The Power of Paragraphs

One of the key skills in producing a text (and often undervalued by young writers) is the ability to structure a piece of writing well. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience before of a child earnestly raising their hand and asking ‘does this need to be written in paragraphs’. Hopefully you managed to quell the urge to shriek ‘YES’ at the top of your voice and point out that every piece of writing they ever produce for the rest of their lives will always need to be in paragraphs.

So why the aversion to them? A strong writer knows that guiding your reader skilfully through your argument, description or narrative is absolutely key to the success of your writing. There is much pleasure to be had in elegant links, accomplished patterns and adept semantic fields woven into the fabric of the writing.

Perhaps we don’t talk about structure and specifically paragraphing enough. Whilst quick to point out a clever metaphor or an apt word choice maybe we don’t  celebrate an incisive structure quite as much. In bemoaning my students’ lack of conscious crafting of structure, I reflected on how I talk to them about it. Looking back through my GCSE feedback I found comments like ‘make sure you start a new topic for a new idea’ and ‘Think of different ways to link your paragraphs’ or ‘try and use a very short paragraph for effect’ but where had I actually stopped and explicitly talked to students about what paragraphs are used for and how they support the reading process?

In my quest to develop the way students consciously craft structure, I had to think carefully about the purpose, functionality and stylistic choices that skilful writers use. I am not alone in a need to focus on this; In the 2018 examiner’s report for English Language for Paper 1, AQA also noted that there was  work to do ‘ there were still some cases where the more students wrote, the greater the deterioration in ideas, structure and accuracy’. This certainly seemed to be the case for my students. I felt increasingly convinced that if I wanted to help my students make a real difference to their writing, this was the way forward – going back to basics and making all aspects of the humble paragraph as explicit as possible.

In my Year 10 class the average score for content and organisation in their last writing assessment was 13 (lower level 3)  having focused heavily on paragraphing with this same class now embarking on Year 11, there has been significant positive movement. The average structure and organisation score in the piece of descriptive writing they have just completed was 18 with many students moving from level 3 to 4. Similar to my colleague’s observation in her useful blog on analytical writing  it is the lower original marks (those in level 1 or 2 for content and organisation) where the biggest gains have been with an average increase of 9 marks.

Here are some tried and tested teaching ideas and resources that were used with GCSE students to improve the structure of their writing but could easily be adapted for any year group from Key Stage 3 to 5.

Why do we need paragraphs?

  • In pairs read a text (paragraphs removed) and discuss what the experience is like as a reader. What are the frustrations? Record some of the issues students find as a starting point to consider how paragraphs help us as readers.
  • Look at the history of paragraphs. From Ancient Greece, marks to signal change in the middle ages to the creation of the printing press and the fashions of the years. A good source for a concise history of the paragraph can be found here:
  • Introduce the question: ‘Is the paragraph on its way out?’ and ask students to read this article from the Guardian found here: as well as a good opportunity to get in some Paper 2 practise why not take an opportunity for a class debate on whether we need them at all?

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Extreme Encounters: Exciting Ways into AQA Paper 2

On countless occasions, I’ve heard colleagues worry about the potentially dry skills they have to teach as part of adjusting to the new English Language specification – particularly when preparing students for AQA paper 2. Let’s be honest, synthesis, analysis and comparison are not the sort of skills that your average teenager is intrinsically motivated to master. Promising dubious students that these are the sorts of skills that are going to make them incredibly employable in the future is similarly futile; who is motivated by their distant future’s self to write a precise report synthesising information from different sources?

And we’re not always helped by the exam board either. Inevitably, a well prepared department planning the effective delivery of these skills begins with the exam papers and works backwards. The source material offered in the specimen papers is accessible but not always a joy to read. Drawing on student experiences of school and family is sensible but again, not the most thrilling starting point for a lesson.

Of course, if we are complaining that our course is a bit dry then we really only have ourselves to blame. The wonderful thing about English Language is the total and utter freedom to use whatever themes, topics and activities we want to – and we must. If we start schemes of learning off in Year 10 with timed exam practices we are missing the crucial opportunity to develop these skills with depth. Synthesising sources is a genuinely useful and interesting – I can think of countless examples of how I use it in my day to day existence as a Head of Department and at home (I’m currently organising a wedding) but I can’t think of any time I have had to do it in 10 minutes. Nor with only two sources….

So with this in mind here are some ideas for using ‘Extreme Encounters’ as a thematic way in to look at Paper 2 skills, not in timed exam blocks, but unashamedly long and complex explorations of these skills over several lessons; if students can create a detailed report on different elements of five different animal attacks, a 10 minute summary of two texts will be no problem when they get to Year 11. The theme doesn’t really matter but this is a topic that seems to be universally popular across different classes and abilities. Plus it allows me to use lots of the ‘Guardian Experience’ articles which I think are a wonderful resource for all English teachers. I challenge you to describe any lesson as dry when it starts with an article with the title: ‘I was swallowed by a hippo’…

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5 ways to say something meaningful in analysis

“’The end is nigh!’ This tells us that the summer is nearly over.” It does, but you haven’t told me why it has been said in that way or what effect that is having on the text at this moment! This made up example exemplifies many comments I encountered marking Macbeth essays last term; students who thought they were analysing language but were actually offering a modern translation of the quotation.

One key indicator that the end of the summer holidays is rapidly approaching is that a teacher support group I’m a member of on Facebook (‘AQA 9-1 GCSE English Lang & Lit’ – I would highly recommend joining if you are not already a member) has burst back into life in the last week. One post asking for ideas for higher level activities reminded me of the Macbeth essays and the result of them: one of my most successful year 10 strategies last year which I have been meaning to blog about since. Continue reading “5 ways to say something meaningful in analysis”