strategies

strategies

strategies

Mastering the Power Paragraph

Mastering the Power Paragraph

Mastering the Power Paragraph

essaypop

essaypop

Aug 16, 2023

Aug 16, 2023

7 minute read

7 minute read

Give your students the power to tackle any complex writing task with this strategic, step-by-step approach.

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Writing Templates Are Powerful Tools That Give Students a Major Advantage on High-stakes Exams.

I was in an English department meeting recently when one of my colleagues asked if there was a perfect strategy for students to approach the kinds of writing that they'll encounter on the high-stakes, end-of-year ELA exam. I teach at a grades 7 through 12 school in California so our students take the SBAC exam which assesses grade-level proficiency based on the Common Core standards. Students, among other things, have to respond to a writing prompt on the ELA exam.

There are three types of prompts, and students are randomly assigned one of them. The types of writing that are assessed are narrative/storytelling, expository/research-based essay writing, or argumentative essay writing. Curiously, some sort of response-to-literature prompt is not included, but I'm sure the Common Core gurus have their reasons. Most states, including Texas and Florida, have some version of these writing requirements albeit based on different standard sets.

Perfect strategy? Hmm… I raised my hand and suggested that a perfect strategy may not exist that works for every student, but there is a method that I’ve used over the years that always seemed to help my students do consistently well on the writing portion of the exam. It's true, my students do tend to do very well on the end-of-year exam, particularly the writing sections, and I attribute this in large part to the amount of time I spend working with them on explicit writing instruction.

The strategy that I use to prepare them for the exam is actually a template or structure that I call the power paragraph. It's a paragraph/short essay structure that allows students to show off a number of skills and sophistication in a relatively short amount of time.

The power paragraph is essentially an extension of a much simpler paragraph type that is typically taught in elementary and middle school. You've probably seen it many times. The structure that I'm referring to begins with a topic, sentence, or claim, then moves on to present some evidence (usually text evidence), and concludes with the student providing their own explanation, analysis, or reasoning. I've heard it called CER (claim, evidence, reasoning), CEA (claim, evidence, analysis), TEA (topic sentence, evidence, analysis), and several other acronyms as well.

Here’s an example of what this type of paragraph looks like composed in essaypop --

And here’s how it appears converted into an MLA-formatted document in real-time.

And while this three-paragraph is perfectly suitable for quick and simple responses, it generally falls short when it comes to addressing the types of prompts seen on end-of-year tests taken by middle and high schoolers. These types of writing require, in most cases, the integration of more than one piece of proof or text evidence into the essay. They're also looking to see if the student can thoroughly and coherently explain how the evidence presented relevantly supports a previously stated thesis or claim.

In many cases, they expect students to provide their audience with a conversational lead-in to the writing that may include necessary background information. They also want to assess how the student brings the writing to its completion with an adequate sense of closure. And if it is an argumentative piece of writing, they want to know that the student is able to deftly acknowledge and deflect any counterclaims.

Essentially, they’re looking for depth of thinking and clarity and they want this to be demonstrated in about 30 to 45 minutes which is a lot to accomplish for young people who are under pressure and still emerging as writers. It’s a stressful situation. To prepare them for the pressure, I provide my students with a well-practiced game plan to bring with them to the exam. The game plan involves using writing templates that they understand and have worked with many times. I want them to be comfortable at the outset and be able to start writing quickly without having to think too much about how they're going to organize their thoughts, so having such templates is vital.

Going back for a second to the simple, three-component structure, I like to get my middle and high school students very comfortable with this basic template first, and we spend several weeks just knocking out simple paragraph after simple paragraph. After all, even in secondary school, students must master these fundamentals and build muscle memory around the components of claim, evidence, and analysis.

Stacking Evidence and Analysis

Once they're comfortable with the simple template, I introduce the concept of "stacking" the simple paragraph elements. This basic modification is simple. The topic sentence remains the same, but instead of bringing in just one piece of evidence, students include two. I also have them add another distinct section of explanation/analysis. At first, I have them deliberately sequence these parts in the following order: evidence > analysis > evidence > analysis.

The resulting paragraph looks something like this --

This simple exercise essentially forces students to elaborate and say more about the topic they are discussing. It requires them to go back to the text and search for more relevant evidence to support their claim, and of course, once they've found it, they must think of something novel and relevant to say about it.

This back-and-forth approach (we jokingly call it the ping-pong approach) not only deepens the explanation, but it also feels natural. After all, when we talk or debate with others, we tend to provide a little bit of evidence and explain it, wait for feedback or a reaction, then provide a little bit more evidence and explanation as we work through the subject, hopefully burrowing deeper as we go.

What I have always found interesting is that the second incidence of analysis in this kind of communication always seems to be better and more well-thought-out than the first. It's as though the student's first round of reasoning summons up the most obvious insights, but the second attempt requires them to really think about what they're trying to say; as a result, the commentary is invariably better.

Here is the new paragraph construction in an MLA-formatted preview --

So the first stage of constructing the power paragraph simply requires integrating two simple paragraphs into a single, beefed-up paragraph. Of course, students can mix the sequencing up; they can stack two sections of evidence back-to-back and then provide the explanation/analysis piece, or they might lead the sequence with analysis and follow that with evidence. One thing I like about essaypop’s functionality is that students can move the frames around and experiment with different effects such movement has on the writing.

Adding an Intro and an Outro

So is the power paragraph finished? Not quite. To consistently do well on the kinds of writing required on end-of-year exams, students need to demonstrate a little more. I tell my students that by accomplishing the stacking that we've described, they've already done most of the hard work; they've shown that they can express themselves coherently and think critically about a focused idea. However, to give the piece of writing a more finished and sophisticated feel, they need to attach what we call an intro and an outro to the writing. So what are these components?

The intro (sometimes called the hook) is simply a section of writing that leads into the main idea of the paragraph in a conversational manner that contextualizes the topic. The hook prepares the reader to consider what is coming. Sometimes it's designed to engage or provoke a reaction; sometimes it provides the reader with critical background information so that the rest of the writing will make sense. The hook also shows that the writer is comfortable and confident with the subject matter, and even eager to grapple with the prompt.

I tell my students that it's almost impolite not to include some sort of engaging lead-in before beginning the business of proving things. It's like jumping into an important conversation with a person at a social gathering or business event without first providing some friendly context for the discussion. There are many ways that writers can create effective hooks, and the essaypop help cards provide several models. Take a look at the intro/hook we’ve added to our sample paragraph –

We call the power paragraph outro the closer, and it serves to provide some final thoughts, making the piece feel finished. It closes the door if you will. A piece of writing without some sort of closing statement can leave the reader hanging and wondering if the piece is even finished. A good closer can give the reader something thoughtful to consider or go out and do; it brings the writing full circle.

An effective closer again allows the writer to demonstrate some level of sophistication by allowing the student to comfortably and confidently guide the writing to a gentle rest. There are many strategies available to compose a good closer, and students can refer to the models in the help cards for assistance. They can also dial up sentence starters for suggestions on how to begin the closer.

Here's a view of the system’s sentence starters –

And here is the final MLA-formatted document. We've gone from approximately 150 words to just over 400 words.

Modifying the Power Paragraph to Address Argumentative Writing

Arguments proceed much in the same way that I've described so far. To do well here, students still compose a strong topic sentence; they strategically stack various pieces of evidence and analysis, and include an intro in and an outro – all the rules still apply. The difference, however, is that prompts requiring students to construct an argument invariably want counterclaims to be introduced, addressed, and rebutted.

For this, I simply have my students add a counterargument and rebuttal frame directly following their evidence/analysis stack and before their closer. Counterclaims can be addressed elsewhere, but I have always found that they're best placed right after proof and reasoning have been concluded. It seems like a natural transition spot. Again, going back to how people debate and converse “in the wild”, it is typical for the arguing party to deliver all of the facts and analysis first, and then get into the possible counterclaims, flaws, and objections to his or her argument. I tell my students that this counterargument/rebuttal placement also gives the writer the upper hand, as it gives them the last word in the discussion.

Summary

I firmly believe that students that go into high-stakes writing exams with a set of solid templates and structures in their tool belt have a distinct advantage over those who don't. Sure, highly proficient writers with natural ability can probably wing it and do reasonably well in these environments, but most students benefit from approaching these tasks with a strategic and preconceived plan.

One of the biggest stressors that is placed on students is the perceived time constraint. Sure, a student could outline and try to compose a full multiple-paragraph essay with an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, but I have found that most kids can't pull this off comfortably in 30 to 45 minutes which is about the amount of time they have to complete these tasks. Plus, a multiple-paragraph essay in many cases can be overkill in this situation.

Usually, students can integrate enough text evidence, demonstrate their ability to critically reason, and show a certain amount of sophistication and organizational coherency with the power paragraph. Not only that, they can accomplish the task relatively quickly. To ensure this, I have my students write a timed power paragraph every couple of weeks or so using the essaypop timer feature to keep them honest. There are certainly many ways that students can approach the type of writing they will be required to do on their end-of-year tests, but I can tell you from experience that the power paragraph is an excellent go-to strategy. Give it a try.

Final Note: When you select or design a lesson, you can dial up a power paragraph template directly. All of the writing frames we've discussed will be pre-populated.