Paragraphs without topic sentences.
Paragraphs that ramble on and on.
Paragraphs that make no sense.
Paragraphs that are riddled with mechanical errors.
Boring paragraphs. And on and on….
As teachers, we have seen them all. Writing good paragraphs is an essential skill, and one that takes time and effort to master. But it doesn’t have to be hard. Below is a time-tested method for getting your students to write good paragraphs.
The most effective way to use these steps is to do them as part of a Paragraph of the Week program – doing a different step each day, either in class, at home, or perhaps a combination of the two. However, you could also have students work at their own pace, keeping their work-in-progress in a folder or even set it up as a writing center. Students can do all of the steps on notebook paper, but you may find it helpful to have guide sheets like the ones featured below.
Giving your students a prompt (rather than allowing them to write about whatever they want) will help them to focus and will also assure that they don’t choose a topic that is too big to conquer in a single paragraph. Paragraph writing is hard for some students, so make it more appealing by choosing a kid-friendly prompt. This means your prompt should:
- Be focused on something interesting, relevant, and fun. Consider favorites – book, movie, food, etc., fun events, “would you rather” questions, “what if” questions, holiday themes, sports, hobbies, celebrities (for older students), etc.
- The student should already be the expert. Don’t choose a topic that requires research. The skill they are trying to master is paragraph writing, not research.
- If you are working on a specific type of writing (opinion, narrative, informative, etc.), then make sure the prompt easily lends itself to that type of writing.
Brainstorming should be easy and fun. The purpose is just to get everything the student knows about the topic on paper. Don’t make your students worry about neatness, spelling, punctuation, etc. As long as they can read it, they’re good. Students can brainstorm with lists, mind maps, or just a streaming paragraph. When they are done, have them pick out 3-4 of the ideas for use in their paragraphs. Marking them with a star or smiley face works well.
In this phase students take their 3-4 best brainstorming ideas and put them into sentences. A single idea may take just one sentence, especially for the youngest writers, but for most students, it will require two or three. In these sentences, students are adding details, examples, and definitions to their paragraphs. They will also want to focus on the sequence to be sure their points are organized in a logical way. Once they have written their supporting details, have them read through them all and write a topic sentence. The topic sentence should give the main idea of the paragraph and catch the reader’s attention. It is often easier to write the topic sentence after writing the supporting details. To that point, when I was writing nonfiction children’s books, I always wrote the first chapter that was meant to introduce the topic last, as it gave me a clear idea of what was actually in the book. Finally, have your students either restate their topic sentence or draw a conclusion to write their concluding sentence.
As your students become more proficient writers, you can skip this step and go directly from brainstorming to first draft. However, for beginning writers, this is a critical step.
Here is where your students put it all together in paragraph form. As they write their draft, they will need to add transitions words to make their points progress smoothly. You may want to have students skip lines or use bigger lines so that there is room for the next step: editing.
Editing and Revising
In this step students go over their first drafts using editing marks to mark things they want to change – ideally with a different color pencil or pen. The goal of editing and revising is twofold: first, to find and correct any mechanical errors and second, to make the paragraph better. This could mean rearranging the sequence, adding descriptive adjectives and adverbs, deleting irrelevant or repetitive parts, etc. Make sure your students have an editing key handy. Also, using small Post-It notes can help if students are running out of space.
The final draft is the last step. Final drafts should be neatly written or typed and error free. While final drafts can be done in notebooks, you may want to give students special paper or perhaps paper that has room for an illustration.
If you use this process, you are sure to see big improvements in your students’ paragraph writing. Again, all your students really need is notebook paper, but a more guided approach will not only make things easier for you, but it will also make the process easier for your student. That is why I created I Heart Paragraph Writing (now available for Primary, Upper Elementary, and Middle School!) This effective and ready-to-use program includes everything you need to get your students writing better paragraphs. Here is what is included:
- 60 kid-friendly writing prompts (20 each for opinion, informative, and narrative writing) with room for brainstorming
- Guided organizing pages for each of the three types of writing
- First draft sheets with editing marks key right on the page for easy reference
- Several choices for final drafts
- Grading rubrics for each type of writing
- A handy reference poster listing transitions