2.5 – The Scissors Kick: The Harvard Method

Harvard had a problem: It had way more applicants than it could take into the school. In 1873, the faculty therefore created a writing test to see which applicants would be allowed in.

The faculty decided that the test would determine which students were natural writers. The professors would not have to work as hard as they would if they were teaching writing to students who had difficulty writing.

The Five-Paragraph Essay

Harvard’s English faculty borrowed a structure[1] from the Ancient Greeks.  It was used for creating speeches – not for writing. It consisted of five parts, not five paragraphs. There was an introduction, three pieces of evidence to support the introduction, and a conclusion that restated the introduction. Not all five parts had to be present.

The Harvard Method, also known as the Five-Paragraph Essay, is very popular.  It is also called “the hamburger method.”  The five parts consist of a top bun, three hamburger slices, and a bottom bun.

The Topic Sentence

A second part of the Harvard Method involves what is called the “topic sentence.”  This involves summarizing what a paragraph will be about.

A topic sentence can appear at the beginning of a paragraph, in the middle, at the end – or not be present.  The Harvard faculty, though, insisted that all paragraphs start with that summary.  They did that so they only had to read five sentences per paper. In other words, if there were only five paragraphs, and each one started with a topic sentence, then they could read the topic sentence and give the paper a grade.

The Harvard Method and Longer Papers

There is a third problem as well.  The structure was excellent for a writing test of about one hour. However, it was useless for long papers. A paragraph is usually three to ten sentences long. Even if all five paragraphs were ten sentences, then the paper would be about 750 words long, assuming 15 words per sentence.  A typical page, double-spaced, is about 300 words. Therefore, the paper would be about two and a half pages long. College papers are usually ten pages.

The “End” of the Harvard Method

In 1875, just eighteen months after it was created, the Harvard faculty tried to tell high school English teachers that the method is only useful for test-taking.

Today, a lot of English teachers say, “It worked for me.” But any writing method would likely have worked – that’s why they became English teachers.

Many teachers today use the five-paragraph essay, not realizing it was never meant to be taught.

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