Teach Students to Write Strong Paragraphs
By Sarah Tantillo
Lately I have become obsessed with the beauty and utility of paragraph responses.
When students are struggling to write clear, coherent essays or aren’t explaining their evidence enough, often what it boils down to is this: they need help in writing stronger paragraphs.
Whether you are preparing them for writing on standardized tests, trying to strengthen their fundamental writing skills, or looking for a more meaningful way to assess their reading comprehension, teaching students how to build clear, coherent paragraphs is a good use of everyone’s time.
How to build a strong paragraph
In previous posts (most recently here), I’ve discussed six basic steps that move students from “What’s the difference between arguments and evidence?” to “How can I write an effective research paper?” To write an effective paragraph, students need to master the first three steps:
- Given a list of statements, distinguish the arguments from examples of evidence. If you can’t tell the difference between “argument” and “evidence,” how can you create an argument? How can you write an effective topic sentence? Without that, you won’t really have a paragraph. Just a list.
- Given a list of statements, identify arguments and their relevant evidence. If you can’t find relevant evidence, your “evidence” might not prove your argument and might even disprove it. You could end up proving the opposite of what you intended. (For more on how to teach this step and “Step 2.5,” see here and here.)
- Given arguments, support them with your own relevant evidence and explanation. If you can’t explain how your evidence supports your argument, readers will not be able to follow your “logic.” Your paragraph will lack clarity and coherence.
Today we’ll zero in on Step 3. But before we dive fully into paragraph writing, we need to be clear why explanation is necessary. Conceptually, students can understand this idea if you provide an example they can relate to. I like to demonstrate with what I call the “Mean Mom” skit. A colleague plays my “Mean Mom,” and the dialogue goes something like this…
Me: Mom, can I go to the movies this weekend?
Mean Mom: No.
Me: But I did all of my chores this week!
Mean Mom: So? You’re supposed to do that.
Here I pause for a meta-moment, to point out that I’ve given her facts and she is not convinced. Let me try a different approach…
Me: Doing my chores shows how responsible I am, and if you let me go to the movies, you know I will represent the family well. Also, by doing my chores, I earned my allowance so I can pay for my own ticket!
Mean Mom: Hmm….
Me: Plus, my friend Sally says if I’m allowed to go, her mom will pick me up and bring me home, so you can have a free night on Saturday!
Mean Mom: What’s Sally’s mom’s number?
I then review what happened: When I offered facts, she was not convinced. When I explained the facts, I won her over. It’s important to add the caveat that just because you explain your ideas, it doesn’t mean you will always get what you want. But you will have a much better chance of persuading your audience if you do.
This skit makes a great mnemonic device, by the way. Weeks later, if you walk past a student who is writing and say, “Oh, so you don’t want to go to the movies this weekend?” that student will know what you mean: You’re not explaining enough.
We can then move on to the “paragraph response” approach, which is simply this: give students topic sentences about whatever they’re reading – a chapter from a novel, an article to build content knowledge, or something else – and they must write the rest of the paragraph, including well-explained evidence. The topic sentence provides a lens through which to read the text, and it guides their annotation.
As with any other skill you’re trying to build, it’s crucial to model it. Here is a sample :
Lord of the Flies Paragraph Responses
DIRECTIONS: For EACH TOPIC SENTENCE given, write a paragraph proving it, citing at least two direct quotes from the chapter. Each paragraph must be 7-10 sentences long (including the topic sentence). Be sure to cite the page numbers properly. See the example. Attach looseleaf if needed. Be sure to read the whole chapter before writing a paragraph.
In the beginning of the story, Kenny’s mother makes it clear that she does not respect his friend Harry. When Harry shows up to invite Kenny to his party, Kenny’s mother is “furious” that Harry is in her house (82). She follows Kenny into his room to tell him why he should not be hanging around with such “basura” (82). She says that Harry acts like “the devil, tempting innocent barrio girls and boys with free drugs and easy living until they [are] hooked” (82). She goes on and on about how Harry’s behavior is wrong. She says that people who follow Harry “pay the price” (82). She is clearly worried about how Kenny’s friends will influence him. 
1. In Chapter 1, Piggy, Ralph, and Jack demonstrate leadership in different ways.
 For a complete set of paragraph response handouts for Lord of the Flies (by William Golding), click here.
 This sample paragraph cites from An Island Like You: Stories of the Barrio by Judith Ortiz Cofer (New York: Scholastic, 1995).
Useful and easy to grade
In addition to modeling proper MLA format, the example demonstrates how to incorporate quotes seamlessly into an explanation. While it’s important to teach students how to provide sufficient context and explanation for evidence with “quote sandwiches” (explained here and here), we should also push them to write more efficiently. Partial quotes can improve the flow of their writing.
What I love best about the paragraph response approach is that it offers an elegant way for students to practice analytic reading and writing skills at the same time. And PS, it’s quick and easy to grade with this simple scoring checklist:
PARAGRAPH RESPONSE Scoring Checklist
___/2: Context (for both quotes)
___/2: Evidence (2 quotes, either verbatim or paraphrased)
___/2: Explanation (for both quotes)
___/2: Length (7-10 sentences incl. the topic sentence)
Sarah Tantillo is the author of The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014). For more information, check out her Website, The Literacy Cookbook, and her TLC Blog.