Updated: Feb 14, 2022
There is one word that haunts me when I think about how I want to dive into teaching body paragraphs...elaboration. Yes, it is important for students to start with a transition and to have a closing sentence but what about the meat of the paragraph. This is where students struggle (and teachers struggle). Yes, I will admit this was the biggest struggle for me too when I taught writing until I found a few tricks that helped. When I first started teaching essay writing to 4th graders I wanted to pull my hair out. Every training I went to constantly said teach students to elaborate but NEVER did they tell me how to do that effectively.
First, I like to teach elaboration by looking at narrative writing. Why would I switch to narrative while teaching kids to write an essay? Well, I truly believe mini-lessons are needed throughout the writing process and this is one area I like to stop and do a fun mini-lesson. I give my students a prompt such as “You are taking a walk in the woods when you suddenly hear a noise. You then see a tiger coming out of the bushes”. The students have to write a paragraph that describes EVERYTHING they see and hear in the woods at that moment. They can’t write the entire story but what does it sound like, what does it look like, and how do they feel. Then they can draw the scene BUT only using details they used in their paragraph. Do they want to color their tiger? Most likely, but if they didn’t describe it they can’t color it until they go back and add details. Usually this type of lesson clicks with the students and I can explain that all the details they added to help draw the picture with their words is elaboration. Then as we start to write a body paragraph for an essay I can refer back to elaborating their paragraphs.
Digging into the actual process of writing a body paragraph takes time. I used to think.... well, if they have their essay planned out they shouldn’t have any problems writing. My students were turning in body paragraphs that only gave one or two details and three to four sentences max. What could I do to change this? Modeling! When I started to model how to write a body paragraph my teaching world changed. The kids would interact and help me think of things we could write and what could be added to elaborate. Modeling one time isn’t always enough, so the next session I might model but really rely on them to put it all together. Usually during these modeling sessions I can identify a few kids that are doing a great job so I can put the students in small groups to write a body paragraph. I also give them some prewritten body paragraphs and have them highlight different parts of it (transition, topic/reason, details, citation, etc). This allows them to read strong examples and they always enjoy highlighters or using crayons to color code. Another fun, hands-on activity is unscrambling a prewritten body paragraph. They love this activity and really learn a lot being able to read through each sentence to see how it fits in the paragraph.
Learning to Cite Text Evidence
We ask students to use information from the text and students who get frustrated writing tend to do a lot of copying from the text. One year I pulled my hair out because way too many of the kids just copied everything to write their essays. I took a lot of deep breaths and decided I would teach them how to cite text evidence. As we did these citation lessons we also talked about plagiarism. Now they knew only a few sentences could be copied and they had to give the author credit. I was able to do a few things in these mini-lessons. I taught students NOT to plagiarize. I also taught them how to properly cite their text. I taught them that after they cite text they should give an explanation or examples from their own thoughts. All of these items also helped students when it came to elaborating and using supporting details. These mini-lessons actually were lessons students would beg to do. The passages were short and simple, but also engaging topics. This gave the students an opportunity to focus on citing their text and they felt very successful after the lesson was completed. Link to Download a Freebie!
Now, don’t think that just because you follow these steps your students will be writing perfect body paragraphs but these are the steps I took to smooth out the process and help them improve. It still took a lot of practice, peer conferencing, and teacher conferences to get the students to meet expectations.
See the video on how I teach body paragraphs!
Video to Introduce Parts of a Body Paragraph
Video for Modeling Body Paragraphs
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