Writing Homework: Paragraph Ideas

There are few things I dread more than staring at a blanking page with a flashing cursor. There are just too many possibilities. Too many decisions. Too much potential. Too many ways it could go wrong. When your child has writing homework, getting some stuff on that blank page as quickly as possible can jumpstart their writing and build some momentum.

The other problem I see often is writing that gets started quickly and finished quickly. So quickly that it is brief and leaves the reader with many questions. That can be challenging too, because once some students believe they are done, there is little we can do to change their minds! So if you are trying to help your child find enough ideas for their writing, or ideas to expand their writing, read on!

I like to do this before they have tried to write a draft. If they tend towards short or undetailed writing, it helps to do this process before they write.

Here’s what I tell my students.

Content, not filler

Start by listing as many different ideas as you can about your topic.

If you have to identify a character’s traits, think of every word that might describe the character, or something she did. Hint: Google a list of character traits and see what sounds good.

If you’re writing about the causes of the Civil War think about each group involved (Union army, Confederate army, enslaved people, Abraham Lincoln) and try to list causes from different perspectives.

The important thing at this stage is to write down a lot of very, very bad ideas. Go for quantity here. You want as many ideas as you can because when you throw out the stinkers you will hopefully find some treasure! This also stops writers from using the first couple of ideas that come to mind, when there might be a much better idea in there somewhere.

If you are a parent helping a child with this process, you can help by offering to write notes while they brainstorm. You can also seed the list with some ideas of your own (but try to give your child time to come up with some the best ideas for themselves).

The list can be typed or written, but my brain has better storms on paper. Your mileage may vary. Post-it notes are nice for students who need help chunking information into individual facts or ideas, or for students who like to physically move information around to organize it.

Where do ideas come from?

Use the text you’re writing about (book, story, poem, movie, etc) to come up with ideas. If you’ve been taking notes while you read, flip through the text and read those notes. Anything important?

If you come up empty handed, how about your class notes? Did the teacher mention this topic? What seemed important?

Dangerous places to get ideas

The internet is also called “the information superhighway.” And just like an interstate highway, it can take you just about anywhere you choose to go. There is an unimaginable amount of information out there, including pages for people just like you who need more ideas for a paragraph. Stay away from:

Essay mills. There are lots of essay services that will sell you a finished essay for a price. Some even offer “free” help in the form of things you can download. This is a dangerous road to go down. It leads to plagiarism. Remember, if you can find these essays online, so can your teachers. Instead of spending your time looking for a way to not do the writing, just keep reading and we’ll help you get started!

AI. There are lots of options for artificial intelligence that will do your writing for you. Magical, right? Except, have you ever heard the expression “garbage in, garbage out”? ChatGPT can do some impressive things, from rhyming to generating sentences, or even a whole outline! But it also “hallucinates,” a term for when AI makes things up (including references with links that don’t go anywhere!) in response to a question.

ChatGPT or other AI writing tools can be useful brainstorming tools, though. I like to ask AI for a “list of essay topics about” whatever I’m thinking about. Or you can ask for examples, like “sentences using prepositional phrases” or something else you need ideas for. But please, please, rewrite any ideas you get from AI in your own words, and fact check any information it gives you.

Narrow it down

If you followed my plan, you now have a list of more ideas for a paragraph than you can possibly use. Now it’s time to narrow it down.

The first part of this is pretty easy. Remember those really bad ideas I told you to write down? If they are still the worst ones, cross them out!

Get your list down to 2-3 main ideas or pieces of evidence that you are going to use in your writing assignment. Sometimes your best ideas will jump right out at you. Other times, you will need to closely compare 2 ideas (which one has more evidence?). You might also combine two related but wimpy ideas into one MEGA-IDEA (what do they have in common?).

Then take your best ideas and organize them into a paragraph. You can use a simple paragraph structure, like:

  • Main idea, 3 important details, conclusion
  • TBEAR for writing with text evidence

Keep it up!

Once you have picked out your best ideas and identified the main idea that connects them, you are more than halfway there. If your paragraph still looks too short, read each idea in your paragraph. After each one, ask yourself “So what?” or “And then what?” to see where you might be able to expand or add detail.

Once you’ve got your ideas organized into a paragraph, don’t forget to revise and edit. Download my revision and editing checklists below.

How long is a paragraph?

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

Text Analysis

  • 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

  • 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).

Knowledge reporting

  • 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!

Make a paragraph longer in 30 minutes with better writing skills

Affiliate Statement: This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something from a link in this post, we may get a small commission on your purchase.

Dr. Seuss told the story of the home-invading Cat in the Hat in just 1,626 words. So how can the English teacher expect a 300-word essay on something as brief and simple as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech? If you find your child staring at a blank screen when they have writing homework, or if you know the pain of eking out a paragraph one sentence fragment at a time, you may be wondering what to do to make a paragraph longer. Let’s help your child boost their writing skills and make their paragraph longer, and more complete!

Why it’s hard to make a paragraph longer

Many of us know all the tricks. You can use a slightly bigger font (12.5? 13?), add adjectives (very, really, and unfortunately are three common and particularly tired ones) and replace words with longer synonyms (use becomes utilize, tried is now endeavored). Once in college, a guy tried to impress me (yikes!) by telling me you can just make the punctuation font larger. Professors can spot an essay with large print or wide spacing, but are they measuring your punctuation!?

OK, but all these goofy hacks don’t make a paragraph better, only very slightly longer. They ignore the fact that (hopefully!) the teacher is reading this paragraph and looking for important ideas or particular writing skills. The real problem when writing is too short is that it doesn’t have enough ideas in it!

Teachers give a word count with a writing assignment because, in their assessment, that is the number of words needed to express the ideas that they want to see students write about. It’s actually a giant clue from the teacher about the kind of writing they want to see. “Write a paragraph about the causes of the Civil War” will get a very different kind of answer from “Write a 5-8 page report about the causes of the Civil War.”

What may start as a quest to make a paragraph longer will hopefully lead to making a paragraph more interesting, more detailed, and more clear.

Who cares if it’s 300 words exactly?

Let me tell you a secret. If you turn in a crisp paragraph with a clear thesis statement and relevant examples, explained thoroughly, the teacher is not going to take points off your 300-word assignment if it has 275 or 325 words.

If you turn in a paragraph that has the same idea three times, or if your details aren’t related to each other, the teacher isn’t going to use your word count to decide the grade, either. When a paragraph is too short, it’s usually because the student ran out of ideas.

That means that instead of focusing your attention on adding word and visual tricks to make your writing longer and longer, you need to focus on your writing skills and the content if you want to make your paragraph longer.

Writing skills to make a paragraph longer

OK, OK, so any way we measure it, your paragraph isn’t long enough yet. Check and make sure it has all its parts:

  • Main idea/topic sentence
  • Examples/supporting details
  • Quotes or examples from the reading, if needed
  • Your own words about the topic (not just quotes, in other words)
  • A conclusion that reminds readers of your main point

Once you have the basic parts in place, you can make your paragraph longer by adding more (related, important) ideas to your paragraph. Here’s how.

Ask yourself “Why?”

Many sentences can be improved by adding a “because.” It is also a great way to put more of your own words into a paragraph that has too many quotes. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be.” OK, sure. Hamlet said, “To be or not to be,” because he was struggling to understand the meaning of life. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Other sentence extenders

One of my favorite writing exercises is called “because, but, so.” I got it from the excellent book The Writing Revolution and I use it with students from grade 2 up through high school. You can try this to figure out the right way to expand an idea in your paragraph.

First, pick, or write, a short sentence about the topic.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative because the founding fathers wanted a system of checks and balances among the powers.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative but many decisionmakers disagree about exactly which powers should be held by which branch, which leads to conflict.

The three branches of the U.S. government are executive, judicial and legislative so no one person or group has the power to make decisions affecting the whole country on their own.

Would you look at that?!

Each of those extended sentencers is at least DOUBLE the length of the basic sentence. So make your paragraph longer by finding several places to add because, but, so, or another conjunction, to more fully explain your ideas.

Still not happy with your paragraph?

If this kind of writing is new to you, or if you find that you think you’re writing everything, only to get feedback that your writing is unclear or disorganized, I have a tool for you.

My Editing and Revising checklists will take you through the steps of clarifying and expanding your thoughts, and catching spelling and punctuation errors, too. Oh! And they’re free. Grab them below!

Google Docs for Struggling Students

Google for Education has become a popular and affordable way for school districts to give all their students access to file storage, productivity tools (through G Suite) and collaboration capabilities, using Chromebooks, tablets, or traditional desktop computers. But how can Google Docs be used to help students that struggle in writing, like those with specific learning disabilities in writing or spelling, or students with dysgraphia? And what can it do for students who struggle with attention and executive functioning, like students with ADHD or autism spectrum disorders?

My Experience with Google for Education

When my school converted all of us to Google Drive, there was resistance and skepticism from lots of the staff. People were comfortable with Microsoft Office, and did not want to learn a new system. But once we got it in the hands of the students, it was clear that it was an amazing tool for learning.

Elementary students quickly learned to share documents with each other and collaborate in real time. (Of course, they used their powers for good as well as evil, and I had to explain to several kids that there is a permanent record of whatever you put in an email or Google document, and that it is a school tool, and not personal or private.)

Kids who constantly lose their papers now have an un-lose-able record of their written work. And if you accidentally delete a document, or clear your page? IT’S NOT GONE!! You can revert to a previous version of a document, or recover it from the trash can. It has been a game-changer for the students I work with!

Supporting Struggling Writers Using Google Docs

Writing can be frustrating for students unless they have the right support.

For students who struggle with writing, a lot of the features embedded in Google Docs are great for providing accommodations or scaffolding their learning. Here are some of my favorite features of Google Drive (and Google Docs, Slides, and Sheets) as a teacher of students with learning disabilities and executive functioning challenges.

Sharing

I either create a template for an assignment and share it with the students, or I have them share the document immediately when they create it, so I can check in while they work (and they can’t accidentally delete).

Who does it benefit: Students with ADHD can have frequent, subtle, check-ins without a teacher standing over them in the classroom. Students with auditory processing challenges or memory deficits get instructions in written form. Students with dysgraphia and other writing disabilities get a format to follow with features like a word bank or sentence stems, if needed.

Bonus: I get digital copies, instead of a pile of paper in my inbox!

Collaboration

Students can work at the same time on a shared document, on their own devices. Structured carefully, this type of assignment can engage more students simultaneously than other types of group work where I read, she records, and he presents our findings at the end of the class.

Who does it benefit: Students who need more processing time can benefit from starting with a silent work period, where everyone works on their own part of the document. Students who are easily distracted have less wait time and are more able to stay engaged in the lesson. Students with lower writing achievement have peer models in their group who are demonstrating how to tackle an assignment, both through group discussion and by typing in the shared document.

Comments

When I move the mouse cursor to the right margin of a document, a little comment icon pops up. When I click it, the line of text is highlighted, and I can type a comment. I use comments for revision suggestions. I find that when I give my comments in writing, students can reread them, reply to my comment, or make the change and click “Resolve” to make the comment go away. I can also write a lot more than I could with a pen in the margin of a draft. (Plus, my handwriting stinks, so typed comments are better for everyone!)

Who benefits?: Struggling writers of all kinds benefit from written feedback. Getting comments digitally means students can take as much time as they need and refer to the comments as they may corrections. I can also give feedback in real time from my own computer while students are writing. Students are able to revise their writing while it’s fresh in their minds.

Add-Ons

Click “Add-Ons” in the menu at the top of Google docs, then click “Get Add-Ons” to see the library of tools available for mind-mapping, spelling and grammar support, document templates, and many more! Two of my favorites are:

Change Case – This add-on lets you change the capitalization on a selection of text. You can choose “sentence case” which capitalizes just hte first word of each sentence, all capitals, all lowercase, or “title case,” which capitalizes the important words in a title. This is a great tool for students who don’t consistently capitalize while they are writing.

Highlight Tool – With this add-on, you can create different colored highlighters and label them, then use them to highlight the text in your document. You can “collect highlights” at the end and gather all your highlighted bits into one table. I use this to help students revise their work as well as to choose examples in text they are reading. For example, they can highlight all their topic sentences in green, and visually make sure that each paragraph is well structured.

Speech-to-text

Google Docs has voice recognition (called Voice Typing) available to anyone with a microphone using the Chrome browser on a Chromebook or computer. You speak your sentences (and a variety of punctuation and formatting commands) and they appear on the screen. Students need practice and support to use this feature effectively, but it has been a huge benefit to my students with poor spelling or with executive functioning weaknesses.

Text-to-Speech

This is not a native feature of Google Docs, but there are a range of free Chrome extensions that will read your writing to you. Select and Speak is my favorite, right now.

Read and Write for Google, by TextHelp, is another amazing suite of tools that works with Google Drive. It is available with a paid subscription. In addition to text-to-speech, it offers word prediction, and a range of tools for highlighting and extracting notes, and developing vocabulary lists. At the time of this writing, it is being offered free to teachers who register using their school email addresses.

The Takeaway

With all the free tools available as part of Google Docs, it’s a great starting point for students who need writing support. It is an easy way to introduce assistive technology for students with poor handwriting, dysgraphia, specific learning disabilities in reading or writing, or ADHD or other executive functioning deficits.

If your child needs help getting started with assistive technology, or developing his or her writing skills, contact me for a free 30-minute tutoring consultation.