The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Defining Letters, Words, Sentences, and Paragraphs

I asked my students an interesting series of questions today:

  1. What are letters and punctuation marks?
  2. What is a word?
  3. What is a sentence?
  4. What is a paragraph?

These may not seem like interesting questions; after all, students start learning about the letters of the alphabet when they are in kindergarten or even in pre-school! They learn sight words in first and second grade, along with punctuation, writing sentences, and writing paragraphs. These are fundamental skills in writing, and they all know how to do that!

But my question wasn’t, “How do you write or create these?” It was, “What are these?” Here is what we determined today:

A letter is a character used to represent a sound or, in some cases, multiple sounds. Some sounds, though, require multiple letters. Similarly, punctuation marks are single characters that are used in writing to express the tone of a sentence or a word.

A word is a collection of letters that create a specific series of sounds that represent a specific concept. While the Oxford English Dictionary currently lists over 250,000 words, there are many words that are not found in that dictionary. Specific scientific, medical, or technical terms may not be listed. Derivations of words may not be counted. Do words with multiple meanings deserve to be considered separate words? According to the definition my students came up with, I would argue the answer is yes. The editors of the OED even recognise this dilemma. We even discussed how easy it is to make up new words. For example, in every yearbook I signed last year, I wrote the same message: “Have a fantabulasticaliciously awesomesauce summer!” Even though two of those were completely made up words, everyone knows what the sentence means because they recognise the bits and pieces of other familiar words, such as fantabulous, fantastic, and delicious.

A sentence is several words put together with subject and a predicate that focus on one unified topic. Sentences start with capital letters, end with a punctuation mark, and often have other punctuation marks, such as commas or semicolons, in the middle. The subject, which tells us who or what is doing something, does not have to be at the start of a sentence, although it often is. The predicate, which always follows the subject, tells us what is being done. Sentences do not have to be long. For example, “I am.” On the other hand, having several words with a single topic do not necessarily make that collection of words a sentence. For example, “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun” is a just a list of words.

A paragraph is several sentences all joined by a common theme. Most paragraphs will have at least three sentences, but this is not required. This was the focus of our writing for today. Building on our writing task from Wednesday, the class began writing a paragraph about themselves. Specifically, they were given the assignment to write one paragraph to answer this question: “What has been the best day of your life?” (Some students wanted to know if they could write about a future or made-up event and I gave them permission to do so.) I reminded them that they should not focus on mechanics or conventions at this stage of the writing process because they were still focusing on getting ideas out of their heads and onto their papers. Some students started their paragraphs by brainstorming a list of ideas. Others were ready to start a first draft. Some wrote one or two sentences. Others wrote several. All were writing in their writing journals and all were thinking about the topic at hand. We will continue to work on these paragraphs in the coming week, with ultimate goal of typing them and sharing them on a hallway bulletin board.

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