The paragraph is the building block of solid writing. A paragraph (or set of paragraphs) develops a part of the topic; it explains a facet of the topic. Strong writing includes multiple facets of a bigger idea explored among several paragraphs.
However, writing a single, strong, cohesive paragraph is difficult. For some, writing an entire essay of them can be near impossible! Your students will need lots of support on how to develop an idea. So start at an early age!
Writing multiple sentences on a broad topic
With beginning writers, brainstorm words and phrases related to a single, broad topic (e.g., school, family, animals). Make a list on the board. Model how to stretch those individual words and phrases into sentences, producing a single paragraph on a broad topic. Encourage students to then write multiple sentences on their own topics by offering them the use of different colored gel pens. For every additional sentence students write on the topic, they get to switch their pen colors. Colorful Sentences adds a fun element to the daunting task of writing more. (For additional ideas on Stretching Ideas in the Primary Grades, see the Idea Library.)
Listing tiny details per facet
Although young writers generate sentences all about one topic (e.g., family), that topic is broad. Eventually, students need to advance beyond simply “listing” facets of a topic in single sentences. I have a mom. I have a dad. I have a brother, etc. They need to develop each facet using small, specific details. Spend time just generating lists of details. For example, under “mom,” there might be a list of details including: good cook, pretty, loves me, helps me when I get hurt, etc. Embrace the idea that this list is the writing for a while. Primary students don’t actually have to turn these details into sentences and a paragraph. Just focus on generating details and words for each facet (e.g., for each family member).
Developing a traditional paragraph
Being able to generate multiple details on an aspect or facet of the topic is key even for older students. Students are typically good at mentioning or listing the general topic sentence, but they leave it undeveloped and unsupported. And when teachers ask students to “add more details,” they include more undeveloped topic sentences.
Convey to students that what they need to add are supporting sentences that explain and describe their topic sentence. It may be helpful to use the single table top & legs graphic organizer for this. The table top serves as the topic sentence for one facet or part of the big topic. And each table top needs to be held up and supported by details, examples, and proof in the form of additional “leg” sentences.
As students get better at developing a single paragraph, they are ready to tackle a full piece with multiple facets, each developed within their own paragraph. The pre-writing will be essential in the writing process. Students need to consider the different aspects of the topic they will explore and then the specific details and examples, per facet, that will compose the different paragraphs. The multi-table & legs organizer can be helpful for this. Or, if your students are familiar with the traditional web organizer, consider the dissected web to encourage additional small details. (Check out the Snowball Fight example.)