How to write (and teach) the five-paragraph essay

For a student to participate in the western world of academics, it is essential they know the basics of the 5-paragraph essay. Organizing thoughts into an outline and then putting them into this formula is a specific skill that must be taught and practiced for students to master.

It is even more important to have a strong command of this form for students who want to apply for study abroad programs or work in Europe or the United States. I wrote this lesson plan while helping students prepare for the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) exam so they could have a better shot at becoming one of the amazing 60 or so students from Kyrgyzstan who spend an academic year at a US high school.

The following is a lesson plan for introducing and practicing the basics of the 5-paragraph essay. As always, it should be modified to meet the specific needs of your students.

Lesson Plan – The 5-paragraph Essay

Objectives: Students will be able to write a 200-250 word essay using 5-paragraph form to include 1) An attention grabbing introduction 2) A thesis listing 3 reasons 3) 3 paragraphs with 3 reasons being the topic sentences 4) A conclusion that restates the introduction using different words.

  1. Give students a straight-forward topic, like, “My favorite singer” or “Why I want to go to America.”
  2. Brainstorm and list many reasons why they like this particular singer, or why they want to go to America. Emphasize specific reasons.
  3. Have students complete the following chart to help them with the form and reasons. “My favorite singer is __Avril Lavigne__ because 1) __she is edgy__ 2) __she doesn’t take crap from anyone__ 3) __when I play her music all the cute girls gather around__”
  4. Explain the word “detail” (story, statistic, example, anecdote, supporting information) and brainstorm together a couple details for one of the reasons.
  5. Write the outline above on the board and have students copy into their notebooks.
  6. Provide a sample essay. Students must: a) Identify and underline the thesis; b) Number the reasons within the thesis; c) Number and underline the reasons in the topic sentences; and d)Number the reasons in the conclusion. Go over these one at a time and elicit answers from students. If students need help, have them work in pairs or small groups before providing answers.
  7. Students complete an outline for the sample essay.
  8. Students check their partners’ outline and match it against the elements in the example.
  9. Students write a practice essay. (For homework.)

Lesson notes: Learning to write essays using the 5-paragraph technique takes lots of practice. Students should have many opportunities to sit down with the teacher one-on-one to discuss outlines and critique writing tasks. I have found this lesson to be more successful if you first spend lots of time only writing outlines. Slowly build on thesis, reasons, details, introduction, conclusion and transitions. It helps to assign a topic every lesson (or day) and then the next day working in pairs, students can critique each others’ essays underlining and labeling the elements of the 5-paragraph essay. Lastly, please, for the love of learning, and all that is good and bright in the world, add your own personality and above all, humor to your teaching. Just like how our essays should be interesting in order to be memorable, the more enjoyable your lesson, the more the students will get out of it.

Topic ideas to assign as homework:

  • Describe a time you were a leader and give examples.
  • If I were a banana, I would…
  • If I don’t like my host mother’s food, I will…
  • You are home alone and you accidentally break the coffee table. What do you do?
  • The three most important people are…

For the FLEX test particularly, it’s necessary to stress to students the importance of being original, unique, and outgoing while showing a flavor of critical-thinking in their writing. FLEX recruiters are going to read a billion of these essays and students need to stand out to have a shot at a year in America.

5-paragraph essay outline

Topic: XYZ


  • Be interesting!
  • Be unique! The reader should remember this.
  • 2-3 sentences


  • Write the topic and give your opinion using 3 reasons.
  • “I think XYZ is good because 1)… 2)… 3)… ”


  • 3 paragraphs (3-5 sentences each)
  • Reason 1
    • Detail (example, story, anecdote, statistic)
    • Detail
  • Reason 2
    • Detail
    • Detail
  • Reason 3
    • Detail
    • Detail


  • Write the introduction and thesis again using different words
  • “In conclusion, you can see that XYZ is very good because…”

Sample 5-paragraph essay

Topic: What will you do when you get back from the United States?

Studying in America will be an amazing experience, but I will also be very excited to come home. Of course I will miss my family. But I also am excited to meet my friends and tell them all about America! When I come back from the United states I will help lead an American Culture club, show videos of high school life and help Access students.

Leading an American Culture club will teach students about new things. I want to share new music and lead a hip-hop dance club. I went to many dances at my school in America and it was so fun! My dance group in America wants to keep in touch with us and we will record videos and send them to each other.

I took many videos of my high school in America. I want to show my school their cafeteria, their classrooms and the gymnasium. I know we can make some changes to our school to make it even better.

Access students learn American culture, but they don’t have a chance to visit, so I will help teach Access students English through American culture lessons. We will listen to songs and write letters to students in America. It is a good chance to learn English from native speakers!

After I come back from America I will be so happy to see my family and friends again! But I know I will miss my place in the United States too. I will be able to keep in touch with my friends in America and teach my friends new things by leading clubs, showing videos and helping with Access.

What ideas do you have for teaching the 5-paragraph essay? Write your suggestions below in the comments!

Dear students: It doesn’t matter

If I had a time machine I know the exact moment I would go back to—a breezy fall day in 1997 in the stairway of Ramsey Junior High School in Saint Paul, MN. There I would find the world’s worst perpetrator with a bowl-cut and a backpack. A young teenaged kid wearing—horrors!—a Nike sweatshirt with Adidas wind-pants.

I had unknowingly committed a mortal sin, just above blasphemy of the holy spirit I believe, by wearing two different name brands on the same day. I wished the devil would just take me right then and there to the fiery hell I deserved. It seemed better than the tortuous words coming from my fellow 8th grade classmates.

In that moment my 2014 self would walk over, lay a hand on my sagging shoulder and whisper: it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t.

You might wonder why, with the entire age of the world at my fingertips to explore I would choose to enter this seemingly insubstantial moment in time. Here I was just a kid with a wardrobe choice. But it was more than that. They were the clothes that made me happy. Made me comfortable. Made me feel like…“me.”

In that moment of ridicule the value of my own personhood was being called into question and it made me immediately reel with self-doubt, shame and apprehension.

Every young person has these moments. It might not be the clothes on your back but instead your choice of college. Or what you want to study. Or even the moves you show on the dance floor.

How you choose to live—whether in the shadow of others’ approval or in the freeing light of your passions—affects everything else in your life.

Oh young people of the world! I’ve seen you stand at the crossroads of these choices, seen you labor over them, bleed over them, weep over them. Seen you allow others to stand in command over your decisions and actions and movements, seen you held in that tortuous position where you never know when the hammer is going to drop.

And drop it will. Others can be so cruel in response to your dreams, especially in those first steps. That time in your youth when you venture timidly out from the camp of conformity into uncharted forests with rescue ropes of gossamer still tied to the approval of others. When that frailty is oh so gently tested you suddenly find yourself cut loose, and tumbling, flailing out of the circle of approval, you trip out into the wild away from the warmly lit ring of acceptance.

In that moment, don’t turn back to the safe circle of dying embers. Dare instead to forge a new path.


You’ve been conditioned through those agonizing years of adolescence to believe that each little shoe strap, every wisp of hair, each angle of your “duck” lips is going to be picked apart, stared at, and scrutinized. You’ve learned to take the safe route, to check your dreams, to process your decisions in the mill of conformity and approval.

And how could you not? It’s everywhere from red carpet walks to pop up cosmetic shops to scrolls of comments in Facebook newsfeeds. You’re told to choose your fashion with the eye of a trend-setter, to always check the reactions to your choices, to hover in a constant state of FOMO—the fear of missing out.

You stall in these moments because time only moves one direction and somehow the world has convinced you that the peak of all creation is now.

The trials and doubts and questions you find yourself in today are not the culmination of every past moment of your life. This moment is always a new beginning. An umpteenth chance. A fresh page to start writing a new story. This moment is always the start of everything else, and what follows is up to you.

Dear friends—there is so much beyond junior high. There is so much beyond high school. There is so much to life after university!

So many go through it thinking there must be a best plan, a single track to follow and if it gets derailed every future moment will be lived out in a second rate life, or worse.

Here’s the secret: There’s no plan A. There’s no best option. Life is not built upon first place finishes but on second chances. Life need not follow someone else’s perfect vision. It’s your eyes in your head, your head on your shoulders and your call as to which way they travel.

For it’s not the approval that matters and not the path, but your love for what you do and the passion by which you do it.


What passions will you let break free? What makes you come alive?

Makal Monday: A horse that says ‘I won’t walk’

“Makal” in the Kyrgyz language means “proverb.” Kyrgyz is full of wonderful and puzzling little proverbs – some that match common proverbs often heard in English and some that are real head scratchers. Most Mondays I’ll post one of the more fun ones for you. Let’s see if we can’t make some of these commonplace in America by the time I get back!

At baspaim degen jerin ming basat

Ат басрайм деген жерин миң басат

“A horse that says, ‘I won’t walk,’ will walk that route a thousand times”

Two months after graduating college I found myself alone in a small, tatami mat room sleeping on the floor. I had travelled 6,000 kilometers to teach English in Japan, and wondered as I drenched my sleeping pad with the sweat of a Shizuoka summer what teaching would be like.

I had been a camp counselor on occasion and loved it. I had worked with youth in a number of capacities and had even taken a TEFL class to gain a few skills for potentially teaching abroad. But I had no formal classroom experience and wasn’t sure how teaching English to classrooms full of kids who didn’t really need it would go. It turned out to be similar to teaching math to kids in America; most were there only because it was a required course, weren’t going to be using the subject at any point in their life, and frankly didn’t like it.

There were a few students who made some of the days worth it and of course life outside of school certainly made up for the time with its share of excitement and so I stayed two years. After returning home I knew I wanted to live abroad again. I just wasn’t going to be doing any more of that teaching English business.

Here I am, four years of teaching English under my belt and another on its way. This horse is being spurred on over ground it said it would never travel.

Never say never.


Continuing in the vein of full disclosure, I was disappointed when I received my Peace Corps assignment as a TEFL trainer. Why couldn’t I have gotten something more exciting, like digging wells or something? Ah—because other than teaching, I have no skills.

(If you’re a future potential job employer reading these words, please go back and forget that last sentence. Also, please stop reading.)

I really don’t. I’ve never dug a well, I barely eat any green plant life grown from the ground much less know how to grow it, my only quasi-entrepreneurial experience ended in a sad summer climbing ladders for CollegePro Painters and the sight of blood outside of someone’s body or any medical abnormality for that matter makes me pass out. So teaching English it was.

There really couldn’t be a more tame profession. But add Peace Corps to the mix and the seemingly benign is suddenly pushed smack against the threshold of survival. Every day poses fascinating challenges to overcome: schedule changes, freezing temperatures in classrooms, teachers eating the chalk and kids out harvesting potatoes. Even the Peace Corps Volunteer teachers find themselves in incredibly exciting, albeit harrowing, situations.

And there are kids here who want to learn, even if it’s a smallish handful. Not every single person is going to appreciate having you around, but even so, you’ll reach celebrity status with at least a few of them. And how could you not love the groupies? The ones who, for a single club lesson will chatter at their parents for a week, so excited to have learned a phrase of English from a real live American! (Ok, so maybe it is just the celebrity that keeps me going.)

After saying I’d never do it again, in the end I come back because I love it. I really can’t think of anything easier to do and I suppose that should be a sign that I’m meant to do it. Being in front of a classroom of kids is fun and simple. Or maybe I shouldn’t say simple—I’ve had to learn a lot, read a bunch, practice a ton and train others to figure out what I’m doing. But in the midst of it all, there’s a relaxing ease which makes it enjoyable, interesting and rewarding.

That’s the great thing about teaching English in the Peace Corps. TEFLers do get to see more immediate results and benefits of their work: kids winning spots in international exchange programs, going on to compete in national competitions, getting into good programs at universities and simply progressing on to conversational fluency. And the skills kids gain from having a mentor and teacher who invests his or her life are immeasurable and beyond the scope of quantifying. Being an English Education volunteer is a lucky post.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing in the future. I’m not sure I will go into education once I’m back in the states. Based on experience though, this horse of course, better not say never.

Failure must be an option

I jingled the keys in my pocket. It was 8 minutes past the bell and I was still waiting for the first student to show up. A minute later one of my girls shuffled in. She was the only one in her class who had showed up to school that day, and wondered if she could just go home. I thought about the possibility of an early lunch, and sent her on her way.

Unfortunately this is an all too common experience in village schools. Attendance is abysmal in the fall because many students are helping with harvests, terrible in winter because the school is freezing and many catch colds, and bad in spring due to various tests, holidays, and sending animals off to the summer pasture. But the biggest reason why kids aren’t in class is because nothing is really expected of them.

If students come to class or not, they will get a diploma. No questions asked. It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to realize that under these circumstances most junior and seniors simply aren’t going to show up. Senioritis hits hard anywhere; if I had known 12 years ago that I could have skipped the entire month of May and still gotten my same GPA and diploma, I would have been a much better golfer that summer.

There are schools in Kyrgyzstan where administrative leadership and control is working well. One of my friends described her school days as orderly and quite strict with real consequences for not coming to school or not doing homework. If you were late, you had to run 3 laps around the school yard. If you didn’t do your homework, your parents were contacted. If you didn’t show up, you had to go around to every teacher the next day and explain why you weren’t there, take whatever verbal punishment was coming to you, and then do the homework anyway. Students were responsible for their actions.

 Epic signage fail…Tho you do have to give them credit for trying.

Sometimes letting someone fail is the best thing you can do for them. Always allowing people to pass right through life with the belief that what they do has no bearing on their outcome leads to disastrous results.

Additionally, you need to make sure the relationship between a student’s action and his or her failure is made clear. It can’t be arbitrary and it can’t be outside of their direct control. As an example, one of our seventh grade students was having some participation issues and so we assigned him a low grade for the day. When he complained about it I made the effort to explain to him: “Choose to screw around and you will get a D for this class. But also, you can still turn it around. If you consistently show up, with your homework done and work until the bell rings, you can still get an A for the quarter. It is your own choice. You will choose what grade you receive.”

The next time we had class he worked diligently, without disrupting other students, and even presented his written work in front of his classmates at the end of the activity. I was really proud of him and made the point of praising his efforts and announcing to the class his “A” for the day. (A culturally appropriate move.) The relationship between action and consequence—both positive and negative—must be clearly seen by the student and strictly followed through by the teacher.

Without the possibility of failure, it’s difficult to define success. When we take away the possibility of failure, nobody learns to appreciate what incredible heights of success they can reach. This teaches students to be satisfied with the mediocre and chalk their lack of achievement up to dumb luck or blind fate. If Kyrgyzstan is to see real improvements in development, this is the kind of “option” we truly need to eliminate.