I’m not a betting girl . . . but if I were, I’d bet that many of you start the year with a unit about paragraph writing. Am I right?
I thought so. It’s pretty common to begin your writing instruction with a unit on “how to write a paragraph.” Typical lessons include what a paragraph is, how to write topic sentences and conclusions, and how to construct the perfect five-sentence paragraph.
But after teaching for a couple of years, I stopped teaching paragraph writing at the beginning of the year. And after you read this post, maybe you will too.
Paragraph Writing is Boring
When I was a new teacher, I too started my writing lessons with the paragraph unit. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. But I quickly realized that my students were bored to tears.
At first, I thought, oh well, learning how to write paragraphs isn’t very much fun. But it’s a skill students need to learn, so they’ll just have to deal with it.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that wasn’t okay. I didn’t want my kids to be bored. I didn’t want them to think that writing was dull. And I definitely didn’t want them to dread writing workshop.
I wanted writing workshop to be fun. I wanted it to be something my students looked forward to and got excited about. I wanted them to know that writing was going to be different in my classroom.
We all know that how you start the year sets the tone for your entire school year. I did not want to send the message that writing workshop was going to be a drag. But starting with the driest topic certainly wasn’t helping to convince my students that writing is fun.
Students Don’t Care About Paragraphs
The truth is, students just don’t get excited about paragraphs. They don’t care about, or even really understand, topic sentences. Transition words, hooks, reasons and examples . . . none of those things really matter to most students. At least not right away.
I decided to flip my instruction around and start with something a little more exciting. A writing lesson the students found interesting. I thought that if I could get them invested in writing, then when I introduced the boring stuff, like paragraph writing, they would be more willing to work on it.
And I was right. Once I got kids hooked on writing, they wanted to be better writers. They were more willing to work on their paragraphs when those paragraphs became an important part of telling a story they cared about.
Paragraphs Aren’t One Size Fits All
Think about it for a minute…
What does a paragraph look like in this blog post? In a Charles Dickens novel? In your favorite psychological thriller, memoir, or chick lit?
The reality is that paragraphs are not all 5-7 sentences long. They come in many shapes and sizes. The length of a paragraph depends greatly on the type of writing. And many of the types of writing that we teach our students don’t have standard 5-sentence paragraphs.
Take personal narratives, for example. You teach your students to start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. This means that most paragraphs are only one or two sentences long.
Why spend weeks teaching your students that a paragraph has five sentences only to immediately launch into the exceptions to that rule in the next unit? That’s super confusing for kids.
Teach Paragraph Writing in Context
I’ve got good news, though. You don’t need a separate unit for teaching paragraphs. Rather, you can teach paragraph writing within each specific genre of writing. That’s what I do.
I don’t launch each unit with a lesson on paragraph writing either. First, I get the kids writing. I let them put their ideas on paper and start crafting their masterpiece. Then, a few weeks in, once they are invested in the writing, I introduce a lesson on paragraphs specific to the genre we’re working on. It’s just one of many mini lessons I teach about the genre.
Personal Narrative Paragraph Writing
When I teach personal narrative, I show kids how to start a new paragraph every time a new character speaks. I also model how to use quotation marks and punctuation.
Informational Essay Paragraph Writing
As we move on to other types of writing, I repeat my paragraph lesson specific to each new genre. When I teach informational writing, I explain how every subtopic in their outline becomes its own paragraph. I also teach them about topic sentences, details, and concluding sentences.
This is the typical paragraph many of us think of when we think of teaching paragraphs. It makes sense to teach it inside the informational writing unit because it is appropriate for that genre.
Opinion Paragraph Writing
In opinion writing, the paragraphs are similar to informational writing. There is a topic sentence and a conclusion and supporting details in between. But the important thing for students to understand is that each of the reasons that support their opinion becomes its own paragraph.
Fiction Paragraph Writing
Finally, when I get to fiction writing, the paragraphs become eclectic. Some paragraphs may be one sentence long when students are writing dialogue. Others may be long and chock full of details. When students describe the setting or a character’s thoughts, they may have long, descriptive paragraphs. This variation in length makes the writing more interesting.
I typically teach fiction writing last. So students have already learned about many different types of paragraphs, and they can combine them into one story that is interesting to read.
Perfect Paragraphs Are Not the Goal
At the end of the year, not all of your students will write perfect paragraphs. That’s okay.
They are children. They will continue to practice writing paragraphs year after year, all the way through high school and beyond.
I’ve played around with the paragraph formatting in this blog post a couple of times. And I’ve been writing paragraphs for a really long time.
What you are looking for is growth, not perfection. Do they indent? Are they switching paragraphs when ideas change? Are they using more than one paragraph in their writing?
Teaching writing is about so much more than using paragraphs correctly. You are looking for a story with strong details. You want to see a supported opinion. You want to see that students know how to reference texts and summarize information. All of those things are much more important than perfect paragraphs.
Would you like more information about teaching writing?
You’re in luck!
I teach an online professional development course for teachers in grades 2-5 called the Not So Wimpy Writing Masterclass.
In this course, I help teachers go from feeling discouraged and overwhelmed about their writing instruction, to feeling excited and confident. I only open this course once a year. Make sure that you are on the waitlist so that you can grab a spot the next time registration opens. We are going to be starting soon and you don’t want to miss your chance.
In the meantime, you can get my super helpful Writing Pacing Guide. This guide shows you exactly what lessons to teach and when in the four major genres of writing. You can download your FREE copy HERE!
You can actually plan an entire year of writing lessons at one time. Check out this post to learn how.
Have a Not So Wimpy Day,