Heather Wolpert-Gawron

How to Battle Epic Paragraphing

By on May 12, 2009

Every year my nemesis rears its ugly head: the epic paragraph.  Epic paragraphs are those essays comprised entirely of one mega-paragraph with no indentations to indicate transition from thought thought.

I bet you thought your kids were the only ones doing it, eh?  But the fact is that tons of students are recruited into its child army.  It’s like the swine flu of writing: tons of kids catch it, and authorities freak out when they see it.  And it’s our job as educators to battle this plague on our educational houses.

At the beginning of every year, there is a percentage of kids who have had severe cases of knowledge leakage, and we rail at their prior teachers as if they hadn’t noticed the problem, or had chosen not to tackle it.  (Don’t pretend you don’t blame the last teacher sometimes.  It’s our default reaction when we see silly errors. But fight this urge, because we know this isn’t true).

What is true is that the students sometimes loose the lessons.  Sometimes this happens over the summer, sometimes over a mere weekend.  And this phenomenon results in the loss of every rule of writing, even something we consider as simple as paragraphing.  Which begs the question: maybe paragraphing isn’t so simple.

To us, the divination of ideas seems logical. To writers, the breaking down of thoughts serves to help our readers.  To readers, the sight of paragraphs saves our eye from monotony.

But to students, who are novices to reading and writing, even the act of breaking down thought is complex. In fact, when I think about it, they speak in a stream of consciousness sometimes, so why wouldn’t they write in one?

Reading and Writing go hand in hand.  We may not all write the next great novel, but I am always floored when I hear about a state not putting writing at the top of their priority list (see Mary Tedrow’s recent article in Teacher Magazine on the subject).  I am assuming, of course, that these districts, in an effort to save money, eliminated writing as part of their testing, and because it just isn’t a priority anymore, the curriculum also gets downgraded.  Growl.

Frankly, I don’t think the act of writing the “epic paragraph” is a new flaw.  I think it’s been around since the years of chalk and slate (of course a student who wrote in epic paragraphs then had to create a stack of slates to accomplish the task).  Some colleagues and I at the Teacher Leaders Network were discussing this very subject.  And one posed the question as to whether online texting could be contributing to the disintegration of the formal paragraph.

But I also don’t think it is one associated with texting, etc…In fact, reading and writing online encourages breaking readings down into thought chunks far more than other forms of textual literacy.

To solve this problem, I agree with my fellow TLN’er Renee Moore who said rather than focus on the formal 5 paragraph essay, we should be focusing more on teaching ideas.  Content over format.  After all, if we’re talking 6 Traits here, and we’re really focusing our content on Ideas, then students would understand more about how to break things down AND we wouldn’t be trapped into the 5-paragraph scaffolding year-long.

For, indeed, the 5-paragraph essay (and the 5 sentence paragraph for that matter) are just that: scaffolds.  If, by the end of the year, a teacher is still insisting that the scaffolds need to be in place, then the structure is not stable without them and should be held with suspicion.

This year, I’ve spent the year really stressing 6 Traits in a way that I haven’t before.  And while I start out using the scaffolding of 5 paragraphs for Persuasive and Lit. Analysis, I pump up the students for the time when we can bust that scaffolding away like the exploding the braces on a shuttle take-off.  Then it becomes a reward of sorts to show me and their peers how their organization best realizes their thoughts.

But how to bust?

Remember, it is a common problem, especially in ELL students, and needs specific ammunition in order to solve it:

1.   Remember that you are the best writer in the room, so model, model, model. I think it’s important to use any touchstone texts that you can: authors, teacher work, student work, etc…The power of modeling is in the act of writing in front of them, not just in showing them a completed piece.  That way you are modeling not only the concentration and effort of writing, but in using Think Aloud, you are modeling the process of writing and the decisions a writer makes.  In fact, Renee Moore says she shares “my writings with my students as both models of what to and not to do.”  Mary Tedrow says that she uses her own writing, “especially when helping students understand good/not so good feedback, how to respond like a reader, ask questions.” She continues by saying, “I let them review me first. I show all the messy stages, explaining in a think-aloud my rather recursive writing process.” Powerful stuff.

2.   Use real-life examples and have students come to the conclusion themselves of why paragraphs are where they are. Then have the students mimic the writing.  Both Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson (Everyday Editing, in particular) talk about using mimicking as a means to learn.   Have students mimic from the best.

3.   As for comma usage, narrative the punctuation. That is, when you read aloud, make sure you read the punctuation too.  Osmosis works for a good percentage of teaching punctuation.  Not everything, but it might help bridge some of the gap.

4.   For some texture, try showing them some youtube footage of Victor Borges.

5. Use other modalities. Well, I find that in reading aloud, and thinking aloud, we can focus on the problem of epic paragraphing.  With voice inflection and stress on those transition words, phrases, and main topic sentences, many students hear the differentiations between thoughts more than if they just read quietly to themselves.  Storyboarding thoughts, or comic booking, are effective too.  Sometimes it can’t be solved merely linguistically.

6.  Lastly, get thyself to a branch of the Writing Project. Find a teacher to recommend you.  Interview.  Spend your summer improving your own ability to write and to teach writing.  It’ll be life changing.  I kid you not.

So don your battle armor, grease up your teaching abs, and go forth and battle the epic paragraph.

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  1. Chris
    May 12, 2009

    Hi Heather,

    I love reading your posts – especially this one! I too battle the epic paragraphs with my 6th graders. I agree that modeling is so important for students. I also spend a lot of time trying to break my kids of their perceived need to jump right to the draft. Getting them to organize and even rework their ideas before they begin drafting is so helpful.

    Keep up the great posts and wonderful work!

  2. heather
    May 12, 2009

    What a great comment to read on a tiring night! I would love to hear how you battle your own epic paragraphs as well.
    Take care and battle on!
    aka Tweenteacher

  3. John Norton
    May 13, 2009

    Heather — as a frequent editor of essays and materials written by teachers, I’m here to report that epic paragraphs lurk in adult products as well! Perhaps not quite SO epic as an entire document — no competition for Faulkner — but lengthy for today’s readers.

    And that’s an interesting point, actually. Have you noticed that in professional publications (New Yorker always excepted), paragraphs are getting shorter? In well-written blogs, too. Take a look at this blog you’ve written, for example.

    These days when I stare at a long, dense paragraph of type, my right pinkie starts twitching for the RETURN key. Some of this may be my background in newspapers but do you think our growing tendency to get info from a computer monitor is affecting paragraph length?

    Not sure what this has to do with epic paragraphs — other than perhaps to put them before students and ask if THEY would read them. Or have students swap epics with the direction to apply paragraphing to each other’s work, until they reach a point where they’d be willing to read it voluntarily.

    But I guess the real problem has more to do with flow of thought than length of paragraph. You’d think short attention spans would lead to shorter paragraphs. Help me out, here. I’ve lost my own thought flow…. 🙂

  4. Tweenteacher
    May 13, 2009

    Thanks for this awesome, thoughtful comment. If we examine journalism and newspapers, paragraphs were always chunked in shorter sections, which is one reason why the 5-sentence rigid paragraph makes so little sense. That and the fact that a paragraph rich in ideas and content can range in length. Frankly, these Nazi-rigid paragraphs are only seen in secondary academic writing and not in more authentic assessments. Having said that, because more students and kids read online then ever read newspapers, you would think that chunking thoughts would come easier.

    The fact is, however, that writing essays for many students is still a regurgitation of one thought. If it falls under the same topic, it must only need to be one paragraph. The added developmental thought of stopping writing long enough to determine if there is a break of some sort needed may be that one skill too many for some students.

    It can be tackled, but it is needs to be systemically eliminated. I like your idea of “swapping epics” for example. I like the idea of showing them epics and asking them to chunk them. I like asking them to assess more authentic examples. I like having them reflect on whether someone would read an epic.

    After all, a huge wall of writing doesn’t mean it’s quality writing. Maybe that’s the myth that students must learn to dis-believe.

    Thank you again for popping up on tweenteacher. Talk to you soon at TLN!
    aka Tweenteacher

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