Paragraph Structure in Open Ended Responses

Writing Paragraphs

Student Considering Paragraph Structure. Cultura/yellowdog/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

Asking a student for a well-written paragraph in a response is often used as an assessment tool. 

When a student responds by writing a paragraph in response to a prompt or a text passage, a teacher can use the paragraph to see if a student can write grammatically using grade level vocabulary. There are other reasons, however, for asking for a paragraph response. When a student writes a paragraph response, a teacher can:

  • see how well a student can think and reflect in writing;
  • see how well a student can express an opinion or support an idea;
  • see how much information a student knows on a topic.

Therefore, a student will need to be familiar with a basic paragraph structure to respond to any open-ended question in any content area.

According to the Writing Lab known as the OWL at Purdue, "to be as effective as possible, a paragraph should contain each of the following":

  •  Unity or focus on a topic;
  • Coherence or organized thought that uses key words and transitions; 
  • A Topic Sentence  that covers the major point of the paragraph
  • Adequate Development which may include anecdotes or evidence in the form of direct quotes or paraphrasing, definitions, or data that helps the reader better understand the topic. This evidence in the paragraph may follow a structure: sequence, compare or contrast, or rank evidence in order of importance. 

Paragraph Structure

The following structure is considered ideal for an open-ended response that requires more than a one word or phrase response.

Topic sentence: The topic sentence (contains the main idea of the paragraph in a response to the question. The response should not restate the whole question, but the response should use some of the key words in the question. Generally, this is the first sentence of a paragraph.

 Well Developed Sentences: Explain, elaborate, or describe the topic sentence. These sentences are focused on the evidence to support the topic. 

Closing Sentence: The closing sentence refers to the main idea in the topic sentence; it does not repeat the topic sentence. This closing sentence connects the ideas in the paragraph to the larger topic. 

Students should know that the length of a paragraph is not as important as what is said in the paragraph.  Some teachers may establish guidelines (a paragraph has five sentences), but these guidelines are to encourage development of an idea.

Students should be careful to read the question carefully in order to understand what is being asked. They must know that there are differences among analyze, explain, compare, contrast, describe, list, summarize, and identify. They must read carefully to know if they must have a specific position to take (pro or con) or evidence to use (incorporate data from column A only). Such a mistake reflects a lack of attention to the specifics of the prompt.  

Students may also fail to support their position by including appropriate evidence. They also may not explain why or how there is a connection between the evidence and the topic.

In helping students prepare for open-ended responses that require paragraphs, teachers need to stress the following:

  • Students need to understand what is being asked, paying particular attention to the verbs in the questions;
  • Students should provide more than one piece of evidence from the text;
  • Students should not contribute unrelated ideas;
  • Students need to use transitions to help the reader see how each sentence is related to the preceding sentence;
  • Students need to state a conclusion;
  • Students should have a clear connection between their conclusion and the topic.

In the three examples from students below, the transitions and evidence are italicized.

Example of Responding to a Prompt:

Question: Why do teens adopt a particular style of dressing?

Teens choose a style of dressing to feel accepted. By wearing a style associated with a particular group, many teenagers feel they belong to that group. For example, when I was in my early teens, I was so shy I didn't have a clue about how to make friends. I did, however, know how to sew very well. Thus, I would be among the first to wear the latest style, whether it was a straight skirt with little flounces at the bottom or a full skirt with yards of fabric gathered at the waist. I would wear popular styles even if it caused arguments with my mother. In fact, I still remember her yelling at me to loosen my belt before school. In spite of her scolding, once I was a block from home, I would tighten my belt back to nineteen inches causing painful, vertical marks around my waist by the end of the day. I didn't mind the discomfort though, for even the most popular girls remarked about my tiny waist, and, although they didn't know my name, their compliments made me feel accepted.

Example of Responding to a Fiction Text:

Question: What details in the short story "Popular Mechanics" by Raymond Carver contribute to tone and mood?

First, Carver places his story by creating dark urban backdrop. The setting is late winter, just as the snow starts to melt, turning into “dirty water” as “cars slushed by on the street.” He ends the first paragraph with the simple sentence “but it was getting dark on the inside too." Later, the reader is given descriptions of a seedy apartment with two rooms, a bedroom where a child sleeps and a small poorly lit kitchen which contains "a broken flower pot." All of these details contribute to a very pessimistic tone in a negative setting.

Responding to a Nonfiction Text

Example Question: What is the message from  The Man in the Water by Roger Rosenblatt essay TIME: Monday, Jan.

25, 1982

The unidentified Man in the Water is proof that “no man is ordinary." While this statement could be interpreted in many ways, the author of this essay, Roger Rosenblatt does seem to point towards one specific meaning that the unidentified hero could be anyone.  As Rosenblatt states, "For a while he was Everyman," suggesting that while most humans never let their extraordinary side come out, there are certain situations can allow for this capability to come out of hibernation. After the crash of  Flight 90, the Man in the Water is certainly proof of this extraordinary side to people, because he selflessly gives up his life for those around him. Perhaps, a regular man would have thought of himself first and not of those around him, but in this situation the man in the water had his extraordinary capability awakened and "he pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy,"  the icy waters of the Potomac River.  By giving up his life for others, the Man in the Water showcased that deep inside each human being there is the ability to do great things.