Teaching Paragraphing

Last night Annabel Hurlburt and I were talking about helping fourth grade writers organize their narratives with paragraphs. Annabel has done an incredible job of helping her students think in scenes and craft a story. As we were looking at some drafts, we realized starting new paragraphs wasn’t automatic for most writers in the room.

I was reminded of the tricky nature of knowing when to start a new paragraph. Several years ago, I posed the question to Two Writing Teacher readers: How do you know when to start a new paragraph?

The responses led me to accepting this truth: Knowing when to start a new paragraph is more art than science.

Below is a repost of the original, along with an image of the chart. For most elementary classrooms, we wouldn’t teach all of these at the same time, but rather select a few that go along with the learning that is already happening. Then we could offer the invitation to students to notice other times authors start new paragraphs and add to the chart as we go through the school year.

One more thing, if you have a few extra minutes (and even if you don’t), I highly recommend this post from Annabel about what she believes when it comes to teaching writers. I find it both inspiring.

I took your wise words and put them together in a chart. It’s hanging in my office because I love how it is a reminder of the power of collaboration. It also restores my faith in our ability to teach conventions through writing workshop. I love (and I mean lovelovelove) that no one offered a sentence number as a means of knowing when to start a new paragraph. I’m sure we’ve all met our share of students who count sentences and then start a new paragraph. 
As many of you know, I’m a big believer in the power of art. I’m working to create charts with a strong visual presence with the intent of helping students retain their learning through the visual stores in their brains. Creating this chart reaffirmed to me the importance of first collecting ideas and then organizing them on a chart.
So my thoughts on paragraphing…
As Liza Lee Miller said in the comments, “It is an art.” I’ve been paying close attention to my own work with paragraphs and I’ve realized it is truly more art than science. Tara’s comparison resonated with me — knowing where a paragraph starts is like knowing when to shift the gears of a manual transmission. There is an element of “feeling” the paragraph shift while writing. Of course there are the nonnegotiables: new speaker, new time, new setting, new idea. These just aren’t enough, though. There are many other times when a new paragraph begins. Outside of school assignments, I’ve never made a paragraph shift based on the number of sentences.
In addition, I find it unrealistic to set paragraph limits for different genres. For instance, who’s to say how many paragraphs will make up a short story? It depends on dialogue, setting changes, and lines that need emphasized. Instead of thinking in paragraphs, I’ve shifted my thinking to considering parts. It is realistic to say  a short story for a seventh grade writer will have 4-6 scenes. Paragraphs? I’m not even going to try to touch that.
Sometimes I think teachers set sentence limits and paragraph requirements with the good intentions of helping students elaborate. Rather than demanding more details, I make an effort to help students learn ways to elaborate. In Shelley Kunkle’s short story unit, we’ve taught students to build scenes not with 5 sentence paragraphs, but with snapshots and thought shots (a la Barry Lane), character action, dialogue, object description, character description, flash backs, and incorporating another genre such as a letter or poem. (There’s another post all about how everything from object description on in this list came from students during share sessions.)  They are elaborating with intent and their writing is strong.
Today we talked about paragraphing. Because Shelley and I have extended their repertoire of elaboration tools, students were able to feel the “shift” when it was time to start new paragraphs. I shared my notebook with students, my messy collections of words, and asked students to notice the way I use paragraphs, even in my private notebook writing. It’s a habit I’ve established and a habit I hope for students. Today they were intentional about using paragraphs as they drafted.
In another post, I hope to reflect on the way paragraphing decisions influences my revision work much more than my editing process. But that will have to wait for another day. Until then, thank you for joining this conversation and pushing my thinking when it comes to conventions in writing workshop.

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  1. Such a tricky topic to teach by only using rules. I love the thought that it is more art than science. I look forward to future posts to continue to push my thinking.

  2. Perfect timing on your post. My students are blogging. I've noticed many of them just write in a continuous paragraph. I created an instructional post and used your graphic, asking them for their ideas. Thanks.

  3. Printed off your chart–probably again, but you never know when I will need it again. I like the idea of paragraphing as an art rather than an English lesson or a science. Art is not so scary. Keep the charts coming.