You ask, “What is a paragraph and how do you teach children to write a paragraph?” Here’s how!

Patiently, very patiently, I explained to the eager young ears, “A paragraph is a group of sentences about one main idea or one topic. A paragraph usually contains between five and eight sentences about that one main idea or topic. All of the sentences in a 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 the reader to understand.”

Explain, demonstrate, and practice—explain, demonstrate, and practice—it would take a good long time to get the kinds of results I wanted for my students. Unfortunately, the longer the writing assignment, the more the rules would fly out the window. Paragraphs seemed to go on forever.

Lucky for me, I had the perfect fix for this. “Listen kids, when you want to write about a new main idea, you must start a new paragraph. Does this make sense?”

The children would all gleefully cheer, “Yes!” With joy and ambition, the students would go the extra mile—and I mean the extra mile—to show me how well they understood. In fact, they would often write 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… in a paragraph you can give information about one main idea, or you can explain one topic, or you can give your opinion about one 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 feel quite enthusiastic and hopeful 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! Unfortunately, those two pages and those two paragraphs would contain many main ideas, and there wouldn’t really be a logical order. In fact, it would often be a rambling, out-of-control, jumble. And I thought I had said something about five to eight sentences…

“Listen kids—I want you to choose a topic sentence and I want you to think about that topic sentence. I want you to then choose JUST three details that support your 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 placed 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 found 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 and appreciative 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 that 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 our upcoming state testing. 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 really long run-on sentence is the easiest way to see that a student doesn’t understand what a paragraph is. If a sentence goes on and on, the student who wrote it doesn’t understand what a paragraph is.

Often the source of the difficulty is something like this: “What’s a topic?”

If you wish to save yourself some frustration, check out the Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay program on the homepage. It takes children from simple sentences to complete essays FAST and with REAL understanding! It makes sense to children—and to teachers too!

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