How to Help Students Learn to Write with the Power Paragraph

A couple years ago (before COVID smashed in and destroyed all our plans for our classrooms) I attended a conference on Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs if you’re familiar with the concept. It was a great conference about how to become better teachers, but one of the most important ideas that I took from this conference was about teaching and learning. As teachers, we can point to our curriculum maps, and lesson plans, and explain all of the wonderful standards-aligned things that we’ve taught throughout the year. That’s all well and good. But it doesn’t mean anything if our students haven’t learned what we taught them. We need to shift our focus away from what we are teaching to what students are learning.

Mind blowing difference right? And that’s where I think the power paragraph really helps us when we’re teaching our students to write. This is a concept that could literally be introduced in upper elementary classes, but also can be such a game changer for a student in high school. So I’ll explain what the power paragraph is, and then share some of the implementation/success stories. I’ll add links to documents that I use with students as well, feel free to use them!

A power paragraph is the name that I (and many other educators) give to a well-structured, organized paragraph. I tell students that I am looking for a paragraph that follows a 1-*2-3*2-3*1 structure. Each number represents a different type of sentence. A 1-sentence is a topic or summary sentence. A 2-sentence is a supporting detail. And a 3-sentence is an explanation sentence. The asterisks that I add into the structure? Transition words! Students are notorious for leaving out transitions and they are so important. I will also sometimes add in a 4-sentence, the 4 being a quote. In that case, I’ll ask students for a 1-*2-4-3-*2-3-*1 sentence (because a quote should be introduced in the supporting detail and then explained afterwards.

This structure can be really expanded upon, just with some guidelines. The 1-*2-3*2-3*1 is what I call the basic structure that any paragraph needs. But you could write a 1-*2-4-3-3-*2-3-3*2-4-3-*1 paragraph. Honestly, the possibilities are endless. The basic structure is just a great starting point.

When I introduce this to students, I keep the form written out on the board behind me. I also have laminated transition word lists scattered throughout the room and available on Google Classroom. I’ll write an example paragraph with students on the board so they can see how it works. When it comes to the topic sentence, I emphasize how whatever we put in the topic sentence is all we are going to write about. If my topic sentence talks about my favorite color, nowhere in that paragraph are we going to see details about my favorite food. For supporting details, I point out how the supporting detail supports the statement in my topic sentence and then the explanation sentence explains my supporting detail. At the end of the paragraph, I make sure they know to include a summary sentence in which they restate their topic sentence. It all builds together very nicely.

So for example, I might have my seniors working on their career unit write a power paragraph response to “Why would you be a good fit for this job?”. I tell them that their topic sentence should be a complete sentence answer to the question. Their supporting details will give reasons to support their topic. And then they’ll explain more in depth. On the board, I might give the example:

(1)I would be a great fit as a plumber for a number of reasons. (2) To start, I am a very hard working person. (3) When I was in high school, I worked part-time at my uncle’s car repair shop while also attending tech and maintaining a 3.0 GPA. It took a lot of hard work, but I was determined to complete all of my work well. (2) I also am very reliable and punctual. (3) Throughout my entire high school career, I was only absent a couple times when I was sick, and I was never tardy. (1) These are a couple reasons that I would be a great fit as a plumber.

While doing this, I definitely underline the transition words. High school students need all the reminders they can get to include those transitions. Eventually we’ll talk about incorporating and imbedding our transitions into our sentences instead of always starting sentences with them, but this is a great start.

Yes ,that example was simplistic, but it’s a great starting place.The reason I love teaching with this structure is because I get so many students in their junior and senior years who say that they hate English class. They claim that they suck at writing and they’ll never need to use English class in the real world. I always respectfully agree that they won’t need to explain metaphors or the plot of The Great Gatsby in many jobs; but they will need to be able to communicate in organized and clear ways. The power paragraph is honestly the most real-world applicable thing I teach.

Think about it. Anytime you write an email, a report, or a cover letter, you need to be writing clear, organized paragraphs.

I find that by giving a clear structure to students who have struggled with writing in the past really helps. So often, we English teachers get so excited about our content that we ask our students to write about it! And we forget that they might not know how to write about it or where they should start. The numbered sentences also really help my students who think more logically and prefer math or science to English. They can follow the steps and check each sentence off, knowing when they’ve completed the task.

Using the power paragraph is a great way to differentiate or build in scaffolds for struggling students, those with IEPs, or those who just don’t like English. But I honestly use it with all of my students. I even think back to my essays that I wrote for my grad classes (often an hour or two before they were due) and I was actually just using an expanded version of the power paragraphs to keep my essays organized! This is good for students of all abilities.

Interestingly, when I was at my first school, my data team was made of middle and high school English and Social Studies teachers. The power paragraph was an ideal common assessment. It can be used to write narratively, informatively, analytically–any writing task we set before students. It’s versatile and beneficial. And it actually turns out that ALL content areas should be teaching writing. Obviously, us English teachers should be teaching it more in depth. But it’s important for us to have students using language in all of their courses. This could be a little tricky in math, but in Social Studies and Science and Foreign Language and Fine Arts and PE courses, using the power paragraph would be super easy. Getting students to be doing more of the talking and the writing during a class means that more students are actually doing the learning (this is especially SUPER important for our ELs). Everyone should be teaching writing, and this is a super easy way for anyone to explain it.

One of my favorite teacher wins during my first year teaching was when I was talking to students about the SAT essay they would need to write. One of my students raised her hand and asked, “Can we use power paragraphs to write the essay?” I could have punched the air in excitement. YES! These paragraphs should be the body paragraph in any essay you ever write! Starting by teaching the paragraph helps students who are often overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire essay. If they can break it into an introduction paragraph, three body power paragraphs, and then a quick conclusion, it becomes more manageable.

Also, important note: this type of paragraph has a bunch of different names. I call it the Power Paragraph, someone else might call it the Basic Paragraph. There are plenty of names out there for the same thing. Can you imagine how much we could help students if we all used common language? Some of us say ‘topic sentence’, some of us say ‘introductory sentence’, some of us say ‘claim’–can you imagine how confusing that would be for kids? If teachers in your district could all get on the same page with the language you use when talking about writing, kids would really benefit. Call it the Power Paragraph, call it something else, but just get everyone to call it the same thing.

I’ve noticed throughout my years that the more structure I give students for their writing, the better the essays are that get turned in. Students then internalize those structures and use them in the following years/colleges/careers. 

The real positive of this is that kids do the learning. And when they turn in those essays, the essays are written much better, making them much easier to grade.

Hopefully this helps you in your classroom!

And if you missed them, here are the links to my Power Paragraph outline, my Transition Word Lists, and my Paragraph Guidelines. Make a copy and edit/adjust however you want.