Teaching the Methods of Paragraph Development

By Trent Lorcher

Master the paragraph and you've mastered the essay. Good ideas can be made emphatically and clearly with well positioned, ordered, and developed paragraphs. These suggestions will help you write and teach better paragraph writing.

An Olympic Moment

I received this letter from a former student:

Dear Teacher:

You may not remember me. I swam in high school and did pretty good. I got bored my sophomore year and decided to quit. My speedo, swim goggles, and cap were in my backpack and ready to turn in right after your class. You gave a lesson on methods of paragraph development, varying paragraph lengths, and using different ways to organize a paragraph. Your lessons on writing a paragraph changed my life. Instead of quitting, I varied the length of my swims and developed different swim strokes. I think you should share this gold medal winning lesson plan on writing a paragraph, methods of paragraph development, and varying paragraph length with the world.



This olympic size plea will not go unheralded:


No matter how fancy your methods of paragraph development become, there comes a time when going back to the basics solves the problem:

  1. Write the topic sentence first. You don't need to have the topic sentence first, but why make your life difficult? Writing the topic sentence first helps the writer (and the reader) focus.
  2. Generalizations should exist only in the topic sentence. Each paragraph needs to make one point. If you're having trouble focusing on one main point, write a limiting sentence after the topic sentence to narrow the topic (see part 1).
  3. Each paragraph should contain only one main idea.
  4. Do not worry about transitions in the first draft.
  5. Organize your information logically.

Note: Special thanks to Schaum's Quick Guide to Essay Writing for helping me organize this section.

Methods of Paragraph Development and Organization

When writing a paragraph the author should organize it using one of the following methods:

  1. General to Specific: Start with a generalization and follow it with specific examples.
  2. Specific to General: Start with specific examples and finish with a generalization.
  3. Order of Importance: Paragraphs can begin with either the most important idea first or the least important idea first.
  4. Chronological: Order facts according to when they occurred.
  5. Spatial: Very effective for description, spatial order moves directionally.
  6. Order of Familiarity: Knowing the audience is critical for this method of organization. The paragraph can begin with either the least familiar or most familiar concept.

Paragraph Length and Sentence Position

Here are paragraph tidbits to make your life easier.

  • Paragraph length varies. each paragraph must be long enough to cover your main point, anywhere from one sentence to one page. As with sentence length, varying paragraph length provides better rhythm and helps the author emphasize important points.
  • When writing paragraphs, knowing where to put each sentence clarifies important points. As a rule, the first sentence holds the strongest position, the last sentence holds the second strongest position, and the middle sentences hold the weakest position.
  • Varying sentence lengths helps emphasize your most important points. This is important. Putting one short sentence, for example, in between two long sentences, makes the middle sentence more powerful.

Writing Paragraphs Lesson Plans Procedures

For assignments not involving revision, try the following:

  1. Instruct students to take notes on the above material.
  2. Place students in groups of four.
  3. Assign each group a topic.
  4. Each person in the group should write about the topic using one of the aforementioned ways to organize a paragraph.
  5. Students will decide which method of paragraph development is most effective, second most effective, etc.
  6. Students will share at least one paragraph and explain why that method is most effective, making note of the type of writing used (persuasive, informational, narrative) and the purpose of the paragraph (persuade, entertain, or inform).
  7. Compete in a paragraph challenge.

If you wish to use student drafts to teach about writing a paragraph, try the following:

  1. Present the information above.
  2. Instruct students to analyze each body paragraph of an essay by identifying the method of organization, the length of each paragraph, the number of main ideas per paragraph, the topic sentence of each paragraph, and whether or not the paragraph does its job.
  3. Make necessary changes based on the above information.
  4. If working in groups, have students analyze each other's paragraphs.