Monday, December 31, 2012

Creating Stairs: The Importance of Paragraphs

Like most teachers, I want to inspire creativity and place more importance on content than mechanics. But it is not always easy to decipher a student’s long block of text unbroken by paragraphs. Here are some quick tips for helping elementary school students make their writing easier on the reader’s eyes.

1.     Show your class a screen of unbroken text. A good place to find an example is a student online encyclopedia. You can copy and paste a short article on a gecko or other unusual animal that is typically broken up into the three categories of what the animal looks like, how it eats, and how it reproduces.  Remove the paragraph breaks and see what students say about reading the block of text on the screen. Most students will readily identify the absence of paragraph breaks as the reason why the article is hard to read. You can then show the paragraph breaks and discuss how each paragraph explains a specific aspect of the animal.

2.     Discuss ways text can be broken up into paragraphs a) Spatial Order—what something looks like. b) Chronological Order – the order in which something happened. c) Logical Order—a statement followed by supporting details. Examples of these kind of paragraphs can also be easily found in student online encyclopedias, some from the same short article on an animal.

3.     If you use graphic organizers as a pre-writing exercise, encourage students to create paragraphs with the same groups they used to graphically put down their ideas.

Lack of paragraphs can be just as much a problem in fiction writing as nonfiction writing. Remind students of the following.

1.     Quotation marks shouldn’t touch. If a new person speaks, start a new paragraph.
2.     Traveling. If your character goes to a different room, place, or time of day, that is a good place to start a new paragraph.
3.     Break in the action: If a battle or other dramatic scene ends, start a new paragraph. 

Finally, ask your students to eyeball their writing. Does it look like a dingy block of concrete or a set of stairs? Creating manageable steps makes it a lot easier for your reader to climb into your story and reach new heights.

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