Teaching Children Paragraph Writing is Hard! February 23, 2010
What is a paragraph and how do you teach children to write a paragraph?
“A paragraph is a group of sentences about one main idea or topic. A paragraph usually contains between 5-8 sentences about that one main idea or topic. All of your sentences in the paragraph must be about that one main idea or topic. These supporting detail sentences are supporting the author’s main idea. The main idea is what is most important in that paragraph. It is what the author truly wants you to understand.”
Explain, demonstrate, and practice… It would take me a long time to get the kinds of results I wanted for my students, and the longer the writing assignment, the more the rules would fly out the window…
“Listen kids, when you want to write about a new main idea, you must start a new paragraph. Does this make sense?” They would all gleefully cheer, “Yes!”
They would try to show me how well they understood by writing an entire page and a half about ONE MAIN IDEA. That’s how well they understood…
“Okay kids, let me explain a paragraph one more time. You see… a paragraph can give information about one main idea, it can explain one topic or you can give your opinion about the main idea or topic. Be sure to put the sentences in an order that will make sense to your reader. You want it to be a logical and natural sounding order. Does this make sense?”
I would be quite enthusiastic when the class would greet me with a resounding, “Yes, Mr. Barger! We get it! Can we start writing now?! Can we show you how well we understand?”
Now the students were able to produce TWO PAGES that contained TWO PARAGRAPHS!
“Listen kids… I want you to choose a topic sentence and I want you to think about that topic sentence… and choose JUST three details that support that main idea. These are supporting details and they support the main idea or topic sentence. Your topic sentence is a kind of general statement about the topic and the supporting details are more specific. Does this make sense?”
I think you know the answer… Luckily I am very patient.
“Listen kids… a topic sentence can be anywhere in the paragraph, but most often the topic sentence is the FIRST SENTENCE in a paragraph. It’s true that sometimes the topic sentence is in the middle of a paragraph and sometimes it is at the end of a paragraph, but USUALLY it is the first sentence in a paragraph. Let’s keep it simple.”
The children would be very excited that I wanted to keep things simple.
“Children, I want you to put your topic sentence first and I want you to follow that topic sentence with 3- 5 supporting details and then I want you to write a conclusion sentence. For now, your conclusion sentence can either sum up what the entire paragraph was about, or it can repeat the topic sentence in a new and creative way. How does this sound? Does all this make sense? Oh… and we have state testing coming up, and I want you all to really concentrate on great paragraphs, because they are really important on this state testing that we are going to be doing. Okay…?…? Okay??”
Students would assure me they understood. In fact, they could repeat back every single word I had said! It was almost impressive…
However, students would continue to struggle with paragraphs. Basically, a run on sentence is the easiest way to see that children don’t understand what a paragraph is. If a sentence goes on and on, they don’t understand what a paragraph is…
Often the source of the difficulty is something like, “What’s a topic?”