Writing is no simple feat. Teachers help students to build their writing skills over time, starting in kindergarten and continuing over the years. Some would argue that one never truly masters writing, but that one continues to hone their skills over a lifetime.

The last two articles have focused on the word level and the sentence level, and specifically how to help English learners build their word analysis skills and build more complex sentences by understanding the five requirements of a sentence, and by adding adverbials to build complexity.

In this article, the focus will be on building the paragraph (and then building multiple paragraphs) and the supports you can provide your English learners in order to help them hone their writing skills.

Paragraph frames

Just as sentence frames and starters are helpful for English learners to build sentences, paragraph frames are excellent tools to help students build paragraphs. Paragraph frames can be developed in two basic ways, and other varieties are likely possible.

General paragraph frames focus on a particular language function, such as description, comparisons, sequencing or expressing cause and effect. These paragraphs can be used for a variety of content areas as they are developed with the language function in mind.

Cloze paragraphs, on the other hand, are primarily based on content and require specific words to be filled into specific places in order for the paragraph to make sense. Either of these types of paragraph frames can be useful in particular contexts.

General paragraph frames are built around a particular language function. For example, the purpose of the paragraph may be to compare and contrast. There are, of course, an infinite number of things that could potentially be compared: two or more organisms, characters from a novel, ideas of concepts, events in history, etc.

With a frame that focuses on the language functions of compare and contrast, anything could be compared. Consider the following general paragraph frames, and the potential comparisons that could be made with each:

Example 1:

______ and _____ are both _______. _____ has ______ and so does ______. They also both _________. But ______ and _____ also have some differences. For example, ______ has ______ but _____ has ______. Another difference is that ______ has _____ and _______ has ______.

Example 2:

________ and _______ have interesting similarities and differences. For example, ______ and _______ are both _______. Furthermore, they both __________. However, while _______ is _______, ________ is _______. In addition, ___________ differs significantly from _________ in that _________. These similarities and differences help us to conclude that _________.

These two simple examples — one for students at more beginning proficiency levels and the other for students with higher levels of English proficiency can, of course, be modified and adjusted depending on what is being compared. Just as with these compare/contrast paragraphs, frames can be developed for any number of language functions, description, proposition and support for argument writing or sequencing a series of events.

Cloze paragraphs require students to fill in specific words in order for the paragraph to make sense and have meaning in the content area being discussed. The paragraph has key words deleted, and students need to fill in the correct vocabulary to complete the paragraph and have it make sense. Consider the following cloze paragraph, followed by the completed version.

Example 3:

_________ is the process of plants making their own food from the ____. Plants use a variety of structures and processes to convert _______ into usable _______. The process involves ________, which is a green _______ that absorbs ______. The energy that is created triggers a ________ ________ that help the plant to make ________, which are ________ to various parts of the plant to help it grow.

Photosynthesis is the process of plants making their own food from the sun. Plants use a variety of structures and processes to convert sunlight into usable energy. The process involves chlorophyll, which is a green pigment that absorbs light. The energy that is creates triggers a chemical reaction that help the plant to make sugars, which are transported to various parts of the plant to help it grow.

Both general paragraph frames and cloze paragraph frames can be effective scaffolds for students to write paragraphs. The same process can be used for writing multiparagraph compositions by simply linking together several paragraph frames.

As with all scaffolding, be cautious that we are not enabling students by making a process easier when they are capable of writing paragraphs on their own. Scaffolds are mean to serve as temporary supports rather than permanent support systems. Encourage students to add to the paragraph frames by including additional sentences that they wrote on their own.

Collaborative writing

Another way to teach the writing process is through collaborative writing opportunities. There are several methods for doing cooperative writing with students.

You can utilize technology such as Google Docs, for example, to have a variety of students add to a particular document that is being developed. Changes can be tracked to see who has added what portions to the document, and to assure accountability and assess student contributions.

As with any writing, assessment can be differentiated based on student proficiency level, so that students' contributions can be assessed based on their proficiency level and they are not punished for not having yet acquired particular grammatical structures, for example. There are several steps to utilizing this strategy effectively, as well as access to devices such as computers or tablets.

Begin by writing a topic sentence for the students that focuses them on the type of writing as well as the content you want them to write about. For example, create a sentence that summarizes a story, gives details about an event in history, an informative piece such as description of a particular organism, or an opinion or argument piece on a topic being studied. Write the sentence on an electronic document that all of the students can access, and display the document so all can see it.

Next, have the students read the sentence chorally. Determine the words or short phrases that indicate what the students will be writing about, and highlight those words and phrases. For example, consider the topic sentence: "There were several important and significant causes of the Revolutionary War." The students might highlight the words several, causes and Revolutionary War (perhaps also significant).

Students will then be tasked with writing a sentence, in small groups or teams, that supports the topic sentence. At this stage, students will collaborate to first discuss and decide upon the sentence they will write. In their small groups or teams, students should utilize appropriate resources such as texts they are reading, primary sources, notes or graphic organizers to orally brainstorm a sentence.

Once the students have their sentence brainstormed, they should call you over and tell you the sentence they decided upon. If the sentence is accurate and the information is from the text provided, have the students access the document and prepare to add to the paragraph already begun. Note that each team will be given a different colored font to write in for accountability purposes.

Students should then write the sentence, and each student on the team should contribute to writing out the sentence if possible. Students should begin writing their sentence right after the topic sentence.

Because several groups may be adding to the document at the same time, the order of the sentences may be incorrect or strange; students be allowed to write out the sentence and right after the topic sentence so that all of the sentences appear in the space of the paragraph. The order of the sentences as well as any errors they make when writing the sentence out will be addressed through the authentic revision and editing process.

Once all of the teams have added their sentences into the document, have the students chorally read the "paragraph" they have written. This initial read begins the process of "Reading, Responding, Revising and Editing."

After the first read, have students respond to the writing by indicating the portions that they find powerful or impactful, examples of academic vocabulary, specificity, etc. Highlight those words and phrases that the students identify, and highlight additional examples as desired. This helps to focus students on the effective and powerful aspects of the class paragraph.

Next, have the students read the paragraph again, chorally, and determine what order the sentences should go in. This begins the revision process. Depending on the paragraph, sentences can be rearranged (by cutting and pasting) by order of events, common characteristics or topics, by pro or con points, etc. Move the sentences around to put them in the order desired.

This process should include student input as well as instruction on how to make the paragraph more powerful and effective through organization of ideas. The ordering of paragraphs can also help students to build additional paragraphs later on, as appropriate.

The revision process, however, does not just include the order of sentences. Consider providing instruction on adding adverbials such as adjectives, adverbs or prepositional phrases. Additionally, students can be taught to combine sentences to make more complex or compound sentences. Be sure to include an indentation, and as needed, add a concluding sentence to the paragraph. If desired, a title can also be incorporated at this point.

The final step in creating the paragraph is to edit. The editing process should focus on the skills that you have been working on with your students. Capitalization and punctuation are common areas of need, as is spelling.

Weave in instruction and practice on specific skills you have been working on for the grade level, or aspects that students should master. Common areas such as not keeping a consistent tense, overgeneralization of grammatical rules and other topics can be addressed in this way.

Once the paragraph is written, the teacher can assign some of the sentences in the collaborative paragraph as topic sentences for supporting paragraphs. The students can take the assigned sentence and, as a pair, team or small group, develop a collaborative paragraph. The paragraph they create will support the initial paragraph. Once each team has developed their own paragraph, all paragraphs can be added to the original, and again revised and edited as an entire class collaborative essay.

Through collaborative writing opportunities, all students have a chance to add to the paragraph at a level that is appropriate for them and their proficiency level. Students have the opportunity to both be a part of the larger group project as well as see a model of writing from other students.

The process allows for student participation as well as direct instruction in the writing process to help all students improve their skills. While the process can result in a somewhat formulaic essay (if taken to the multiple paragraph activity), the direct instruction opportunities and practice students are provided, along with the collaboration opportunities, benefit students as they continue their journey to become better writers.