Once students start reading on their own they will quickly notice that printed materials are divided up into paragraphs. I found that my own children naturally adopted this practice and only needed a little instruction to point out some of the finer points. Although there are workbooks geared to teaching children to write carefully constructed paragraphs by filling out graphs, I have found a more organic method works better.
Instead of having my sons fill out workbook pages with contrived writing exercises, we just wrote about what we were reading. If we were studying flowers in science, we wrote about flowers, if we were exploring the American Revolution, we wrote about it, if we were reading an exciting book…well, you get the idea. One of the hardest things about writing is getting started and feeling as if you have something to say. When we give children an assignment to…write a paragraph, they often hit a blank wall and have no idea how to start. It is much easier when they have just interacted with some material and then are asked to tell about it.
Once your children have had some practice writing about what they are learning, transitioning to paragraphs is easy. You can begin to show them how to group their thoughts into cohesive paragraphs. Just as a sentence expresses a complete thought, so paragraphs should be grouped around a central idea. I use the following to illustrate this concept.
Gather together some random items from your kitchen: a measuring cup, spoon, cheese grater, egg slicer, spatula etc. Put all of the items in a brown paper bag, and then, throw in a toothbrush. Now gather your students around and start producing each of the items. As you do this continue to ask questions…what is this, what is it used for, etc. Once all of the items are on the table ask; Which item doesn’t belong? Hopefully they identify the toothbrush.
Next, explain that a paragraph is like this bag of stuff. Everything in the paragraph should revolve around one theme. While the items are different, they are all used in the kitchen to prepare food, except for the toothbrush. Now, when we write a paragraph, we don’t want any toothbrushes thrown in, no random thoughts or unrelated trivia.
As our year progresses, when I come across a random sentences in my students work I ask them ‘Why is there a toothbrush in here?’ They laugh and know exactly what I mean. It’s a quick easy reminder for them, equally helpful with the elementary kids as it is with the high schoolers.
If your children need another illustration you can use the picture of a house. First we lay the foundation…or tell what we are going to talk about. Then we build up the walls…or support what we are saying by explaining further and adding in facts and details, and lastly, we add the roof…which is the summary or concluding sentence. If children are older and will be moving on to another sentence we show them how to write a summary sentence that transitions to the next paragraph.
Some children are comfortable expressing themselves in writing and naturally begin to move from sentences to paragraphs…others resist this process. For many, especially young boys, the resistance is not to composing a paragraph, but to the actual process of picking up a pencil and putting it to paper. They find physically writing challenging. For these kids, you might want to try writing every other sentence for them. I’ve found bearing the burden with the child, and taking over some of the writing produces better paragraphs. The reluctant writer is more willing to put forth a greater effort and write longer, more complex sentences, when they know they will not have to write the whole thing.
Some children are just plain stumped when asked to write a paragraph. They don’t know where to start. For those kids, having a pattern to use at first can be quite helpful. (A word of warning, this pattern is meant to be used as a tool…the goal, however, is to move beyond the need for it.) First, pick a topic that interest them. Then have them tell you three facts about that topic. Once they have that done they should be able to write 5 sentences…one introducing the topic, one about each of the facts, and then a summary sentence. There you have it, a good basic paragraph. After children have mastered this type of paragraph you can expand the lesson by having them vary the sentence structure or choose more descriptive vocabulary. (More on this later.)
When looking through writing programs or workbooks you will find that most of the books lean heavily toward ‘creative’ writing. The pages are filled with topics such as ‘What did you do last summer?’ ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘Describe your pet dragon’ etc. Some kids love these types of assignments…but I’ve found that those kids are in the minority. Most of the children I’ve worked with find that kind of writing prompt frustrating and a waste of their time. The prompts rarely involve anything they want to talk about. That is why I generally tied our writing into something else going on in our day, whether it be schoolwork, a trip, or a book they were reading.
My second son, Levi, didn’t like creative writing (or reading) he preferred reality. Instead of writing stories, I would have him choose a page in one of our large Eyewitness books (non-fiction books on a variety of topics) and write about what he discovered on that page. While he didn’t want to write a fairy tale he was perfectly happy to read about polar bears and then write a paragraph about them. The point is to get children writing, be flexible about the content.