Making Paragraph Decisions

During a recent study group, I sat down with four junior high teachers to think about paragraphing and revision.  The students were studying the genre of persuasive writing.  Looking through the student work, we could see the kids were using paragraphs to organize their writing.  We wondered if we could offer the students some revision possibilities.  We wanted to help them see that there are countless ways to paragraph.

For our minilesson, we looked at a mentor text by sports writer, Rick Reilly.  We used an excerpt from his commentary on cheerleading, titled “Sis! Boom! Bah! Humbug!” (taken from his book, The Life of Reilly, 2008).  We discussed Rick Reilly’s paragraphing decisions, and we annotated the text.

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We noticed that the first five paragraphs are all about the same idea (cheerleading is dangerous), yet Rick Reilly did not lump all those sentences together into one long paragraph.  As a writer, he saw other possibilities.  From Rick Reilly, we learned that writers of commentary might begin a new paragraph when:

  • they want to “pack a punch” or shock the reader
  • they want to provide some heavy statistics or facts
  • they have a personal anecdote
  • they have a new “big idea”

As the students went off to write and revise after our minilesson, we invited them to look for new paragraph possibilities in their own writing.

We created an anchor chart during our reflection session as the students shared their paragraphing decisions.  Here is a digital version of the chart (still a work in progress) about paragraphing.  Notice much of our thinking is mentored after Rick Reilly, along with a couple of new ideas about when to begin a new paragraph.Paragraphing

We will continue to look at paragraphing possibilities in other genres as well.

3 thoughts on “Making Paragraph Decisions

  1. HAHA Stacey, your comment made me laugh. I don’t know where that “5 sentence” rule came from, but I have encountered it a lot too! Here they call it “The Hamburger Paragraph” and it kind of drives me crazy. The writing comes out sounding so formulaic, especially when the Hamburger Essay is full of Hamburger Paragraphs! I once had to have a good long discussion with the person who was helping me write an IEP for a student and wanted to put “Will write 5 sentences” as the goal. Hey…there’s a topic for a blog series: Writing Goals for student with IEP’s! I think those struggling kids get the least meaningful writing instruction because the goal of getting them to produce content overshadows the goal of helping them produce meaningful work. Anyway…that was a tangent!

    I really like this approach for using mentor text to help guide students.


  2. Dana,
    Your timing is perfect. I’m going to talk about your example as we look at the opening pages of narratives today.

    When do authors change paragraphs? What do we notice about the craft that guides paragraph decisions?

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE one sentence paragraphs because they are often a priceless treasure!


  3. This is really high-level work you’re leading, Dana! And so important too!

    The annotation alongside the students reminds me of work I did at the TCRWP with Carl Anderson this summer. Looking at the structure of texts in this way and then thinking about how we can do things like that author is so useful for students.

    On a related note, I’d love to see something about how all paragraphs don’t have to have five sentences. Do you know how often I encounter people who think that’s the case?!!?


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