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Building Skilled Writers Step-by-Step: The Paragraph

Last month’s writing focus was on writing single sentences. This month we move on to writing a paragraph. A paragraph planning brainstorming session kicks off paragraph writing for the student who struggles to express themselves in writing.


Pre-writing list making

Beginning paragraph writing with a brainstorming list of ideas of what might be included in the paragraph is crucial for the struggling writer because it allows him or her to let their creativity loose and generate ideas of what to write about without the stifling effect of the actual writing process.


Title the brainstorm list by its topic. Start with whole group list-making practice and move onto assigning individual lists regularly. Have fun with the activity! Ten to twenty items are a good number to aim for, tailoring the exact number to your group’s skill level and how much time you want this to occupy. If the lists are written, spelling should be ignored at this juncture.


Suggested list topics might look like this at the beginning:


Make it a class project to add to the master list regularly. When students feel ownership, they are more likely to be excited about the project.


Using lists to choose writing topics

Once students become proficient at generating lists, show them how to use a list to guide topic choice for a paragraph. If the student likes a list topic, but it stuck at four or

five list items and can’t think of more to add to the list, it is probably not going to be a good topic for their written paragraph.


Supporting sentences

Have students reread their list, and check 3 - 5 of the best items. Turn each checked list item into a complete sentence. Arrange the sentences in a good order - either chronological from first to last or in order of importance from most to least important. Spelling and mechanics are still secondary at this stage. Great ideas are what count in this thinking exercise.


Topic sentences

Topic sentences are more abstract than supporting sentences, and struggling writers tend to either skip them or fall into a habit of writing a topic sentence such as, “My paragraph is about fruits that grow in the tropics.” Our job is to teach students how to tell the reader what the paragraph is about without coming right out and telling them. A creative sentence pleasingly gift wraps the topic .


Constructing a topic sentence should begin by looking at the title of the list from which the supporting sentences were drawn. That title plus the main idea shared by each supporting sentence is the topic sentence formula.


“The title of the brainstorming list plus the main idea shared by each item on the list is the formula for the topic sentence.”

~Suzanna Greer, AOGPE Fellow

If the student’s brainstorming list was titled “tree leaves,” and each item on the list describes the shape of a specific tree’s leaf shape, then his topic sentence needs to be about trees each having uniquely shaped leaves. “ All trees have leaves shaped in a unique way.” would be a great topic sentence.


TS: All trees have uniquely shaped leaves.

SS: Maple trees have star-shaped leaves.

SS: Oak tree leaves look like short fingers on a hand.

SS: Ginko tree leaves resemble small fans.



Topic sentence exercise

To help students develop the ability to generate topic sentences, provide lists of three to four supporting sentences and have students find the title/topic they would assign to those sentences as well as the main point being made by the supporting sentences. (Hey - this is reading comprehension!) Students generate a topic sentence appropriate for that group of supporting sentences.



Concluding sentences

A concluding sentence serves one of three purposes, depending on the type of paragraph being written.

Concluding sentence can reflect the writer’s opinion.

Concluding sentence can offer a solution to a problem.

Concluding sentence can suggest an action to be taken.

Students will need ample practice in formulating concluding sentences since these are also more abstract than concrete supporting sentences. Just because this is the last element of the paragraph doesn’t mean it deserves less practice than the other parts of the paragraph.


Concluding sentences exercise 1

Provide samples with a topic sentence and three supporting sentences plus several choices of concluding sentences. Have the student tell you the reasons for the one he or she chose. Offer corrective feedback if the choice was not optimal.

Concluding sentences exercise 2

Provide samples with a topic and three or four supporting sentences, have the student generate a good concluding sentence and tell which of the three possible purposes his or her sentence serves.


Titles

Teach your students to turn the name of their brainstorming list into a title for their paragraph. They may want to add a few words to make it more creative, but warn students that titles are generally very short and to the point.


Corrections

Now is the time to teach your students to make corrections. Ask students to make corrections in colored pencil, underlining words they think are misspelled, adding

missing capitals and punctuation. This process is why we required students to skip lines as they wrote. Now they have room to make corrections. You might code the paper to indicate where errors need to be discovered. Meet with students individually to help them see things requiring correction that they may have missed, and have them write in the corrections using a colored pencil. A checklist for paragraph revisions is at the end of these notes.


Formatting

Students need to be taught a few basic formatting rules as they transfer their work from the paragraph writing worksheet form onto a clean piece of notebook paper.


Final Draft

It is time to recopy one last time to create a final draft. Using a ruler under the sentence being copied will help raise the odds of a successful transfer of all the corrections onto the page. You can code errors in pencil to help them see places where they need to correct the transfer onto the final draft but allow corrections to be made at this point.


Student Success

Following this formula for paragraph writing can make the difference between students who continue to struggle to get thoughts on paper year after year and students who can construct a paragraph that conveys their thoughts. And isn’t the goal of teaching, enabling students to exchange areas of weaknesses for areas of competence and skill?


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