Paragraph Structure

› Paragraphs

Make paragraph structure easy for students to visualize using the Stoplight Writing method. The question "How to write an essay?" becomes easy to answer.

Stoplight writing is an essay writing format that teaches students how to use a basic paragraph structure.

This way of teaching was developed by the Step Up To Writing program. The adaptations are how I use it in my own classroom for teaching writing to children.

How to Use Stoplight Writing

After teaching your students how to use this, they will have the tools to do paragraph writing that includes a topic sentence, three supporting sentences with details, and a closing sentence.

As well, you can now have the students begin to write a five paragraph essay using this same method.

How to Teach Writing a Paragraph

I. Beginning Lessons on Basic Paragraph Structure

II. Writing a Basic Paragraph

III. Extending the Paragraph to Include Details

IV. Writing an Extended Paragraph

I. Beginning Lessons on Basic Paragraph Structure

Show a colored picture of a traffic light. Discuss with the students what the different colors mean:

  • Green means go
  • Yellow means slow down
  • Red means stop

Explain that these colors can also be used in writing a paragraph.

Now show an example of a basic paragraph structure that only has green and yellow sentences. You can use this one to get you going:

Cats are the most interesting animals in the world!  First, they can see in the dark. Second, they can jump really high. Last but not least, cats really try to talk to you when they want something.  I think everyone should have one of these interesting animals as a pet.

Tip:  Write the sentences on strips of construction paper.  This is excellent for your visual and kinesthetic learners.

Discuss with the students how the paragraph makes sense and is in order, although it is far from exciting. Underline the first sentence in green and repeat that "Green means go." This means you need a powerful sentence to get your writing going - start with a question, a sound, an expression - anything that can draw a reader in.

Next, underline the three middle sentences in yellow. Explain that these sentences are "Slow Down" sentences - you are explaining more about the first sentence. These sentences support the beginning sentence.

Finally, underline the last sentence in green again. Explain that the last sentence is green because you want the students to "Go Back" and look at their beginning sentence again, and repeat it in another way to close out the paragraph. Discuss how good closing sentences are like wrapping up a present - it is the string that ties it all together.

Do not introduce red until students have mastered writing a basic green and yellow paragraph. Although they may not be exciting pieces of writing, the objective of this teaching tool is to solidify organization (one of the 6 Traits of Writing).

Continue reading and underlining paragraphs with the students using green and yellow until they are showing mastery of basic paragraph structure (gauge this by having them work independently on underlining a paragraph).

Here's a Stoplight you can use with your lessons!

II. Writing a Basic Paragraph

Begin writing a paragraph using basic paragraph structure.

Students should not be expected to write independently yet - this is the moment for modeled and guided writing.

(After repeated lessons, then you can begin to have them write simple paragraphs).

  1. Model writing a paragraph with your students using one of these descriptive writing prompts and do it using a web for brainstorming ideas.
  2. Use a StopLight Writing Graphic Organizer (below) as you show explicit modeling of the paragraph using the colors.
  3. The organizer should be filled with words or short phrases. Refer to this graphic organizer often during your modeled writing (below).
  4. As you being to write, let the students hear your thinking. While writing a green sentence (using a green marker), say,"This is my beginning, or opening, sentence. I know I need to make it grab the reader's attention, so what could I do?"
  5. Elicit responses from the students and write your opening.

Perhaps it could look like this:

Splat! The enormous wave smacked me in the face.

Next, model your three yellow sentences based on your graphic organizer. Point out how yellow sentences should use transition words to move from one supporting idea to the next:

I was very nervous at first. Then I dove in with my boogie-board. Finally, I was riding the waves in to the shore!

Finally, model your closing sentence using green again. Remind the students that this time green means to go back to the beginning and close out your paragraph in a way the is similar to the beginning:

I hit the ground with a thud, and this time it was the sand that smacked me in the face.

Save this class writing to revisit during Step IV.

Teacher Note:  You will have to model this type of writing many times with your students and guide them while writing basic paragraphs together.

When they are ready, lead them through a webbing brainstorm, give a StopLight Writing Graphic Organizer to each student to complete.

III. Extending the Paragraph to Include Details

It is time to start using red. In a basic paragraph structure, red means, "Stop! Add details!"

Scaffold your teaching by reminding students that the first sentence of any paragraph is going to be green, as that is the opening sentence.

  1. Begin reading a paragraph you have either written or found, underlining with green and yellow as you go, but stop at the first red.
  2. Introduce the red by saying, "This sentence is a bit different than a yellow. Look, it's telling me more about the yellow sentence that is in front of it! This is what we call a detail - it gives more information and that is why we underline it in red. We are to stop giving new supporting sentences and just give more details."
  3. Continue underlining in the details in red, but when you come to a new yellow, stop and point out how this is a new supporting sentence, not another detail about the first yellow. Underline the next details in red, and continue until coming to the end.
  4. Remind the students that green also means, "Go back." Re-look at the beginning sentence to see if the final sentence wraps it all up in a similar way, and underline it in green.

At this point, the children should notice a predictable pattern in the paragraph writing.  For example:

Green, YellowRed, RedYellowRed, RedYellowRed, RedGreen.

Try using this paragraph about Delicious Chocolate Cake.

This would also be a great place to extend this activity to the kinesthetic mode by reconstructing a previously read story using the colors to model paragraph structure. An excellent book to use for this is "How to Lose All Your Friends."

IV. Writing An Extended Paragraph

Now is the time to add the details to the paragraph structure. Let's return to point II and the writing example there.

The paragraph I wrote in step II was very basic. There were no Reds - no details.

While it is efficient and organized, it lacks punch and excitement. This is a great point to make with your students as they need to see not only what works, but what doesn't really work and why.

Re-write the Green and Yellow paragraph, but explain that now we are adding in the Reds - the exciting details.

At this point you need to use a more in-depth graphic organizer. Below are three options to use for differentiation: primary, high primary and intermediate.

As you write, think out-loud to your students about why you are putting certain details with certain yellows, and how you would never put a red with a yellow that it didn't really go with.

Splat! The enormous wave smacked me in the face. I was very nervous at first. I had never been the Atlantic before, and it was wild. For a moment I wondered if I would survive. Then I dove in with my boogie-board. My mom had bought it for me this morning. It felt smooth under my body. Finally, I was riding the waves in to the shore! A tiny fish darted under me. I was zooming so fast I didn't know how close I was getting to the shallow water. I hit the ground with a thud, and this time it was the sand that smacked me in the face.


This may seem tlike it takes a long time just for learning how to write a paragraph.

It does.

Students need multiple, explicit exposures to basic paragraph structure before it becomes a natural way of thinking and writing.

Go here to see how the developmental stages of writing work with this type of paragraph structure.

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