Imagine a book with no paragraphs: you would encounter three hundred pages with no space for breaks, no distinction between topics, and speech would disappear into a sea of words. If a reader encountered a book like this, they would probably put it straight back on the shelf.
Paragraphs are important because they break up writing into manageable parts, help to organise it by topic, and ensure every piece of writing is as easy as possible to understand.
Paragraphs are used throughout all types of writing to break down large sections of information into manageable chunks. They are used to develop a single main idea through a series of related sentences, making a developing argument simpler to understand. The average paragraph is around 250 words in length.
As well as this, a well-constructed paragraph can be essential for setting the right tone in an essay and can help guide a reader through a written work. Understanding paragraphs not only helps learners read texts, but also boosts the effectiveness of their written work.
Below, find some effective strategies for teaching your learners the rules of paragraphs and how to use them in their own writing.
What is a paragraph?
Paragraphs are made up of a collection of sentences and are used in all kinds of writing. They are used to define new topics, highlight new sections of a story, or differentiate pieces of information. Paragraphs should not be too long - most are around five or six sentences, though this is not a strict rule. Instead, the length of a paragraph should be determined by the subject being discussed. For example, a paragraph that is almost a page long may contain too much information, and a sentence-long paragraph may be telling the reader too little.
Most paragraphs will begin once there is a new topic or idea to be explored within a larger essay. These can introduce a new idea, a new perspective, or a new character. In some cases, a new paragraph does not need to introduce a new topic. If a paragraph is becoming too long or too complex, you can create a break simply to make the information more readable - once learners become more confident with the rules of paragraphs, they can begin to use them stylistically.
What is the function of a paragraph?
The main function of a paragraph is to ensure a reader can follow the logic of your writing. When you are beginning a new idea or contrasting a point which you have already discussed, you should use paragraph breaks to separate your information and ideas.
When you are beginning a new paragraph, it is important to be aware of its purpose. Are you making a new assertion about an idea? Are you expanding on a previous idea? Are you providing evidence for a concept? Are you introducing a story or a series of events? Are you moving from one aspect of an argument to the next? Each of these is a valid reason for moving on to a new paragraph.
Sometimes, a new paragraph can begin to split up a larger idea, or a paragraph that is becoming too long or complex. When breaking these larger pieces of writing, make sure each section is exploring a smaller idea within the larger topic.
The basics of learning paragraphs
When using paragraphs, it can be helpful to divide them into three sections: the topic sentence (the beginning), the supporting sentences (the middle), and the concluding sentence (the end).
The topic sentence is used to lay out the central idea of the paragraph and acts as a preview for the information you are about to explore. This allows the reader to be prepared for the information, and ensures they are fully aware of what the content of the paragraph is.
The supporting sentences, which are written after the topic sentence, are the most important part of the paragraph. These sentences give detail to the topic and can be long or short depending on what you wish to detail. However, remember that the supporting sentences must be about the topic of the paragraph. If you want to talk about apple pies, then the supporting sentences should detail apple pies, whether that’s explaining them, evaluating them or comparing them to something else (like a meat pie).
The concluding sentence rounds off the paragraph and relates back to the topic sentence. This sentence can sum up the ideas of the paragraph, reiterate the topic sentence, or provide a unique opinion on the information in the paragraph. This sentence helps to give an ending to the idea and allows you to move on to the next idea with ease.
Here is an example of a “Perfect Paragraph”:
In this paragraph, the first sentence introduces the main topic or idea, which is frogs. The following two sentences are supporting sentences, as they add detail to the topic and make up the body of the paragraph. The closing sentence then restates the main idea, the definition of frogs, and compares them to a similar animal, toads.
Paragraphs do not have a set number of words or sentences, which means they do not have to follow the “Perfect Paragraph” formula exactly: they can be made up of a single sentence or even extend over many pages (though this can be difficult to read and as we’ve said, this may be better broken into multiple paragraphs).
Some writers use paragraphs to divide one larger topic into digestible sections to ensure a reader is not overwhelmed. Doing this requires an awareness of where natural breaks fall within the paragraph, which can take some time and practice for your students to learn.
Discourage your learners from dividing paragraphs between two linked sentences – this can make their work more confusing, and feel less complete.
Below is an example of a paragraph broken in the wrong place:
These two paragraphs have an unnatural break, as the second paragraph depends on the first to make sense. Although Jane’s name is mentioned in the first paragraph, the use of “she” becomes ambiguous in the second, as there is no guarantee that “she” is the same person as Jane. To ensure all the information is as clear as possible, new paragraphs should follow the Tip Top rule - we expand on this later.
Another rule for paragraphs is indentation. Indentation refers to the gap between the margin and the first line of a paragraph. As they are generally an aesthetic choice, they are not necessary for a piece of writing. Instead, they are used in essays and prose as a visual cue for readers that a new paragraph is beginning.
As indents are used to show where a paragraph is separate from those around it, there is no need to use an indentation when beginning your piece of writing. Instead, you should indent every paragraph that comes afterwards until you have concluded your essay, idea, or chapter.
As with many aspects of grammar related to style rather than syntax, using indentation is more about consistency than accuracy: make sure that all your work uses indentation the same way to avoid confusion.
Strategies for teaching paragraphs
Tip Top rule
An easy way to help your learners understand when to break paragraphs is the Tip Top rule.
The acronym Tip Top stands for:
- Time change (Ti)
- Place change (p)
- Topic change (To)
- Person change (p)
Each of these highlights a change within a larger topic and ensures your reader understands where each paragraph takes place, or which person is talking.
Here is an example of time change:
We can see from the example above that the paragraph changed when the time period changed. This makes the text much easier to follow, as we know there has been a significant time break.
Here is an example of change of person:
Graphic organisers, such as knowledge organisers, are worksheets which break down the components of a paragraph into smaller headings, such as the topic, detail, and conclusion. You could provide the topic yourself, or you could ask your learners to come up with a topic in class and research the details for homework. This resource is useful as it provides a clear outline for strong paragraph writing and, as adaptable worksheets, the resource can be both learner-led and developed by teachers within the classroom.
When learning about how to use paragraphs correctly, it can be crucial to provide learners with examples within texts.
To consolidate your learners' understanding of paragraphing, craft your own examples of “Perfect Paragraphs” which have topic sentences, supporting sentences, and concluding sentences. Hand these out to your learners and ask them to identify the sentences in each of them. For more advanced learners, you could introduce paragraphs with more complex information, or with more supporting sentences.
Additionally, you could provide your learners with two related paragraphs, and ask them to explain the paragraph breaks using the Tip Top rule.
Below are some activities which you can use in the classroom to help your learners become more confident when using paragraphs in their writing.
Build a paragraph (Sorting Strips)
Write out a paragraph on a piece of paper, then split the paper into strips. Ask your learners (either on their own or in smaller groups) to organise the sentences back into the original paragraph, identifying the topic sentence, any supporting sentences, and the concluding sentence. To develop this game for older learners, ask the class to organise the supporting sentences into chronological order.
To develop this activity, you can add or break up multiple different paragraphs. Split your paragraphs into sentences, then number each of them so that all the topic sentences have a 1, the supporting sentences have a 2, and the concluding sentences have a 3. Ask your learners to rearrange each of these sentences thematically to turn them back into the original paragraphs.
To make this even more challenging, add multiple versions of one of the sentences and encourage learners to think critically about what their paragraph choices mean. Does a different opening sentence or a new order change the meaning?
Shrink the paragraph
To ensure that your learners understand the content of each paragraph, you can introduce this game to your classroom. Ask your learners to read a paragraph and write out its meaning in as few words as possible. You could begin this game by asking your learner to identify the topic, then ask them to write out the details in as few words as they can.
Once your learners have this shrunken paragraph, ask them to pair up with another learner and describe their paragraph without saying the topic. See if your learners can figure out what the paragraph is about!
Break the paragraph
This game should be played in smaller groups. Provide your learners with a section of text that has had the paragraph break removed. Ask them to identify the correct place to break the paragraph, either using the Tip Top rule or finding the place where the topic changed. Once a group has the correct answer, ask them to explain why the paragraph should be broken in that place.
How Bedrock teaches paragraphs
Bedrock’s core curriculum uses engaging teaching videos, intelligent activities and self-marking mastery tasks for effective grammar instruction, differentiated between primary and secondary learners. Punctuation, sentence structure and word classes are taught in a linear curriculum to support overall reading comprehension and literacy improvement.