Here’s the scenario. It’s a regular weekday evening until your child says, “They said I have to write a paragraph for homework.” This is new territory. Sure, you’ve written paragraphs, and so has she, but you’ve never seen your child do it. All her writing has happened in the classroom, until now! Buckle up! With your support, she can write this paragraph! ….but how long is a paragraph supposed to be?
How long should it be?
Many things can affect the length of a paragraph: the writer’s age, audience, topic, purpose, context, and the teacher’s preference. Here are my general guidelines:
Grades 3-5: 5-7 sentences. Often a predictable structure like main idea, 3 details, and a conclusion.
Grades 6-8: 6-8 sentences. Often asking for evidence from a text, source or learning.
High school: 6-10 sentences. Almost always using some kind of evidence. Often asking students to compare or reconcile multiple perspectives or sources. Assignments increasingly call for multiple paragraphs, or even pages, on a topic.
Purposes for writing
- This type of writing is a staple of middle and high school ELA classes. Assignments calling for close reading, or analyzing details from the text, are common as homework assignments as well as on-demand writing assessments. They are often used to respond to assigned reading.
- Teachers are often looking for specific points they have taught, such as properly introducing a quote or using transition phrases. Because of that requirement, they are often formal writing.
- Reflection writing seems to be universally challenging for young writers. To reflect, kids need to be able to think about two things at the same time: their experience and their thinking about their experience. That’s not easy.
- Adolescent writers tend to go wrong in two main ways: not personal enough, or not relevant enough to the text. In either case, it helps to plan out the major ideas before writing. Make sure to match each detail of the experience (I saw, I heard, I felt, I read…) with a reflective statement (phrases like: made me think about, I realized, grow/change/different/learn).
- Call this expository writing, or a research report, or an essay question on a science test. The goal for students to report what they know in an organized and detailed way.
- A question that asks us to describe, compare, identify, or list some information fits well with that classic “main idea and 3 important details” paragraph students learn early on.
- If the question asks “why” or “how” something happens, you might need a different paragraph format, like the TBEAR.
Why writing matters
Writing has become a greater focus across the whole curriculum in recent years. This is reflected in the Common Core State Standards, which are the basis for many states’ standards. These standards call for more writing, and writing in more settings, for more purposes. And with good reason!
Reading a student’s writing can show a teacher how much they know about the topic, what vocabulary they are able to use, how they manage the complexities of sentence structure, spelling, and attention to mechanics like capitalization and punctuation. A single piece of writing can tell the teacher many different things about his students, so writing is a valuable use of instructional time.
As students grow older and their thoughts become more complex, their writing will become longer and more complex, too. A paragraph is the basic building block of all kinds of writing!
But even better, I think, is what the writing process does for the writer. When we write about our thinking, we are forced to clarify our thoughts and put them into words. We have to get very specific about the relationships between ideas (cause and effect? what happened first?) and we have to choose precise vocabulary that conveys our ideas. We ask students to write because writing helps them consolidate what they have learned and organize the information in their minds.
So as challenging as this writing assignment may be, learning to take on different kinds of writing prompts will set your child up for success in school and beyond!
To help your child revise and edit their paragraph, once they get it on paper, grab my free Editing and Revising checklists!