As one of the few English teachers in my homeschooling cooperative, I get asked this question about twice each week, and my answer always sounds inadequate because the homeschooling curriculum world boasts dozens of writing programs, most of which are probably quite good—and quite similar. It's hard to say that one is better than another because format preference largely depends on the student's own learning style.

The goal of any writing program should be that the student can organize his or her thoughts efficiently and translate those thoughts into sentences. In order to do this, the student needs a structure on which to attach these sentences, and the most common structure is the 5-paragraph essay.

By the time students finish high school, they should (if I were a "must" kind of person, I would say "must" here) be able to write a fluent 5-paragraph essay. I am not, by any means, saying that this is all they should be able to write, but the 5-paragraph essay is the foundation of all composition. If they can master this type of essay, they can master a research paper and ultimately their dissertation.

The five paragraph essay follows a specific format. The introduction (first paragraph) introduces the thesis (topic sentence) of the essay and its three main supporting subtopics. The body (second through fourth) paragraphs individually restate the subtopics, one in each paragraph, and provide supporting details. The concluding paragraph restates the thesis and reminds the reader of the three main supporting ideas that were developed.

You don't have to buy a book to teach the 5-paragraph essay. The internet has abundant resources. You can take any one of these websites and take a semester to focus on writing good, solid essays of various types: expository, narrative, persuasive (teens love this kind especially). Start with writing the introduction and work on that introduction until your student can quickly churn out the three subtopics. Then begin working on the body paragraphs, making sure that they see the clear connection between the three subtopics listed in the introduction and the three body paragraphs. Following are some excellent resources that teach the whole process:

If you spend a whole year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay and its various types (descriptive, narrative, expository, persuasive, etc.), you'll have accomplished much of what is covered in a basic freshman composition class. Imagine how far ahead your students will be if they are familiar with this format in middle school and fluent by high school!

Sarah Small is beginning her eleventh year of homeschooling. Besides learning with her three children, she enjoys hiking, reading, blogging, and teaching literature and writing courses at her local homeschooling co-op. Email her at or visit her at

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