Launch your writing explorations by having students review what they already know about paragraphs and list what they'd like to learn. Explain that a paragraph is a group of sentences about the same topic. To help students visualize it, compare a paragraph to a jigsaw puzzle. To complete a jigsaw puzzle, we fit together individual pieces that compose a whole picture. There is no room for stray pieces that belong with another puzzle. To make a great paragraph, we fit together sentences that are all about the same main idea. There is no room for sentences that do not support that main idea. In both puzzles and paragraphs, the way in which the pieces fit together is important.
Using the Reproducible
A paragraph is made up of a topic sentence and several sentences with supporting details. Help your students to understand how a paragraph fits together with the Polar Paragraph Reproducible, below. Each sentence is written on a puzzle piece. Have students cut out the sentence pieces and fit them together to form two paragraphs. (The topic sentences are black.) Ask volunteers to read their paragraphs aloud and, as a class, talk about the paragraphs. Is there more than one way to order the sentences? Extend by having students research additional facts about Antarctica and write their own paragraphs to share.
Obey the Signs
Get students revved up for writing by posting these fun and simple paragraph do's and don'ts on “road signs” in your classroom: Remember to Indent; Start Each Sentence a New Way; Vary Sentence Length; Stick to the Main Idea; and Be Specific! Then give students lots of opportunities to put these lessons into action. If your class gets bogged down in a case of the “nothing-to-write-about” blues, try some fresh prompts. Ask, for example: If you ran the school cafeteria, what changes would you make? If you had a robot, what job would you program it to do? If a new student came to your school, how could you help him or her feel welcome? What is your least favorite type of weather? As students write, remind them to “Obey the Signs!”
Newspaper articles are a good way to explore paragraphs, since the lead paragraph usually expands on the main idea that is expressed in the headline. To give students practice identifying main ideas, clip short articles from your local newspaper, leaving off the headlines. Place the stories in a grab bag and have students draw from the bag. Have students read the articles and write headlines that sum up the main idea of each piece. To extend, put some headlines in the grab bag and invite students to write imaginative paragraphs based on the headlines they draw.
Kinesthetic learners will love this get-up-and-go paragraph activity! Start by choosing five or six paragraphs from favorite children's books. Type each paragraph with extra space between the sentences, and then cut the paper into separate sentence strips. (You will need one sentence per student.) Divide students into teams and assign a paragraph to each team. Challenge each team to work together to assemble their sentences into a clear paragraph. When they figure out the correct order of the sentences, the teammates call out “Paragraph ready!” and line up in order to read their sentences.
What's the Big Idea?
The main idea of a paragraph may be explicit (clearly stated) or implied (suggested rather than stated). Help students recognize the difference by distributing copies of paragraphs from a variety of sources, such as newspapers, magazines, and other informational texts. Have students work together in small groups reading each paragraph, and identifying the main idea. If the main idea is explicitly stated, students should underline it. If the main idea is implied, ask students to write the main idea in their own words.
Frustrated young writers often wonder just how long a paragraph is supposed to be. Explain that there is no magic number of sentences; the important thing is that all of the sentences revolve around a single main idea. Then launch this activity to reinforce the lesson. Give students a variety of reading materials (novels, newspapers, how-to instructions, etc.). Have each student choose a source, read a paragraph, and count the number of sentences in it. Then ask the group to make a bar graph on the board to showcase and compare the results. Which material has long paragraphs? Short?
Karen Kellaher is the author of Spelling Secrets (Scholastic, 2003). This article was originally published in the March 2004 issue of Instructor.