Teaching Paragraphs

You've probably heard at least a few rules about paragraphs, about how they should be organized or how long they should be. But a quick look at a newspaper, magazine, academic journal, or even your own professional correspondence will probably reveal most of those "rules" being broken quite often. It's easy, for instance, to find both one-sentence paragraphs (even one-word paragraphs) and paragraphs that go on for pages. Some of the paragraphs you read will have topic sentences, and some won't. Some will move from general information to specific, and some just the opposite.

What English teachers (and others) may have told you about paragraphs isn't sacred; the "rules" are routinely ignored, often to great effect, and some kinds of writing (resumes, for instance) may avoid paragraphs all together.

So, what can you teach your students about paragraphs? Plenty. Perhaps the best approach to teaching paragraphs is to help students see these blocks of text as a way of organizing information--both for themselves and for their readers.

Most paragraphs, particularly in academic writing, set out to develop one concept important to the overall piece of writing; typically all of the sentences in a paragraph serve to develop one idea. But what we mean by "one idea"  can be ambiguous or unclear or just plain idiosyncratic. What constitutes a paragraph-worthy idea?

The answer depends upon the nature and scope of the writing task. Consider, for instance, this sentence: "There are several key reasons for the increase in underage drinking on college campuses." In a general overview article about alcohol consumption, the writer might decide to create a paragraph that simply lists the causes of this problem. In a more in-depth analysis, each cause might be developed in its own separate paragraph. And in a book-length study, each cause might easily be given a whole chapter. That's why it isn't enough to tell students "one idea per paragraph." Encouraging students to think about how they organize and develop paragraphs helps them to become more self-aware as writers, an important step for them in learning to edit their own work.

Effective Paragraphs: Unity and Coherence

Most writing handbooks advise that paragraphs have the qualities of unity and coherence. Although what constitutes unity and coherence can be a matter of opinion, both concepts can help students struggling to make their prose clear and their argument easier to follow.

A unified paragraph will have a clear focus, with no tangential or off-topic material. Consider the following example:

Coming to a large university like A & M after attending a small rural high school may present students with a number of problems. First, they may feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices available. They may have trouble adjusting to a system that expects them to be proactive about course schedules, degree programs, and graduation requirements--things that aren't usually an issue in the insulated world of a small high school. Likewise, students making the leap to a major university may have to work at making friends, since they're unlikely to know many people on campus. Undergraduates often make poor decisions about money management. A & M needs to reach out to students from small rural high schools to help ease their transition to college life.

The second to last sentence might have been appropriate, if the author had specified that money management was a particular problem for students from small, rural high schools, thereby tying it to the paragraph's main theme. Without that connection, though, the sentence seems to be thrown in at random.

Perhaps even more important to helping students write effective paragraphs is teaching them the importance of coherence, the way the sentences of a paragraph connect to each other. One way to improve coherence is to ensure that every sentence of a paragraph includes both new and old information: every sentence should somehow be connected to what has come before, yet also move the reader forward with new information.

Writers also increase coherence by:

Repeating key words. Student writers often worry about repetition, fearing it shows a lack of imagination, yet repetition is key to helping a reader follow a line of reasoning. One way to reassure students about repetition is to help them understand what some editors call "elegant variation"—ideas subtly repeated with variation in wording. In a history paper about the Civil War, a writer wouldn't want to use the phrase "the Civil War" in every sentence. But the writer could use "the war between the States" or "this prolonged conflict" or "this bloody, hard-fought war" or "the hostilities between North and South" or simply "the war," depending upon the sentence.

Using parallel structure. Most of us are familiar with using parallel structure within a sentence to highlight similarities: "He liked to read and to draw" rather than "He liked reading and to draw." But the same principle can apply between sentences. If you're describing several steps in a process, for instance, it might be best to have similar parts of the process described with sentences that are also similar in form: "First, assign the reading to the students. Next, have them answer some discussion questions. Then, review their answers. Finally, encourage them to create their own questions."

Including transitional words and phrases. While it's certainly possible to overuse transitions, omitting them all together will only confuse readers. Also, be sure students understand the meaning of the transitional words and phrases they're using: "however" doesn't mean "moreover," and "in contrast" is different from "in conclusion."

Our handouts include a useful list of  transition words

Maintaining consistency in point of view and tense. Like using parallelism, maintaining a single perspective (i.e., first person or third) and keeping verbs in the same tense can greatly improve the flow of ideas for the reader. While many writers do this automatically, if they fail to, it can make the reader's task unnecessarily difficult.

Topic Sentences

Around the mid-1800s some rhetoricians began asserting that every effective paragraph should include a topic sentence—a sentence announcing the main focus of the paragraph. It was also assumed that it was best if the topic sentence came first. It is true that such sentences can be very useful for student writers, particularly for those who have trouble setting and maintaining a focus. If students are encouraged to write topic sentences, they'll have to consider the general purpose of a paragraph and its relationship to their larger piece of writing.

But the topic sentence need not always come at the beginning of a paragraph.

Often the first sentence is a transitional one, drawing connections to the preceding text. Sometimes writers prefer to list a series of examples and then wrap up with a concluding sentence that functions as both a topic sentence and a summation. Many effective paragraphs don't have a topic sentence at all. Topic sentences would probably be intrusive, for instance, in a narrative used in a case study. Sometimes paragraphs lack topic sentences because a writer prefers to make a point more subtly, allowing information to speak for itself and forcing readers to draw their own conclusions. In that instance, the writer might decide that a topic sentence would be too heavy-handed.

Paragraph Breaks

When do writers need to begin a new paragraph? Again, this question is a good opportunity to encourage students to think about their readers and about the overall organization of their work. Basically, there's no hard and fast rule about when to start a new paragraph: it's up to the writer. There are a number of compelling reasons to indent anew:

  • To introduce a new idea

  • To give the reader a chance to regroup

  • To emphasize a point

  • To break complicated information down into smaller segments

  • To create a transition between key ideas

  • To indicate a change in speaker in a dialogue

  • To sum up the main idea

One way to think about breaks is to break ideas into larger units of meaning, sometimes called "stadia of discourse." A stadium is a group of related sentences that may consist of multiple, related paragraphs. For example, the section, above, on Topic Sentences is a stadium, and the pargraphs are broken to emphasize "But the topic sentence need not always come at the beginning of a paragraph."  That sentence could just as easily have ended the paragraph before it, or have begun the paragraph after it.

Paragraph Length

Paragraph length varies greatly depending upon such things as the nature of the subject matter and place of publication. It might be worthwhile to have your students look at academic journals in your subject to get a sense of the length and kind of paragraphs found there. In general, paragraphs these days tend to be shorter than they once were and are often quite short in newspapers and magazines because of the narrow column width.

If you have students who can't seem to write more than two or three sentences for any paragraph, however, you may suspect they have trouble developing their ideas in depth. Ultimately, the deciding question isn't how long the paragraph is, but how compelling it is. If it feels skimpy and not persuasive to a reader, it needs more information. Students who have trouble creating convincing paragraphs may need to go back to their invention techniques to generate more ideas. They may also benefit from looking at how other writers typically develop their paragraphs.

Paragraph Development and Organization

In the mid-1960s Francis Christensen described two basic ways of organizing paragraphs. He demonstrated that the act of organizing can also be generative in that it helps students invent content. Christensen described coordinate paragraphs as being list-like. A general topic sentence begins the paragraph and the following sentences offer a list of evidence to support the paragraph's main idea. All of the subsequent sentences are at the same general level of specificity:

Students fail tests for a variety of reasons besides not having studied. Sometimes they misread the exam questions. Sometimes their anxiety so overwhelms them that they freeze up and are unable to demonstrate their knowledge. Or a student may fail if he's ill or sleep-deprived. But sometimes the fault lies not in the students, but in a poorly written exam.

In contrast, a subordinate paragraph features increasingly more specific information. The subordinate paragraph is like a descending staircase with each sentence further refining or explaining the information put forth in the topic sentence:

Perhaps the greatest challenge our writing consultants face is coping with angry clients. Whether they're angry with an instructor or simply frustrated with their own limited writing ability, students who come with axes to grind aren't likely to get much out of a session. So, before the work can begin in earnest, the consultant must try to defuse or deflect the students' hostility. Often the best thing to do is to give the students a chance to vent.

Many paragraphs combine subordinate and coordinate development. For example, a paragraph may list three solutions for a problem and develop each of the solutions in one or two more specific sentences.

You might also think of paragraphs as being organized in a variety of modes: comparison/contrast, definition, narrative, cause and effect, process analysis, etc. In short all the methods you can use for organizing an essay can also be used for organizing paragraphs. Paragraph development can also be spatial (such as in a description of a landscape) or chronological (such as in explaining the steps in an experiment) or logical, moving either from general information to specifics or from specifics to generalizations.

Additional Resources

Limone, Paul "Effective Methods for Teaching Paragraph Development"