Paragraph writing problems solved
For years, paragraph writing in my fifth and sixth grade classrooms has relied on the colors of a stoplight. Most students do well with the formulaic nature and paragraph organization that is embedded within this model.
I’ve had two problems gnawing at me though. The first problem is that most students get it… so there are still others who don’t. I knew the others needed something different, but struggled to figure out what. Next, there are some students who get it quickly, and could be developing more complex and interesting sentence structures… but aren’t. Eventually the teacher-guilt won!
From this struggle, Paragraph Writing Intervention was born. First, I threw all of my ideas into a 6 week intervention course and taught it to some amazingly patient 5th graders. Turns out, kids need much more explicit direct instruction around sentence writing than we have been providing. (More on that to come!) I can say with certainty, there is no such thing as too much discussion about fragments and run-ons. If you think you’ve taught it to death, keep on going!
Students need exposure to well written paragraphs and sentences. Lots of exposure!! One of the pitfalls of teaching paragraph writing is students often see (and fix) their own writing. If we think about what that means a reluctant writer sees during a lesson, versus a highly skilled writer a few seats away- writing class is teeming with inequities. After reflecting on all that I learned during that six week intervention course, I created Paragraph Writing Intervention lessons to hit all of the areas of need that course exposed. The results have been excellent in classrooms this year. Here’s what I’m doing:
1. Structure and Organization: The first part of this lesson is for students to organize well written sentences into a paragraph format. This does two things: it teaches categorizing (a prerequisite skill for paragraph writing), paragraph structure and exposes students to well written sentences and paragraphs. Every sentence they work with is an example of a well structured sentence. This part of the lesson also teaches writing skills without the pressure of writing, deleting or erasing and revising. There are opportunities to explicitly teach the different parts of a paragraph and for students to label them. These are all skills that were lagging or missing in the students who were identified as in need of writing intervention. This part of Paragraph Writing Intervention works to fill those gaps.
2. Crafting Sentences: In the second part of this lesson, students craft one part of a paragraph. Just one. Why? For so many reasons!! First, focus. Let’s be really intentional about our teaching. This is your opportunity to teach a mini-lesson about what you want students to do with an opening, closing, key idea or elaboration sentence. Be explicit. Write one together. And then, set them off to try in pairs. Listen to the focused discussion and debating as they decide which transition word works best. And then, share excellent examples with the whole class… sneaking in a few more exposures to well written sentences. This is the explicit instruction they’ve been craving. THIS has been the missing piece in our writing instruction.
3. Paragraph Edit: This was so much more challenging (and necessary) for students, than I expected! In the final part of this lesson, students are provided the model paragraph we began with in part one. All of the ending punctuation has been removed, as well as the capital letters that begin sentences. Students are tasked with editing the document so that it is again a well organized paragraph. For some students, they find more success knowing in advance how many sentences they should have in the end. And for all students, I insist that they either read each sentence aloud or use a tech tool to listen to the sentences before they submit their work. Students who have been using a tech tool to listen to the sentences have reported making 3-4 changes while listening!
What kind of impact do you think this work would have in your classroom? Who do you think might benefit? Since starting with this structure, I have created some content specific exemplar paragraphs to connect to students’ social studies and science learning. The results have been fantastic. This is a structure you can recreate on your own, or to save time try some that I have created!