Writing Paragraphs

Writing paragraphs in our school's program means following a specific rubric. We teach the students to use the same format and steps. We follow the five-step writing process, focusing on brainstorming, drafting, and revision. Paragraph writing for us means drafting, which will be full of mistakes and correctible areas (which we can edit later on). When first introduced, students will be practicing writing paragraphs every day until they master the format we use. Then we will shift focus from format to working closely on organization, then to content, and finally to writing conventions.

The first step is brainstorming. We require a specific number of 'triggers' for each topic. Students generally choose between making a web or a list to visually show their brainstorming. For example, our 7th graders must include eight triggers, while seniors must have at least fifteen. You and your school will decide what is appropriate. Then all triggers are ORGANIZED by order of importance, chronological order, etc. Students are asked to number the triggers 1-8. Of course, students are always encouraged to write down more triggers (sometimes we even offer extra credit for more triggers!). We also encourage students to freewrite as brainstorming. Students look over their prewriting and start using their organized triggers to form the ideas presented in the paragraph.

Students then create a topic sentence (T.S.). This is an introductory sentence which captures the reader's attention and gives the reader an idea of what the paragraph is about. We require students to restate the topic in the T. S. This begins to create flow (the connectedness of ideas and transitions) by using several key words in the topic.

At least three body sentences follow (we require six in the 7th grade). These will include details and examples, as well as data in the form of facts or statistics. Make sure these all support the topic sentence. The body sentences also will include a personal life experience (PLE) which connects the topic to the writer's life or to a real-life situation (7th graders must have two sentences for each PLE). We've found, in particular, that papers with a well developed PLE scored much higher on the MEAP than those without a PLE. The body sentences must connect to the topic sentences, and be sure their details flow in a logical manner.

Finally, wrap up the paragraph with a CLINCHER STATEMENT. This again restates the topic, brings closure to the paragraph, and summarizes the ideas presented. The clincher should leave the reader satisfied that he/she understands what was presented in the paragraph. It may also leave the reader wanting more, and provide a means to find more information. The clincher may also be a transition to another paragraph or subject.

Always have your students write a title for the paragraph. This is really an advanced skill, requiring students to think about what they really wrote and condense down the ideas into a short phrase that must also catch the reader's attention. It's a great skill to practice each time they write.

COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q: How long is a typical paragraph required for class?
A: This is always hotly debated among teachers. We have set limits at each grade level, based on what our MEAP requires and a progression up the grades. These minimums ensure our students are forced to include examples and details to enhance the paragraph's supports. Our 5th graders must write at least 40 words in each paragraph (as always, they can always write more). In the 6th grade, 80 words are required. At 7th grade, students must write 100 words, and at 8th grade it is 125 words. There are also sentence requirements. A 5th grade paragraph must have at least 5 sentences (topic sentence, body/support sentences, and a clincher). 6th graders must have 6 sentences, while 7th and 8th graders must include at least 8 sentences.

Q: How much time do we give students to write out a paragraph?
A: The paragraph structure was developed in response to the demands of the MEAP test (Michigan's high stakes test) as well as to our own school's curriculum and class needs. We wanted a structure that could be easily learned and remembered (by both students and staff). It had to be versatile enough (and adaptable) to use at any grade level or course. And it needed to allow for students to make it their own – we believe it promotes students' creativity, writing style, and voice while giving them a structure that nearly guarantees success. Thus, it had to be written in a fairly short span of time to allow for students to proof and edit. Brainstorming & organizing should take no more than five minutes (most of our students can do it in under a minute with practice!). The whole paragraph can be written in fifteen minutes or less (again with practice). We NEVER let these go home, and they're always due in class. Students cannot take their MEAP tests home to finish, remember! Time frames start out longer at first, but then we shorten the time as they become more proficient.

Q: How much do you worry about mistakes in spelling, grammar, mechanics, etc.?
A: Remember, this is drafting. We always encourage the students to be careful about what they write. However, we want them focusing on the structure and the logical flow of ideas. Corrections can be made if/when we revise and proof for a final copy.

Q: Does the PLE have to come at the end of the paragraph?
A: Certainly not! It should be inserted where it makes the most sense in the paragraph. Think about how that story will fit in the flow of ideas in the paragraph. PLEs can even occur in the beginning of the paragraph; we call these LEADS.

Q: Can a topic sentence or clincher be more than one sentence in length?
A: We try to keep these at one sentence in our younger grades, but as students become more mature writers, it is expected that they will attempt and experiment with developing their own personal style. If a middle school student asked about this, I'd ask back, "Why do you need more than one sentence?" If there is a compelling reason, I wouldn't have a problem.

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