"Write a paragraph on traffic jams."
Have you been asked to do so in school? I was too. My teacher sometimes asked me, "Write a SHORT paragraph on a winter morning." A short paragraph! A paragraph on traffic jams or winter mornings! Today when I teach my students, it makes me think because the way I used to write paragraphs and how my teachers graded them violated the very definition of a paragraph.
Here is what the Cambridge Dictionary says about the definition of a paragraph: "A short part of a text that begins on a new line and consists of one or more sentences dealing with a single idea." Oxford Learner's Dictionary has been a bit more specific about the definition -- "a section of a piece of writing, usually consisting of several sentences dealing with a single subject. The first sentence of a paragraph starts on a new line."
From these two credible definitions, we can assume that a paragraph should be very short, since it is part of a text. Often it is not more than a couple of sentences -- 3 is the best and 8 the maximum, according to dictionary.com. A paragraph should start with a new line of the idea. And then it should introduce a second new line, but only if you intend to write a second paragraph. However, we are asked to write "a paragraph" in the examination. Isn't it confusing?
Secondly, a paragraph should contain only one "single idea" which means I can only reflect one idea on a particular topic. It could be a reason, a solution, advice or a piece of information. Surprisingly, I wrote all the ideas in a single paragraph during my school days. More surprisingly, my teachers graded them a solid A. Even today, many textbooks, guidebooks, and notebooks to academic solutions keep the practice going. If we look at such a paragraph from a book available in the market, we are confused about the definition.
At first glance, you can see it has more than three paragraphs sometimes, although the question was to write a paragraph. If you look and read closely again, you will find that the so-called paragraph contains multiple ideas, including an introduction, causes, effects, and solution. Also, it has a lot of sentences. And the truth is all school paragraphs in all books are really very similar. Don't they therefore violate the definition of a paragraph?
Writing paragraphs is important to invent new ideas, to help students be creative, and let them think in their own ways. It's always appreciated that they should focus on new ideas and produce something of their own through writing. But, asking them to write a paragraph is not an appropriate question pattern and so, the trend should be changed.
Instead of asking the students to write a paragraph, we can be more specific in this regard. We may ask them to describe something they have seen, explain something they ponder, inform us something they want, or argue about something they like or dislike. That way they are free to write their own thoughts and create different ideas using several paragraphs on a single topic.
Rezaul Karim Reza is a freelance teacher in Rangpur whose work has previously appeared in Reader's Digest.