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Paragraphs Then and Now

Students are required to read and respond to an information paragraph on the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. Information paragraphs generally don't stand on their own, as they do on the OSSLT. Unless they're a short did-you-know blurb in a print magazine, or a tip in a menu bar in a textbook, they are generally one of many paragraphs in a longer piece of writing.

What are paragraphs?

Paragraphs are...
  • designed to help readers navigate a text
  • separated by a blank line of space or a left indent
  • can vary in length depending on the genre and/or readers' expectations
  • are built around one idea

How have paragraphs changed?

The length of paragraphs has changed since the OSSLT first came on the scene over 10 years ago. Compare the length of the Six String Nation guitar information paragraph on the 2012 test to the length of a paragraph in this blog post:
  • How many sentences do you count in the Six String Nation paragraph?
  • How many sentences are there in the paragraphs in this post? 
  • One paragraph in this post only has one sentence. Why do you suppose I did that?
Why are paragraphs shorter?

Nowadays, paragraphs are much shorter because of readers' expectations. A great deal of reading happens online and onscreen, and because there is so much to read, shorter paragraphs are much easier to scan than huge blocks of text. Further, people are reading on devices with small screens and long paragraphs can easily fill up the screen with text, leaving little room for white space, which offers a kind of visual break. It's fair to say, then, that the way we read is changing the way we write.

When are longer paragraphs okay?

In the past, teachers would counsel students to write paragraphs that were no longer than 10 sentences. That seemed sensible at the time, when that's what readers expected. For some kinds of writing, like essays, this advice still rings true. Can you think of other genres where's it's okay to write longer paragraphs? What are the advantages of longer paragraphs? Disadvantages?

Try this

Do a quick search of the Internet. Look at:
  • a website
  • a blog
  • an online newspaper
Compare paragraph lengths:
  • Which do you find easiest to read? Why? 
  • What text features do online writers use to making reading easier for the reader (Hint: Look at the features in this blog post)?
  • Examine each paragraph in this post. What idea is each paragraph built on? 
Shorten paragraphs:
  • Take the Six String Nation guitar paragraph from the 2012 test and break it into shorter paragraphs, so that it would be easier to read online.
  • Where did you insert breaks? Why?