After your students can write a good sentence, it is time to introduce paragraph writing. This is something that can be taught in the elementary years, but should also be reviewed as they get older and the paragraphs get more complex. Whether simple or complex, paragraph construction has a certain structure that can be taught.
Paragraph Structure. Every paragraph begins with a topic sentence, which relays the main idea of the sentence. The next sentences, which form the body of the paragraph, are the supporting sentences. For the beginning writer, the sentences can all just be supporting details. As the student's paragraph writing gets more sophisticated, the supporting sentences can provide textural evidence or a detail and then examples or explanations of the detail. The paragraph then ends with a concluding sentence that wraps up the paragraph and refers back to the topic sentence.
Mentoring paragraphs. Just as we worked with mentoring sentences to learn sentence writing, we work with mentoring paragraphs to learn how to write paragraphs. Find good, solid paragraphs in literature, science or history texts to use. Have them get small post-it notes to label the parts of the paragraph. Alternatively, you can provide the student with a copy of a paragraph so that he can write directly on the page. He can identify the parts of the paragraph using differently colored highlighters. This is the beginning foundation of annotation, which we will discuss in detail in another post.
Paragraph Puzzles. Another way to have students work with paragraph construction is for them have the separate sentences of a paragraph before them and they have to order them into a cohesive paragraph. You can do this by typing out the sentences of a good paragraph and then cutting them out for him to reassemble.
Supported Paragraph Writing. For the first paragraph I have my students write, I choose a topic that relates to a current or recent area of study, usually in their science or history studies (although I add literature as well.) I will write the topic sentence on a whiteboard that addresses the topic. I have my student then brainstorm on a piece of paper a list of information that would support the topic sentence. For the first time or even the first few times, I will conclude the lesson there. Once he feels confident in making these lists, he can then move on to writing supporting details for each of bits of information he has listed for a topic. Once he becomes proficient in this step, he can begin to write a paragraph on a topic, using the lists he can generate as a skeletal outline. (I will post more about making outlines later.) At this point, your student may need help by your illuminating irrelevant supporting details, but be gentle and helpful with this. Do not seem as if you are correcting the piece, but more like you are guiding. In other words, if he insists on keeping details that you feel are irrelevant, let it go. He will get better over time.
Writing the Topic Sentence. Give your student short answer questions taken from his history and science studies. Make sure he always starts by generating a list. Then, teach him how to restate part of the question and then how to add to it to form the topic sentence of the answer paragraph. He then can provide evidence for the answer, by the details he adds to the paragraph from his information lists. You can also begin teaching transition words or phrases such as first, next and finally.
Writing a Concluding Sentence. I save the teaching of this until after the student has written some from brainstorming outlines because I have found that concluding sentences are the trickiest part of paragraphs for students to master. They have to learn how to refer to the topic sentence but at the same time making it a different and, hopefully, strong sentence. Be sure to look at pairs of topic and concluding sentences thoroughly before having him attempt to write one himself. You can look back at the paragraphs he has annotated for this.
Practicing. With this background, now your student just needs lots of practice. You can begin giving him daily opportunities to write across the various subjects he studies. As he does this, you can gently teach the areas in which he is weak, such as elaborating, improving word choice by using active verbs or synonyms or strengthening transitions. Once he has done this for some time, he will be ready for a multi-paragraph report.