The idea of a paragraph is built around these three concepts:
1. Unity: Everything in a paragraph is connected, related, and relevant. As such, a paragraph forms a whole. A paragraph has oneness.
2. Coherence: Paragraphs must be clear, understandable, and easily read—i.e., coherent. We create coherence by using logical order, sentence variety, and a proper and artful use of transitions.
3. Emphasis: We create emphasis in a paragraph by placing sentences and ideas where they will have the best effect. Specifically, the most important idea or main idea is placed where it will be most visible—usually in the first position. And if something needs to be re-emphasized, or if everything needs to be summed up, we should place that sentence in the final position.
Before 1866 we had no paragraph rules. It was a true Wild West for paragraph writers. Some writers understood what a paragraph should be—others not so much. My guess is that those who did understand paragraph writing had an intuitive sense that a paragraph should have, or should at least have the feeling of having, a beginning, middle, and ending.
A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
– Aristotle (384 BC- 322BC) – Poetics
According to Aristotle, you can’t have a whole unless you have a beginning, middle, and ending. And when you think about it—beginning, middle, and ending—have a certain amount of unity, coherence, and emphasis built right in.
A hamburger has layers.
What Hamburger Paragraphs are Lacking
Please note that my intent is not to burst the bubble of hamburger users. However, improving student writing is a serious enough issue that people have a right to consider whether investing time in the hamburger paragraph is time well spent. It’s often put forth as a real solution—and I don’t think it is.
Hamburger paragraphs do communicate some of what should exist in paragraphs, but not enough. If hamburger paragraphs worked, there would be no problem teaching writing, and all students would be fantastic writers. Students are taught hamburger paragraphs numerous times throughout their schooling beginning in the first grade or so. Teachers continue to use the hamburger paragraph method even up at the college level. Each teacher believes that he or she is the one to make it work—and make it stick.
I’ll admit that I have seen some interesting and engaging hamburger presentations. I am not saying that hamburger paragraphs are not fun or colorful. Hamburger paragraphs can be fun and colorful. Additionally, the best-of-the-best hamburger presenters often present a surprisingly engaging and convincing presentation. Unfortunately, hamburgers don’t work, and when I say they don’t work, I mean they don’t work in the long run. And working in the long run is what matters. Repeating the hamburger year after year is not working.
Why Hamburgers Don’t Work
I’m sure I have used the hamburger as an analogy before. The hamburger is fine as an analogy, but I hear people talk about it as if it is a methodology. In my opinion, the hamburger is not a strategy that can be built upon. How long can you keep talking about hamburgers before it becomes absurd? After all, we are supposed to be talking about how to connect ideas and how to effectively communicate connected ideas. The hamburger doesn’t do that.
Additionally, the hamburger is not a skill or strategy that students can fall back on. Basically, the hamburger works as long as the teacher is teaching it. As a fall back strategy, when a student reflects back on the hamburger, here is how the internal conversation is likely to go: “Okay, I have a bun, and some crispy details, and some juicy details, and I have a cooked to perfection burger, and I have another bun. Okay…”
Put simply, students remember what a hamburger is, but they soon forget how it connects to writing. Students waste valuable time thinking about what a juicy detail is and wondering if lettuce is juicy or crispy and which of their ideas is the meat—isn’t the meat what the hamburger is supposed to be all about? To be fair, students will likely remember that the top bun is a topic sentence and the bottom bun is a concluding sentence. But is that enough to make the hamburger worthwhile? Actually, the buns don’t teach what a topic sentence is or what a concluding sentence is. They just teach where they go.
Another consideration is this: Isn’t the meat the real main idea of a hamburger? Do we put the main idea on the bottom where the meat is? But isn’t the main idea supposed to be expressed on top? What’s the difference between a main idea and a topic sentence? Should I put the burger on top of the bun?
In short, hamburger paragraphs don’t teach how ideas connect together.
Hamburger Paragraphs Don’t Teach the Connection between Ideas
Keep in mind, that in one sense, everything is connected. The concept of Six Degrees of Separation illustrates how all people are connected to every other person on Earth—eventually—and in some way. But this kind of thinking is not going to help students develop a unified and coherent whole paragraph or whole composition.
When teaching writing, and when teaching paragraph writing to children, you must teach how ideas are logically connected.
A hamburger is not connected to writing, and nothing inside a hamburger is itself connected. A bun is not connected to meat. Lettuce and buns have no connection. An onion is nothing like mustard. Put simply, there is no connection between the parts. In other words, you are teaching kids that you take all kinds of things that are not connected, and then you layer them on top of one another. The parts in a hamburger do go well together, but they are not connected when separated. There is a difference.
To a child, any detail can be lettuce; any detail can be a tomato. The bun does enclose all the inner contents, but so does a box. In fact, I propose that the box the burger came in does a better job of teaching paragraph structure than the bun does.
The main problem for students who don’t write fantastic paragraphs and well-structured multi-paragraph whole compositions is that they do not understand how ideas are connected. Ask your students. This is what they do not understand. Let’s take a look at a hamburger and see how students REALLY connect the ideas:
• Bun – On Saturday I went to the park with my family.
• Onions – Playing on the swings is fun.
• Tomatoes – Going to the movies is also fun.
• Lettuce – One of my friends is going to have a movie party for his birthday.
• Burger – For my next birthday I want to have a pizza party.
• Bun – On my last birthday, we went to the park. It was fun.
Can you see the reasoning of how children connect ideas? Can you see how ideas connected without logic is one of the greatest problems in student writing?
In Defense of the Hamburger Paragraph
I cannot guarantee that I will never mention the hamburger or sandwich when talking about paragraphs or essays. I doubt I ever will, but if I ever end up in a first grade or second grade class, I might. The hamburger can serve as a nice, quick, visual introduction to paragraphs. Additionally, there are some fun, colorful activities for young kids.
With writing taking a prominent role in Common Core State Standards, it’s worth examining what works and what doesn’t work in teaching writing. For me, the limitations of the hamburger were always apparent. I didn’t see how it could be built upon, and I wasn’t willing to talk in hamburger terms for an entire school year. In my opinion, continual talk in hamburger terms diminishes what writing is all about—communicating ideas.
I developed Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay in a third grade classroom. I took over an unfilled classroom position during my off track time, so I only had about six weeks with these third grade students. The initial goal was paragraphs, but we ended up with whole compositions. Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay is all about how ideas connect together and how to connect prewriting to writing. It’s all connected! Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay is perfect for grades 2-6 and for remediation in middle school and above.