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Note: To see what the 5 Minute Month is all about, click here to read the first post in the series.

I’ve been toying around with a few different ways to teach paragraph structures to my college composition students, and tested out a new exercise today, which I thought went fairly well. Paragraphing is one of the most vital components of written composition, and yet, in my experience, very few students have had any formal training in how to structure paragraphs. As a result, most 4-6 page papers consist of several very long paragraphs, beginning with the introduction, which often covers 1.5 pages and thereby “buries the lead” of the paper 1/4 of the way through. (Don’t get me started on teachers who instruct their students to only bring the thesis in at the very end of the paper — there’s a special place for you in a special place that is so special I won’t mention it here).

Here’s the exercise: I went to the L.A. Times website and found a two-page editorial on immigration reform that was organized into short, easily-digestible portions (2-3 sentences), in true journalistic fashion. I then compressed these short portions into three paragraphs, roughly 3/4 pages in length, and handed a printout of this article to the students. Their instructions were to mark a paragraph break anywhere they detected a conjunction used as a key word or signal phrase (although, therefore, however, but, and so on), a switch in topics, or a switch in voices (a quotation from a new source / a counterpoint perspective). I gave them about 15 minutes to work on this assignment, individually.

And oh, what a torturous 15 minutes that was! A few students looked at the dense “walls” of text on the paper in front of them and immediately reached for their phones to begin texting, without even bothering to pick up a pen. Others gamely plunged in, but as I circulated the room, I noticed even they slowed down in the marks they were making on the page after about 5-7 minutes. One fell asleep across the desk.

So I then called the students back together and started walking through the paper, asking them to offer suggestions for where to insert the first paragraph break and why, where to insert the next one and why, and so on. After about 10 minutes, we had made it halfway through the article with only a handful of paragraph breaks having been “discovered,” and their boredom was palpable — exactly what I wanted in this instance, actually! At this point, I broke off the exercise and pointed out the students falling asleep, those who had looked over the paragraphs and gave up without even attempting the work, and noted that there had been very little agreement on where / how to insert the few paragraph breaks that had been discovered. I then showed them a printout of the original article — still two pages, but much easier on the eyes and far easier to comprehend. It was a “light bulb” moment — some sheepish grins started to appear, as my continual comments on their papers re: “breaking up” paragraphs for clarity started to sink in. I closed with a few suggestions on how to plan for paragraph breaks, and let them go (one student needed to be woken up at this point).

I’ve tried a few other exercises / demonstrations, but this may be the most effective one yet. But perhaps I should wait for their next batch of papers to come in before I get too excited!

Word count: About 175
Time: 7-8 minutes