Years ago, long before Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay, I made a long list of concepts and exercises I had used to try to teach paragraph writing to children. Creating the list was an attempt to figure out what was going on with paragraphs and how to get better results. That entire list is included here, but I’ve built upon that list by adding another decade’s worth of knowledge.

To be clear, I had never been thrilled with the results. I’ve come to see that I believed in what I now call “The One Good Paragraph Fallacy.” I thought if students could write one very good paragraph, it would serve as a building block that would make whole compositions easy to write. I’ve discovered that paragraphs and whole compositions are both a bit more complicated than that, and it is the interaction between those two levels of discourse that students must master.

A Paragraph is a Whole vs. A Paragraph is a Part of a Whole Composition

There are two ways of viewing and teaching paragraphs: 1) as a whole, and 2) as a part of a whole composition. Both ways of looking at paragraphs are correct, but only when a writer thinks about both viewpoints together at the same time. A natural and effective writer sees a paragraph as a whole logical unit and as a part of a whole composition – both at the same time.

Effective writing instruction seesaws between these two viewpoints of paragraph writing. Ineffective paragraph writing instruction focuses on One Good Paragraph at a time. Unfortunately, the weakness of the One Good Paragraph Fallacy becomes most visible at the worst possible time: on state and district writing assessments. Nearly all high scoring papers on state writing assessments give the feeling of having two levels of beginning, middle, and ending:

1. Beginning, middle, and ending in the whole composition.
2. Beginning, middle, and ending in the paragraphs.

This is true even in 4th grade.

As you will see, every paragraph strategy and every paragraph technique listed on this page treats the paragraph as A WHOLE, and none of them treats a paragraph as a PART OF A WHOLE COMPOSTION. That’s a big problem and a major roadblock in improving student writing. If you teach elementary school writing or have struggling middle school writers, be sure to check out Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay. It’s the fastest, most effective way to move beyond just one good paragraph!

The Three Laws of the Paragraph: Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis

These three important laws are not just for paragraphs. These laws also apply to sentences and whole compositions. Sentences, paragraphs, and whole compositions all must possess Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis. It’s important to understand that most strategies designed to teach children paragraph writing focus on one, two, or all three of these concepts. That being said, a great deal of paragraph writing instruction does not mention these three important concepts.

1. Unity (Oneness): All ideas in a paragraph must fit together forming a single whole. This means that we have one clear topic, narrowed and reduced, so that the main idea or main point may be adequately covered within the paragraph. The topic sentence is a statement of that which will be covered in the paragraph; therefore, it is a statement of the paragraph unity.

2. Coherence (Understandability): Ideas in a paragraph must be connected through logic and order, which creates logical connection and logical order.  Although logical connection and logical order are at the heart of coherence, additional strategies are required in order to make that logical order and connection clear. We have five main tools for showing coherence: transitions, pronoun reference, repetition of key words, synonyms, and parallel structure.

3. Emphasis (Highlighting Importance): We usually place the topic sentence at the beginning of our paragraph so that our main point is immediately clear to our readers. We often place a concluding sentence at the end of our paragraph so that our readers are very sure of what our important main point was. Furthermore, we often use various phrases (often transitions) to highlight the most important information and details: e.g., most important, especially true, in particular etc.

The Great Divide: Narrative and Descriptive Paragraphs vs. Expository and Argument Paragraphs

Many rules students learn about paragraphs apply more to expository and argument paragraphs than to narrative and descriptive paragraphs. Be sure to prove this to yourself: compare the paragraphs in an expository textbook to those found in a chapter book or young adult novel.

Narrative, Descriptive, Expository, Argument Paragraphs
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This is not to say that writers cannot write all four types of paragraphs in more or less the same way. In fact, for beginning writers, the instruction is likely to focus on the same principles and therefore the paragraphs will look much alike. That’s probably a good thing.

That being said, students read – and they want their own writing to mirror the writing they enjoy reading most: highly entertaining stories! Teachers may want to break the news to students that entertaining stories are a very different type of writing from academic writing. Let’s take a quick look at these two very different types of writing.

Stories: Clearly, stories contain many narrative and descriptive paragraphs. In an entertaining story, authors write paragraphs in a way that serves the story: e.g., creates suspense etc. The paragraphs follow a certain kind of story logic, and the author is a creative artist. The heart of this kind of writing is expressed in the maxim “SHOW, DON’T TELL.” In stories, many (if not most) of the narrative and descriptive paragraphs don’t have topic sentences. Reason being, by definition topic sentences TELL what’s to come. Good storytellers DON’T TELL; they SHOW. Good stories reveal what’s happening moment by moment; they don’t telegraph what coming by using lots of topic sentences.

Academic Writing: Clearly, academic writing uses many expository and argument paragraphs. These paragraphs are likely to be fully-developed paragraphs that make important main ideas clear and prove important claims using evidence. If paragraphs are not fully developed, readers may believe that the writer had not been willing to do the research necessary to fully understand and develop the important ideas.

Please note, in student writing, fully-developed paragraphs with topic sentences are always welcome. The reverse is not true. Still, teachers need to be aware of different styles of paragraphing because students read fantastic books that contain many paragraphs that contradict what they learn in school.

Have you taken a look at Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay?

Paragraph Length

You can learn much that is true about paragraphs (and sentences) by analyzing, studying, and comparing the internals of even a small number of different pieces of writing. By internals, I mean these three averages: 1) average words per sentence, 2) average sentences per paragraph, and 3) average words per paragraph.

* Average Sentences per Paragraph: Writers can combine sentences and break them apart at will, so average sentences per paragraph by itself is not a true measure of paragraph length. That being said, it’s the easiest average to work with, and in the end, it provides a surprisingly accurate portrait of what’s going on in a piece of writing. The Average Sentences per Paragraph is a reflection of voice and style.

Here are three styles of paragraph writing:

1.  Short Style = Averages 2.5 – 3.3 sentences per paragraph.

2.  Fully Developed Paragraph Style = Averages 4 – 7 sentences per paragraph.

3.  Long Paragraph Style = Averages 8 or more sentences per paragraph.

I recently counted and analyzed the average paragraph length on all the student-writing samples from this state writing assessment. (I’m going to do a complete post on paragraph length soon and I’ll link to it when I do.) For now, I will say this:

1.  Short Paragraph Style: A surprisingly large amount of effective professional and student writing is accomplished with a short 2.5 –3.3 average sentences per paragraph.

2.  Fully Developed Paragraph Style: This is what we try to teach students. This style of writing is required for high-level academic writing. However, a surprisingly high percentage of students don’t seem comfortable with the type of analytical and logical thinking required to write high-quality fully developed paragraphs. It’s not the writing that creates fully developed paragraphs – it’s the THINKING.

3.  Long Style: Long style is too long for students. We shouldn’t be teaching students to write paragraphs that are over 8 sentences. It hampers the development of a natural paragraphing style in whole compositions.

The Different Types and Kinds of Paragraphs

In The History of the Paragraph (1894), Edwin Herbert Lewis said, “…there may be as many types of paragraphs as there are ways of developing an idea.” I couldn’t agree more. What we teach children about the types of paragraphs is really an attempt to teach children about the natural patterns of logical thought and organization.

We don’t really want students to write a cause and effect paragraph; we want students to see that absolutely everything in life is a result of cause and effect, and for this reason, it is an extremely important aspect of human thinking. We want students to understand that we use cause and effect in writing as a very important way of explaining things and making things clear to others. To put cause-and-effect paragraphs in perspective, cause and effect itself can be developed and written in many different ways. We could say that there are many different types or kinds of cause and effect paragraphs. But let’s not get carried away!

Most of what we teach students about types and kinds of paragraphs also applies to types and kinds of whole compositions. In one sense, teaching types and kinds of paragraphs is an efficient way to teach types and kinds of whole compositions.

There are a number of ways to view types and kinds of paragraphs. A paragraph, therefore, is never just one type of paragraph. For instance, a paragraph may be expository, cause-effect, and problem-solution all at the same time. Once again, types of paragraphs are really ways of thinking.

This model is by far the most important way of classifying paragraphs:

1.  The Four Modes of Discourse (a.k.a. Four Main Genres or Four Main Purposes): Narrative, descriptive, expository, and argument.

Every paragraph is PRIMARILY one of these four main types of paragraphs. I say primarily because any one of these types of paragraphs may have descriptive details or expository facts or narrative details etc. mixed in with it. That being said, a reader should easily be able to determine what kind of paragraph it is – primarily.

Here are four more ways of classifying paragraphs:

2.  Methods of Development: giving reasons, giving examples, giving specific instances, giving facts and details, providing illustrations, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, repetition, and more.

3.  Patterns of Organization: point-by-point, block form, spatial order, chronological order, climactic order, anticlimactic order, general-to-specific, specific-to-general, order based on importance, and more.

4.  Types of Structural Paragraphs: Introductory paragraphs, conclusion paragraphs, summary paragraphs, transitional paragraphs, isolated paragraphs, amplifying or elaboration paragraphs, and more.

5.  Types of Paragraphs: All Four Modes of Discourse, compare-contrast, cause-effect, process, problem-solution, classification, definition, evaluation, analogy, and more. (Actually, we could place all the paragraph types listed above into this one category. Many people do. We could also place most of these paragraph types into one of the other categories.)

To re-quote Lewis from above, “…there may be as many types of paragraph as there are ways of developing an idea.” We should not forget that important piece of wisdom. We must teach students that these are effective ways of thinking, and not just types and kinds of paragraphs.

Truthfully, if you stop and examine paragraphs, you will eventually find your own reoccurring paragraph patterns. You can create your own paragraph types. When I examine expository and argument paragraphs, here is what I usually find:

•  Expository – Statement and Explanation: A statement followed by an explanation of what the author means.

•  Argument – Statement with Proof and Reasoning: A statement followed by how the author knows it to be true.

We love to think there is a set number of types and kinds of paragraphs. It gives us hope that writing can be simple. Types and kinds of paragraphs are fascinating and a valuable teaching tool. However, these types and kinds of paragraphs should be part of a larger conversation based on how real writers write and how real people communicate. After all, many students know how to argue quite well when they want something or think that something is unfair. They will give reasons and state facts and quote sources (friends) – and appeal to emotion… The list goes on!  Therefore:

How do people make points? How do people prove points? How do people explain things? How do people tell what happened? How do people give information? How to people describe things and processes? How do people instruct others? How do people tell what other people think? How do people compare things? Why do people compare things? Why do people talk about problems and then often talk about solutions? Why do people always talk about the cause of something and the effect it is having?

The answers to these questions are the natural patterns of thought, and they are reflected in the types and kinds of paragraphs.

Types and Kinds of Paragraphs at Work

Once again, a paragraph is never just one type of paragraph. That being said, let’s look at a few different types and kinds of paragraphs. These are not definitions or examples; they’re just little vignettes that give the gist of a few different types of paragraphs.

Important Note: Much of what follows could be used as a topic sentence for a paragraph or as a thesis statement for an entire essay. In short, sometimes cause-and-effect fits into one paragraph, but sometimes it needs two, three, five, or ten paragraphs. That’s the problem with isolated paragraphs. They’re unnatural. Put simply, students must not only learn to write an effective paragraph (noun), but also to paragraph (verb) effectively in real life.

1. How-to Paragraph (Process Paragraph) – First step, second step, third step, final step.

2. Compare and Contrast Paragraph – Eggplant and cantaloupe are both fruit, but they are different in many ways.

3. Descriptive Paragraph – It was a dark and stormy night, yet the moon glowed enchantingly.

4. Explanatory Paragraph – Doctors and nutritionists consider eggplant to be healthy for many reasons.

5. Classification Paragraph – There are two kinds of vegetables. There are terrible tasting vegetables, and there are so-so vegetables.

6. Narrative Paragraph – It was a dark and stormy night, yet Johnny was still hard at work. He had squandered the day away and now had many chores left to do.

7. Persuasive Paragraph – There are many valid reasons why parents should let children choose if they wish to eat their vegetables.

8. Definition Paragraph – Some people think that being lazy is sitting around all day doing nothing. That simply is not true. A person might be thinking deeply, and that is not being lazy.

9. Evaluation Paragraph – Vegetables are not as healthy for you as many people think. In fact, there is much evidence indicating that vegetables are quite unhealthy. Let’s examine that evidence.

10. Problem and Solution Paragraph – As much as 40% of all food in the United States is wasted. One possible solution is to enact legislation that will provide incentives for businesses to donate food to charity, as opposed to throwing it in the trash.

The Structure of a Paragraph

Fully developed paragraphs often have a certain kind of structure. This is especially true for expository and argument paragraphs. The four models below all illustrate this same structure, but in different ways:

1. Topic sentence, details, and concluding sentence.

2. Beginning, middle, and ending.

3. The Hamburger: bun, tomatoes, lettuce, meat, and bun.

4. Tell them; tell them; tell them. Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.

Strategies and Techniques for Teaching Paragraphs

Most worksheet-type paragraph exercises attempt to address one or more components of unity, coherence, and emphasis. Rarely do these worksheets inform the teacher or students which of these concepts is behind the exercise. As such, it’s worthwhile for teachers to understand how to create unity, coherence, and emphasis within paragraphs, and then to help students understand the real purpose behind the exercise.

Note: Teachers can create many of these exercises using the books students are already reading.

1. Exercise (Unity): Which idea or ideas do not belong in this example paragraph? (Note: Teachers can use an authentic textbook paragraph and simply mix in one or two details that clearly do not belong, and possibly one that is debatable.)

2. Exercise (Unity and Emphasis): Which sentence can be used as the topic sentence for this group of sentences? (Note: Students choose from several possible topic sentences. Once again, a textbook paragraph can be used simply by removing the author’s topic sentence. That being said, if you remove a topic sentence from an authentic paragraph, a better activity is to have students write their own topic sentence for the paragraph and compare it to the author’s original.)

3. Exercise (Unity): Which sentence can be added to or belongs to an example paragraph? Exercise (Coherence): Where exactly should it be added? (Note: Once again, students have several possible sentences to choose from, and teachers can use an authentic textbook paragraph.)

4. Paragraph Scramble (Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis): A paragraph is “cut up” into individual sentences; students place them in a coherent and logical order and then write out the paragraph. (Note: Teachers can easily use an authentic textbook paragraph. This exercise can also be used to help illustrate different types of paragraphs.)

5. Graphic Organizer Exercise (Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis): The teacher passes out a graphic organizer and has students fill in the blanks with content. The two main types of graphic organizers are mind maps (webs) and outline formats. After students fill in the graphic organizer, they write out their paragraph on a separate sheet of paper. Once again, the graphic organizer strategy can also be used to help illustrate the different types of paragraphs, along with various organizational structures.

6. Prompt and Word Bank (Unity and/or Coherence):  The teacher presents students with a prompt and a selection of words (i.e., a word bank); students use the words to create a paragraph based on the prompt. (Note: The words in the word bank should provide a certain amount of unity, and the writing prompt should further direct that purpose.)

7. Picture Prompt (possibly used with a Prompt and Word Bank): Students write from a picture prompt. Teachers often limit the scope by using one aspect of the picture, for example “tell what’s happening” or “describe what you see.” Teachers can also use a word bank to further emphasize Unity, Coherence, or Emphasis.

8. The Template or Frame Strategy (Unity, Coherence, or Emphasis): A frame or template is a complete, well-written, orderly, unified paragraph but with various words, phrases, and content strategically removed. This strategy can be used to teach different paragraph types, and is particularly useful for scaffolding higher-level logical thinking (e.g., sequence, cause-effect, compare-contrast, writing from sources etc.), along with strategies designed to create coherence (logical connection, logical order, transitions, pronoun reference, repetition of key words, synonyms, and parallel structure).

9. The Hamburger or Sandwich Paragraph (Unity): In my opinion, Hamburger Paragraphs Don’t Work. Actually, they do work as a lesson or two, but I don’t think paragraph-writing instruction should center on a hamburger. Many students end up learning the paragraph year after year and never learn to write. The hamburger is not a real solution.

10. Instruction (Unity, Coherence, and Emphasis): Explain, model, imitate (guided practice), and write (independent practice). (Note: It always helps to have an effective goal-oriented lesson plan. Clearly, this method helps with all of the strategies listed above.)

A Few Paragraph Analogies and Definitions

Paragraph Definition: A paragraph is a group of sentences with unity of purpose.

Originally, in Ancient Greece, the paragraph mark was simply a punctuation mark that was placed in the margins of a text. In 1866, a mere two-thousand years later, Alexander Bain formulated the first formal set of paragraph rules.  Bain’s definition of a paragraph was this: “The paragraph… is a collection of sentences with unity of purpose.” While some people consider a paragraph to be a mini-essay, and others see it as an extended sentence, I personally like Bain’s definition. Bain’s definition encompasses all the types of nicely written paragraphs a person may read or write. If a group of sentences has been marked as a paragraph, the sentences contained within must have unity of purpose. If the sentences don’t, the paragraph is flawed.

Here are a few more paragraph definitions and paragraph analogies to round things out:

•  A paragraph is a recipe or formula of ideas put together in a specific way.

•  A paragraph is a family or collection of ideas that are all related and connected.

•  A paragraph is a hamburger or sandwich full of ideas.

•  A paragraph is a logically connected unit of ideas about one topic or main idea.

What Questions Do Student Writers Have About Paragraphs?

Struggling student writers don’t ask many questions about paragraphs. They do have questions, but don’t know what to ask. Put simply, they don’t understand what they don’t understand.  To be fair, paragraph writing is more of a skill than it is knowledge. When it comes to paragraphs, many excellent student writers don’t really understand what they do. They just know when to indent.

Here are a few things most students have heard about paragraphs, along with a variety of questions they want to ask. Point being: When teaching paragraph writing, teachers should be thinking about what questions students have that they are not asking. Remember, students read paragraphs in the real world, and they see much that does not match what they learn in school.

1.  Students Hear: A paragraph is 3-5 sentences; or perhaps, a paragraph is 5- 12 sentences.

Students Want to Know: Which is correct? How long is a paragraph supposed to be? Why do I see some paragraphs that are just 1 sentence and other times I see paragraphs that have 20 sentences?

2.  Students Hear: A paragraph is about one main idea; the details support the main idea.

Students Want to Know: What’s a main idea? What’s a detail? What’s support? I’ve been told what those things are, but I don’t really understand what they are. Or perhaps, I do understand the concepts, but I don’t see the concepts at work in much that I read. Why not?

3.  Students Hear: The sentences in the paragraph must have a logical order.

Students Want to Know: What’s logical? What’s logic?

4.  Students Hear: You must begin a new paragraph every time you move on to a new main idea.

Students Want to Know: How do I know when I have moved on to a new main idea? I always seem to be writing about the same main idea I began with.

5.  Students Hear: The topic sentence is usually the first sentence in a paragraph.

Students Want to Know: Why do I see many short paragraphs that don’t seem to have any topic sentence? Why can’t I find the topic sentence in so many of the paragraphs I read? It doesn’t seem to me that the first sentence is usually the topic sentence.

6.  Students Hear: The topic sentence expresses the main idea of the paragraph.

Students Want to Know: What’s the difference between a topic sentence and a main idea? Are they the same thing? Does a paragraph have a main idea if it doesn’t have a topic sentence? How can you determine what the main idea is if the paragraph doesn’t have a topic sentence?

Seesawing Between Isolated Paragraphs and Multi-Paragraph Writing

As I mentioned at the top of this page, we have these two ways of viewing and teaching paragraphs:

1. Isolated Paragraphs: Approaches a paragraph as a whole.

2. Multi-Paragraph Writing: Approaches a paragraph as a part (a division) of a whole composition.

Isolated paragraphs are one of the best ways we have of teaching children the patterns of logical thinking. That being said, isolated paragraphs have little use in the real world. We may write a single paragraph on occasion, but only because there are times when we can communicate our message in a single paragraph. Our purpose is never to write an isolated paragraph.

State and district writing assessments are important. Nearly all high-scoring writers see the composition as a whole, and they skillfully divide that whole into paragraphs: two levels of beginning, middle, and ending. The ability to view writing this way is an essential skill for communicating complex ideas. Elementary and middle school students must learn to begin a piece of writing with a clear sense (at least an intuitive sense) of the whole composition in mind.

On state and district writing assessments, student who are stuck in the isolated paragraph mentality often fall into these two traps:

1.  They write a single very long paragraph.

2.  They begin with a very long paragraph and each subsequent paragraph gets shorter and shorter (e.g., Paragraph 1: 10 sentences; Paragraph 2: 3 sentences; Paragraph 3: 1 sentence.)

Neither of these score well.

In summary, do teach students to write one good paragraph, but keep in mind that one good paragraph written in isolation rarely fits nicely into a whole composition. For this reason, also teach students to write multi-paragraph essays, reports, and stories. Students understand ALL forms of paragraph writing better when they understand paragraphs in the context of a whole composition. Pattern Based Writing: Quick & Easy Essay is the fastest, most effective method for teaching this! The writing program was invented in a 3rd grade classroom and perfected with struggling middle school writers!

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