Originally Sent: 2/5/2015

HSLDA Homeschooling Thru High School Online

February 5, 2015


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Color Mapping Paragraphs and Essays

Dear Friends,

We enjoy entering your homes each month via the high school newsletter. Although it is definitely a one-sided conversation with us doing all of the “talking,” we try our best to anticipate your questions and provide you with useful information relating to some aspect of high school that may have left you stumped or searching for advice.

Carol Becker

Diane Kummer
Both of HSLDA’s high school consultants homeschooled their children from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Learn more >>

Parents often ask us about the difference between middle school and high school courses. The primary difference is the academic papers students must learn to write for various subjects. Composition skills learned in English should spill over into science and history. During high school, the study of English moves away from grammar exercises to reading and understanding great literature and developing higher level composition skills. For more information on the four elements of a high school English course, read this archived newsletter.

Many parents feel intimidated by the prospect of teaching academic writing, and they have legitimate questions about the differences between creative writing, paragraphs, and essays. Often students who enjoy creative writing bring the narrative style to their academic compositions. However, essays are not stories, and academic writing has a recognizable format students must learn and practice. Let’s address the nuts and bolts of paragraph and essay organization with the Color Mapping (CM) method, developed during Carol’s many years of teaching high school writing to homeschooled students.

Color Mapping Paragraphs

The CM method helps students understand where certain information belongs within a paragraph, and organization builds on the analogy of climbing a mountain. The topic sentence is the signpost pointing a hiker to the trailhead. The interesting facts are the hike up the mountainside. The insight is the breathtaking view from the top.

Topic Sentences

Every good academic paragraph begins with a topic sentence written in the student’s own words and showcases the main idea under discussion. With CM, students either write the topic sentence in blue or underline it because this visually shows its position and prominence. Primarily, the topic sentence points the reader to the paragraph’s insight without revealing the full view, and it addresses why a climber should hike this mountain. Many students find this opening sentence easier to write once they have determined the rest of the paragraph. Questions and quotations are unsuitable options for topic sentences.

Interesting Facts

Just as mountain climbs consist mostly of hiking the trail, most of the academic paragraph consists of interesting facts. With CM, students either write these sentences in red font or underline them because this visually shows the position and quantity of factual information within the paragraph. Although science and history facts seem straightforward to most students, misunderstanding the nature of literary facts causes some confusion. Literary facts come directly from the novel, play, poem, or short story, and they consist of conflicts, decisions, mistakes, consequences, characterizations, quotations, and symbolism found within the literature. If a student can turn to an actual page in a novel where something happened, then this is a literary fact. For more detail about helping students discern literary facts, review this newsletter. Students may also use historical details about the author’s life and generation.

All paragraphs benefit from well-developed information. To the reader, one fact seems anecdotal—curious but not persuasive. Although two facts are better, coincidence is not the best foundation for advancing an argument. Three interesting facts establish a pattern worthy of consideration. To organize information, many students revert to storytelling; however, the narrative style does not belong in academic paragraphs because essays respectfully argue points—not entertain readers. To develop structure, other writers resort to a question-and-answer format. Although this is an acceptable style for lower-level compositions, high school students must develop a mature writing style. Any questions should be rhetorical in nature because the answer should be obvious and require no explanation. Rhetorical questions make the writer appear reasonable and less adamant. The CM method recommends that insight—the glorious view at the end of the hike—govern how students organize interesting facts.


Just as people hike a mountain in order to enjoy the view, a paragraph should have the same goal and not disappoint the reader. In our information-saturated society, the ability to understand the meaning behind facts sets discerning leaders apart from unquestioning followers. insight is not only the most challenging part of any paragraph but also the most important feature. Homeschool parents should strive to develop their teens’ higher level thinking skills by teaching students how to see the bigger picture. Strengthen these skills by discussing concepts, correlations, and consequences with your teens regularly. Most students must verbalize significant ideas with adults to formulate insights before teens can compose them alone.

Color Mapping Outlines

A useful outlining technique benefits all writers, but most students have not learned a practical method. Others consider a paragraph too short to require an outline. The CM method helps students examine interesting facts for consistency, and it enables them to rearrange the facts in logical manner. Following the same color coding conventions detailed for topic sentences, interesting facts, and insights, students begin by jotting down information but not in sentence form. Instead, instruct your students to write disjointed lists of phrases, clauses, and vocabulary words. (Employ parentheses to define important vocabulary.) When students write sentences on outlines, this prevents them from detecting unbalanced or mismatched facts, and writers certainly resist sentence modifications. Conversely, students likely won’t have qualms about moving, modifying, or deleting phrases/clauses because the hard work of sentence building has not yet occurred.

As most students find facts to be the easiest part of the writing process, students came to Carol’s class with the three interesting facts filled in with idea-rich phrases and clauses. Carol met individually with each student to discuss an appropriate insight, which each student wrote down. At this juncture, most students can now clearly see how facts should be reordered, revised, or restructured to substantiate the insight. Lastly, students choose three words that they will use to construct a signpost for the trailhead—the topic sentence. Now students have a practical outline full of significant phrases and clauses in logical progression. Students are well equipped at this stage to write an academic paragraph.

Color Mapping Essays

The CM method helps students understand how essay sections fit together. By writing three or more CM paragraphs on different aspects of a novel, play, poem or short story, parents can teach students how to generate their first CM essay. The standard essay format begins with an introductory paragraph, followed by three or more body paragraphs, and culminates with a concluding paragraph.

Color Mapping Introductory Paragraph

Although students have great latitude in beginning a composition, academic essays have only one introductory paragraph, and the last sentence is the thesis. Students should follow these steps to build an introductory paragraph:

  1. Creative opening. Consider a pertinent quotation, creative narrative, or interesting observation. Follow with any background information the reader needs to understand the thesis, the most important sentence in the entire essay.
  2. Thesis: This is the essay’s topic sentence and the final sentence in the introductory paragraph. While creative writers balk at explaining the paper’s purpose up front, high school students must learn and hone this format. The interesting part of an essay isn’t the thesis but the substantiating evidence employed to defend it. Unfortunately, many students rephrase the writing assignment and don’t compose a true thesis. With CM, students understand that a blue thesis visually shows its essential connection with every topic sentence. Most students find it easiest to construct a thesis by working backward. This consists of remolding and refining all the topic sentences into one elegant sentence—the thesis. Students should omit usage of pronouns, questions, or quotations in the thesis.

Color Mapping Body Paragraphs

Each body paragraph follows the CM paragraph previously described, but students should order the body paragraphs from least important to most profound insight because significance plays a role in organization. To understand this principle, consider the following court room analogy. At the beginning of a trial, the judge states the charge (opening and background), and the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty (thesis). Once the prosecution has presented its case, the defense attorney (writer) concentrates on crucial points raised by the prosecution: motive, means, and opportunity (main points). The attorney addresses each main point in logical order (body paragraphs), and he calls witnesses to testify (interesting facts). The lawyer seeks to show that the defendant had nothing to gain by the crime, never touched the weapon, and was out of town when the crime occurred (insight), and he builds from least to most significant point.

Color Mapping Concluding Paragraph

The concluding paragraph has three goals, and students have flexibility in the format. The CM method includes the thesis and insights in this paragraph, but writers must avoid any interesting facts or new information. Instead, students summarize the concepts and ideas already presented—not verbatim but with different wording. Students should keep these goals in mind for the concluding paragraph:

  1. Restate the thesis.
  2. Pull together the insights from each body paragraph from least significant to most significant.
  3. Bring the paper to a sense of closure for the reader.

This last paragraph showcases the student’s best writing. Often the essay’s title mirrors a phrase from this closing paragraph.

For 11th and 12th grade college-bound students who have developed proficiency with CM paragraphs, parents will find a more rigorous discussion of PEAK Paragraphs and PEAK Essays.

Once students feel confident with the paragraph, encourage them to write paragraphs for science and history classes. As essay skills develop, students should write essays in other subjects. Wherever your teen is in the writing process, begin with organization skills for paragraphs and essays. By understanding how to nurture writing skills, you can improve upon any publisher’s curriculum, and this will give you confidence to teach your teen composition skills

If you think your teen would benefit from an outside writing instructor, check out online courses as well as Patrick Henry College’s Writing Mentor program.

Join us next month as we discuss the important role that teachers play in developing independent learners.

Encouraging you in your teen’s writing endeavors,

Carol Becker and Diane Kummer
HSLDA High School Consultants

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