure (topic sentence and supporting details), followed by transition words or phrases, spelling and grammar conventions, spelling and word choice, capitalization, and punctuation. The second part of the response, titled Instructional Suggestion, provided an instructional strategy for a teacher to use, followed by a model of a ‘revised’ essay using ideas from the student’s response.

GPT-4 provided four consistent parts. First, the response opened with a statement about what the student wrote, a positive affirmation, and an instructional area of writing that could be improved upon. Next, under a header of Instructional Suggestion was a brief description as to what the teacher should do. The third part was a bold-faced, numbered list of steps for implementing that suggestion with bulleted cues underneath. The final part of the response was a ‘revised’ paragraph using the student’s initial writing and addressing the area of need.

GPT-3.5 provided feedback organized in 9 to 11 bolded categories. The sections that were identical for every writing sample included Proofreading; Revising and Editing; Encourage Creativity; and Positive Reinforcement. The sections that were consistent but individualized for each writing sample were Clarity and Organization (including a topic/introductory sentence); Supporting Details; Sentence Structure and Grammar (primarily focus on sentence fragments, punctuation, and capitalization); Conclusion; Vocabulary and Word Choice. Feedback on spelling and transition words/phrases was offered either as separate categories or subsumed under others.

GPT-4’s response could be organized in 3 overarching groups: Positive Reinforcement (including specific praise, affirmation, and creativity); Areas for Improvement (content feedback including idea development; details; coherence; clarity and focus; concluding sentence; and technical feedback including sentence structure; punctuation; grammar; word choice); as well as Instructional Suggestions. A sample revised paragraph was offered at the end with an explanation as to how it showcased the offered suggestions.

Using Specific Language from the Rubric

Both Specific Analytic Rubric sets (using GPT-3.5 and GPT-4) referred exclusively to the uploaded rubric and provided feedback using specific language from the rubric. This included feedback across the nine categories built into the rubric (e.g., the writer clearly identified an opinion, the writer has determined three reasons that support his/her opinion, etc.). Also, both ChatGPT versions used descriptors from the rubric (0 = Try again; 1 = Keep trying; 2 = Almost there; 3 = Good job; 4 = Got it). However, GPT-3.5 did not use any explicit examples from the student’s writing within the feedback and used broad and general statements. GPT-4 referred to the specific content from the students’ writing samples and was more tailored, or individualized (e.g., There are some grammatical and spelling errors present, e.g., "are" instead of "our").

Identifying General, Broad Areas of Need

Feedback in all GPT-3.5 sets (regardless of the prompt) was characterized as using common phrases representing broad areas of need. These phrases were not specifically targeted or explicit. For example, the Generic Rating GPT-3.5 set included such common phrases as “The essay presents ideas and supports them with reasonable detail, but there's room for more depth and elaboration.” or “The content is well-structured and effectively conveys the main points.” Similarly, the No Rubric GPT-3.5 set identified instructional areas of need that were only broadly relevant to the students’ writing. For example, in several instances, our review questioned the prioritization of the writing area identified and if ChatGPT was overgeneralizing areas in need of improvement. Specifically, does two instances of using lowercase when it should be uppercase mean that capitalization should be prioritized over other essential features of writing? Finally, the No Info GPT-3.5 set also used common phrases to describe areas for improvement regardless of the writing sample. For example, there were no difference in ChatGPT’s feedback for a writing essay with eight complete, robust, well-written sentences vs. an incomplete paragraph with just two sentences indicating the lack of targeted and specific feedback.

No Rubric GPT-4 set would start with identifying a broad area of need (e.g., coherence, grammar, development, organization/development of ideas, attention to detail) followed by a more individualized and specific instructional suggestion (as discussed below). The authors acknowledge that this might be explained by the prompt language to identify one area of need.

Focusing on an Individualized, Specific Areas of Need

Like the Specific Analytic Rubric GPT-4 set, the Generic 0–4 Rating GPT-4 set and the No Info GPT-4 sets were observed to include more guidance for the student, drawing on specific areas of an essay to provide corrective feedback. For example, Generic Rating GPT-4 feedback noted, “We should also try to provide more specific examples or explanations for each reason. For example, you mentioned that students get tired – maybe you can explain more about how having some recess can help them feel less tired.” In turn, No Info GPT-4 included detailed feedback focused on specific areas of need such as encouraging more details and clarifications, cohesion and flow, capitalization, spelling, homophones, and punctuation (including avoiding run-on sentences and properly using commas). Word choice, contractions, and conjunctions were often mentioned offering specific revisions. Varying the length and structure of sentences was sometimes suggested for making the writing more engaging and readable.

Misaligned Feedback

While there were some occasional discrepancies in GPT-4 sets, all GPT-3.5 sets appeared to generate feedback that was more misaligned with writing samples. For example, in the Specific Analytic Rubric GPT-3.5 set, a “Good Job” score of 3 was given for the Summary sentence that read, “Moreover, …” and was not a complete sentence. Also, the Generic Rating GPT-3.5 set did not mention any misuse of capitalization despite numerous cases of such misuse. Subject-verb agreement was erroneously mentioned as an area of need for some writing samples for the No Rubric GPT-3.5 set, and then, not mentioned for those students’ writing in which this feedback would be relevant. In the No Info GPT-3.5 set, the topic or introductory sentence was always noted as a suggested area of improvement and a revised sentence was always provided. This was true for cases when a student:

was missing an opinion that aligned with the prompt

had an opinion but did not start it with words “I believe …” (e.g., “Kids should get more recess time.”); and

already had a strong introductory sentence (e.g., “I believe that school starts too early and should begin later in the morning.”).

Starting with Specific Praise/Positive Affirmation

While most ChatGPT feedback included some general praise and affirmation, Generic Rating GPT-4, No Rubric GPT-4, and No Info GPT-4 sets always started with specific positive reinforcement. Unique elements in each essay were praised including conveying personal experiences, having a clear stance or position, and including a variety of reasons, etc.

RQ2: Instructional Suggestions

Instructional suggestions based on the evaluation of student writing was a focus of RQ2. Although we expected the responses from prompts that included specific student characteristics to differentiate the instructional suggestions in some way, this was not the case. In fact, none of the sets provided explicit instructional suggestions aligned with students’ characteristics (e.g., grade, disability, ELL). First, the suggestions for improving the writing of a 3rd grader’s essay were not distinct from those suggestions provided in response to a 7th grader’s writing (in Generic Rating GPT-3.5 and No Rubric GPT-3.5 sets). Also, there were no remarkable differences in the vocabulary used in the feedback for a 3rd grader vs. a 7th grader (in Generic Rating GPT-4 set). Only one set (Generic Rating GPT-4) offered a personalized message in a student-friendly format (without any additional prompting to do so).

Second, student characteristics were merely acknowledged in some sets. For example, Specific Analytic Rubric GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 only noted those characteristics in the summary section at the end of the feedback (e.g., “This is a well-written persuasive essay by your 7th-grade student with ADHD”). This was also observed in responses from the Generic Rating GPT-4 set, as well. For example, “This feedback emphasizes both the strengths of the student’s writing and the areas where improvement can be made, offering encouragement and guidance that is particularly important for a student with ADHD.” Finally, the No Rubric GPT-4 set also gave a mere nod to the additional context (e.g., Given student characteristics…). Although rare, connecting student characteristics with instruction was observed here: “Students with ADHD often struggle with organizing their thoughts in a coherent manner, and the flow of ideas in this student’s paragraph seems a bit disjointed….” Students’ characteristics were not mentioned in any other sets in which student information was included in the prompt (Generic Rating GPT-3.5 and No Rubric GPT-3.5).

Below is the description of how specific, broad, or no instructional suggestions were included in the ChatGPT sets (see Table  2 ).

Specific Suggestions

Specific instructional suggestions were mentioned in Generic Rating GPT-4, No Rubric GPT-4, and No Info GPT-4 sets. At the end of responses for the Generic Rating GPT-4 set, ChatGPT encouraged the teacher to use self-regulatory instructional strategies with students, such as goal setting or self-evaluation. For example, “By involving the student in the refinement of their work and setting goals, you empower them to take ownership of their learning and progression.”

No Rubric GPT-4 responses used such headings as modeling, guided practice, feedback, and independent practice with bulleted ideas under each. The specific suggestions included practice, mini-instructional lessons, engaging activities, peer review, explicit instruction, sentence-building activities, peer review sentence starters, technology such as word processing and online games, the five W’s and How strategy (i.e., a writing strategy that helps students remember to include the answers to “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how” in their writing to make their writing complete and clear), a mnemonic referred to as PEE (i.e., Point, Explain, Elaborate; this mnemonic helps students ensure their writing is focused, well-supported, and thoroughly developed), a personal dictionary, interactive editing, and a graphic organizer or outline. When the latter was suggested to support the “coherence” or “development of ideas,” ChatGPT’s response sometimes provided a backwards planning model of what the student’s ideas would look like in an outline format.

Responses of the No Info GPT-4 set included specific and varied instructional suggestions organized by categories: Writing Exercises; Focused Practice; and Revision Work. Suggestions included mini lessons on sentence structure, transition workshops, details workshops, personal experience illustrations, developing ideas workshops, worksheets, grammar lessons, spelling activities, sentence expansion or completion, and editing practice.

Broad Instructional Suggestions

Primarily broad instructional suggestions were offered in the Generic Rating GPT-3.5 and No Rubric GPT-3.5 sets. For example, Generic Rating GPT-3.5 responses had a section with a bulleted list of actionable, instructional suggestions. Each began with a verb (i.e., Work on…; Encourage the student to…; Practice…). It was also not clear if these suggestions were presented in any order of instructional priority. Also, the items included broad ideas that aligned with the student essays but may or may not have aligned with the lowest rated category of writing. Examples of largely vague and broad instructional suggestions recycled throughout the responses in the No Rubric GPT-3.5 set including: “use different types of sentences,” “teach basic spelling rules,” and “use appropriate punctuation.”

Revised Essay

The following three ChatGPT sets included responses with a revised student essay along with a brief explanation of how it was better (even though a revision was not requested in the prompt): No Rubric GPT-3.5, No Rubric GPT-4, and No Info GPT-4 sets. We considered that a model of writing, revised for improvement, was a broad instructional strategy. This is one of many excellent strategies for teaching writing, however, the revisions were often characterized by sophisticated vocabulary and complex elaborations. For example, a student wrote, “To illustrate, when students are hungry it’s hard for them to listen.” And ChatGPT elevated the sentence with, “To illustrate, when students are hungry, it's hard for them to listen because their minds may be preoccupied with thoughts of food.” Whereas the latter sentence is a well-crafted model for the student, this revision arguably loses the student’s voice and tone.

No Instructional Suggestions

No explicit instructional suggestions were included in the responses for Specific Analytic Rubric GPT-3.5, No Info GPT-3.5, and Specific Analytic Rubric GPT-4 sets. The reader was only reminded to provide feedback in a constructive and supportive manner and encourage students to ask questions and seek clarifications on any offered suggestions. While this is logical for both Specific Analytic rubric sets (not asking for instructional suggestions in the prompt), it is surprising for the No Info GPT-3.5 set (which asked for feedback and instructional suggestions).

RQ3: Comparisons Between Teachers and ChatGPT

In response to RQ3, we compared a real teachers’ data-based decision-making (DDDM), including the score and the instructional decision, to the scores generated in the Specific Analytic Rubric GPT-3.5 and Specific Analytic Rubric GPT-4 sets for students’ essays ( N  = 34). The first rubric category scored with a 2 or below was considered the area of need for writing instruction.

GPT-3.5 matched the teacher’s recommendation for the area of writing need 17.6% of the time. For example, the teacher identified Word Selection as the area of need (e.g., high use of repeated words and lacking sensory words) and GPT-3.5 noted the same area of need (e.g., there is some repetition and awkward phrasing). When comparing teacher versus ChatGPTs instructional decisions, there was no perfect match; however, 26.5% were coded as a partial match. For example, both the teacher and GPT-3.5 suggested an instructional activity of modeling how to write a summary sentence.

GPT-4 matched the teacher’s recommendation for the area of writing need 23.5% of the time. Similarly, when comparing the teacher versus ChatGPT’s instructional decisions, 47.1% were coded as a partial match for instruction.

Discussion and Practical Implications

Since the end of 2022 when it debuted, school leaders and teachers of writing have been grappling with what ChatGPT means for writing instruction. Its ability to generate essays from a simple request or to correct writing samples is making an impact on the classroom experience for students with and without disabilities and it is reshaping how teachers assess student writing (Marino et al., 2023 ; Trust et al., 2023 ; Wilson, 2023 ). However, teachers may have limited knowledge of how AI works and poor self-efficacy for using AI in the classroom to support their pedagogical decision making (Chiu et al., 2023 ). It is imperative to ensure that teachers receive professional development to facilitate the effective and efficient use of AI. There are more questions than answers currently, especially for its application by students struggling with academics.

The purpose of this investigation was to explore the application of ChatGPT chatbot for teachers of writing. Specifically, we used different versions of ChatGPT (GPT-3.5 – free and GPT-4 – subscription) and purposefully different types of prompts, providing limited or more information about the student characteristics and the topic of their writing. Essentially, we asked ChatGPT to evaluate an authentic student’s writing, identify the area(s) of need, and provide instructional suggestion(s) for addressing the problematic area(s) in that individual writing sample. We then compared AI-generated feedback to that completed by humans.

The findings indicate the possibilities and limitations of ChatGPT for evaluating student writing, interpreting a teacher-developed rubric, and providing instructional strategies.

Our finding is that, generally, ChatGPT can follow purposeful prompts, interpret and score using a criterion-based rubric when provided, create its own criteria for evaluating student writing, effectively revise student essay writing, celebrate what students do well in their writing, paraphrase student essay ideas, draft outlines of a student’s completed essay, and provide formative feedback in broad and specific areas along different stages of the writing process. Moreover, the response is immediate. These findings are consistent with previous investigations of ChatGPT and the assessment of student writing (Steiss et al., 2023 ). However, teachers need to consider the following points before relying on ChatGPT to provide feedback to their struggling writers.

In the ChatGPT sets which included no contextual information, the responses included more feedback.

All sets generated excessive amounts of feedback about student writing with no delineation of the next clear instructional move a teacher should attend to. So, ChatGPT may work as a great starting point, but teachers will need to go through the response to prioritize and design their instruction. Sifting through information for relevance can be time consuming and may even warrant a teacher verifying the content further.

Additionally, if students relied directly on ChatGPT, without any vetting from a teacher about the content, they too may be overwhelmed by the amount of feedback given to modify their writing or they may even be provided with erroneous feedback.

All GPT-3.5 sets identified broad areas of writing that needed improvement and frequently used common phrases such as grammar, organization/development of ideas, and attention to detail. In addition, this feedback was more often misaligned with students’ writing. This observation is worrisome since GPT-3.5 version of ChatGPT is free and highly accessible, making it likely the preferred AI tool for classroom educators.

Most GPT-4 sets (except one) generated more specific and individualized feedback about student writing. The specific feedback included in the generated outputs were much lengthier and would take much more time for a teacher to review than GPT-3.5 responses.

All sets identified multiple areas of need and when included in the responses, there were multiple instructional suggestions. Even the No Rubric sets, which explicitly prompted ChatGPT to focus on just one area of instructional need and one suggestion, included much more in the responses. This finding reiterates that we are still learning about AI literacy and the language we need to use to communicate effectively.

Both GPT-3.5 and GPT-4 allowed the upload of a researcher-developed analytic rubric and moreover, interpreted the performance criteria, rating scale, and indicators. ChatGPT also used the rubric’s specific language when providing its evaluation of the student writing.

No tailored feedback or specific suggestions were contextualized when prompts included varying ages, grade levels, or various student abilities and needs. Further research is needed to determine the types of AI literacy prompts or the contextual information that ChatGPT needs to address the particular needs of an individual child. Specially designed instruction, the heart of special education, should be tailored to a particular student (Sayeski et al., 2023 ).

Low agreement reported between the rubric scores and instructional suggestions made by teachers and those generated by ChatGPT does not necessarily mean that ChatGPT’s feedback is incorrect. One explanation for the difference may be that teachers provide targeted and individualized instruction using multiple forms of data and critical information to make instructional decisions. This includes their own professional judgement and knowledge about how each students’ backgrounds, culture, and language may influence student performance (McLeskey et al., 2017 ).

Limitations

This study is an initial exploration. There are several limitations that need to be taken into consideration. First and foremost, the four prompts were designed to present the chatbots with varying levels of details and student information to consider when providing feedback about a student’s writing sample. For example, Specific Analytic Rubric prompt asked the chatbot to assess students’ writing using an uploaded rubric, while No Rubric prompt asked to identify one area of need for the student’s writing and offer one instructional suggestion to address it. In addition to providing the chatbots with varying information, we also used varying language throughout the prompts when seeking feedback and suggestions (e.g., “Identify areas of need for this student’s writing”; “Identify one area of need … and offer one instructional suggestion”; “what feedback and instructional suggestions…”). Chatbots are clearly sensitive to the word choices made; thus, a consistency of the language in prompts should be considered for any future investigations that aim at prompt comparison. The purpose of this work was not to compare the four prompts in effort to find the best possible one. We also were not looking specifically for the feedback that could be shared with students as is (even though some versions generated such feedback without additional prompting). Instead, we were trying to explore how the output might differ depending on the prompts with differing level of detail. So, some of the reported difference are logical. We also did not prompt the ChatGPT any further, which would most likely result in refined feedback and/or suggestions. There is an infinite number of prompts that we could have used in this analysis. In fact, a new field of prompt engineering is emerging right in front of our eyes as we learn to design inputs for generative AI tools that would produce optimal outputs. Further investigations of various prompts to feed ChatGPT are needed. Our hope is that this paper will inspire teacher to spend some time exploring different tools and prompts in effort to find the most appropriate output depending on their context and their students’ needs.

Also, there was a limited numbers of essays from each specific group of learners (e.g., certain age/grade, specific disability categories and other characteristics). While we reported meaningful findings for this initial exploratory analysis, future research should include writing products from more homogeneous groups. Finally, teachers’ DDDM was accomplished by evaluating a completed graphic organizer, while ChatGPT feedback was provided based on the final student essay copied and pasted from the TBGO. Future research should consider new features of generative AI tools (e.g., Chat GPT’s new image analysis feature) where an image of a completed graphic organizer can be uploaded and analyzed.

This study offers examples for how to potentially incorporate AI effectively and efficiently into writing instruction. High quality special education teachers are reflective about their practice, use a variety of assistive and instructional technologies to promote student learning, and regularly monitor student progress with individualized assessment strategies. It seems very likely that teachers will adopt the capabilities of generative AI tools. With ongoing development and enhancements, AI technology is certain to become an integral component of classroom instruction. However, given the limitations of ChatGPT identified in this study, teacher-led instruction and decision making is still needed to personalize and individualize specialized instruction. Engaging with the technology more and building familiarity of what it can do to improve student learning and teacher practice is warranted.

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Evmenova, A.S., Regan, K., Mergen, R. et al. Improving Writing Feedback for Struggling Writers: Generative AI to the Rescue?. TechTrends (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-024-00965-y

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