THROWBACK WEEK: Making Paragraph Decisions


A couple of months ago, Dana offered some wise advice for helping students to make decisions about paragraphing. Many students know the basics – start a new paragraph when the topic changes, to show passage of time, or when someone new speaks. Dana showed us how we can help students to take this all a step further by studying a mentor author, in this case, sports writer Rick Reilly. Read on to see what Dana and the teachers and students working with her learned about paragraphing.


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.