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four course areas, overview
college foundation skills
academic samplers
college success
career development
course examples

Area I - Foundation Skills
Area II
Area III
Area IV

Area I – Foundation Skills (example)

From the EFFECTIVE WRITING and WRITING FOR SECOND LANGUAGE LEARNERS courses

What is a paragraph?

A paragraph is a group of sentences that all relate to a main idea and to each other.

A paragraph can be short – just a few sentences - or long with many sentences, sometimes filling a whole page. Usually, however, paragraphs contain about five to eight sentences.

Take a look at this paragraph example. Read the story in the left column first and then go back and read the comments in the right column. You'll find some useful help here, much like what a teacher would say if she was sitting next to you in a classroom.

Paragraph from a story Teacher comments

"When I went to kindergarten and had to speak English for the first time, I became silent. A dumbness – a shame – still cracks my voice in two, even when I want to say ‘hello' casually, or ask an easy question in front of the check-out counter, or ask directions of a bus driver. I stand frozen, or I hold up the line with the… sentence that comes squeaking out at impossible length. ‘What did you say?' says the cab driver, or ‘Speak up,' so I have to perform again, only weaker the second time. A telephone call makes my throat bleed and takes up that day's courage. It spoils my day with self-disgust when I hear my broken voice… I'm getting better, though. Recently I asked the postman for special-issue stamps; I've waited since childhood for postmen to give me some of their own accord. I am making progress, a little every day."

-- Maxine Hong Kingston, The Misery of Silence

The writer has been afraid to speak English since she was a little girl.

She tells us about times that she tries to speak but can't.

A telephone call is very hard. She says it makes her throat "bleed." It doesn't really; it's just so difficult to talk on the phone that it feels like her throat is bleeding.

She finally got the courage to ask the postman for stamps.

Now let's take a closer look at paragraphs

1. A paragraph has a main idea . What is the main idea in the paragraph you just read?

The writer has struggled to overcome her fear of speaking English.

2. The main idea sentence is also called a topic sentence. Is there a sentence that sums up the main idea fairly well?

"A dumbness – a shame – still cracks my voice in two, even when I want to say ‘hello' casually, or ask an easy question in front of the check-out counter, or ask directions of a bus driver."

3. Is there any sentence in this paragraph that does not relate to, or have some connection to, the main idea.

No, every sentence connects directly to the main idea.

4. What do we call sentences that help describe or explain the main idea?

We call them supporting details. Details about the main idea help to develop the paragraph. A writer has to say enough about the topic so that her reader will understand. This is part of what we mean by "saying enough."


Assignment 4.1: Understanding a paragraph

Read the following paragraph taken from the same essay:

Chinese girl "It was when I found out I had to talk that school became misery and that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time that I did not speak. I read aloud in first grade, though, and heard the barest whisper with little squeaks come out of my throat. ‘Louder," said the teacher, who scared the voice away again. The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl."


Write answers in complete sentences to the following questions:

  1. What do you think is the main idea in this paragraph?
  2. Is there a sentence that sums up the main idea fairly well? Copy that sentence here in your assignment.
  3. Is there any sentence in this paragraph that does not relate to, or have some connection to, the main idea.
  4. What do we call sentences that help describe or explain the main idea?

Use the assignment form and send your completed work to your teacher with the heading Write 4.1

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