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?
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’…
In my early years of teaching, I spent many hours cutting up coloured cards, agonising over the correct image to correctly illustrate a skill and differentiated by making a terrifying range of different resources for every possible level within the classroom. Now? I realise less is more and I save my laminating for those multipurpose resources that I am going to use again and again. These conflict poetry strips are quick to create and incredibly versatile when exploring and revising poems. Below are five different ways that you can use them in lessons to enhance your teaching of the conflict poems.
Although these can be useful for students of all abilities, the visual element is particularly helpful for lower ability students who struggle to move between the literal and figurative element of poetry. For those students who are intimidated by elaborate lexical choices, subtle tones and unfamiliar imagery, image strips are a perfect way to give them a visual frame of reference that allows them to fearlessly explore ideas within the poems and gain confidence with poetry. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a set to accompany the AQA conflict poems.
Pre reading activities
Explore poems by using an image strip to explore the imagery contained within a poem before students read it. Give out the images and ask students to make predictions about themes, tones, content and even the words that they might expect to see within a poem. Continue reading “Conflict Poetry: 5 Ways to Use Image Strips”→
Every now and again you create a lesson that is just a winner – we are delighted to share our tried and tested transition day session that always goes down well with nervous Year 6 students and teachers dealing with the unknown dynamic of a new group.
The lesson is framed around an ‘adventure’ and students work as teams to tackle obstacles in the pursuit of treasure and prestige. Although the lesson runs itself once you get going, there is a bit of preparation of the room and resources before the lesson. Thanks to Kate Newman who came up with the original idea – a winning formula that has served us well for a number of years now.
Arrange the tables into groups
Sellotape down the giant treasure maps in the middle of each table
Select some appropriately exciting adventure music – we like the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ soundtrack available here
Set up six folders with the puzzles students will need to tackle as they work around their treasure map
Make sure you have stocked up on ‘treasure’ we use chocolate coins. Remember to check allergies and intolerance before the lesson just in case
Last week my class were totally absorbed in a set of lesson on synthesis. They spent hours carefully poring over several articles and meticulously sifting out quotations, information and inferences to create a precise and accurate summary of what they had read. The subject? Not Paper 2 skills as far as they were concerned but ‘Animal Attacks’. The most bizarre, gruesome and delightfully shocking accounts can be found in abundance thanks to the excellent Guardian Experience rangehere (I was swallowed by a hippo is a personal favourite). Here’s the thing though – I am totally convinced that my boy heavy, gore loving class would not have enjoyed working through the specimen papers provided by AQA nearly as much – in fact I would go as far as to say that I would have inevitably lost some of them along the way; however clearly I broke down the process of synthesis and summary, the extrinsic motivator of being able to perform in a GCSE exam would not be enough to hold their attention or help all of them really embed that skill. It’s not that they don’t care about their GCSEs, it’s more that summary and synthesis are not necessarily fun skills to master for most of us. Useful? Yes. Necessary? Well sort of. But fun? Not really. Animal attacks are intrinsically interesting to them and picking them as the source material would have made any subsequent activity a winner.
I read the debates on Twitter about engagement (or ‘investment’ as James Durran elegantly re-terms it in his post here) and I do agree that much of what we do is intrinsically interesting and that when we approach it with enthusiasm and passion, we shouldn’t need to rely on gimmicks and ‘empty activities’ that are more about entertaining classes than really bringing on their knowledge and skills. It is also true that there is nothing worse than observing ‘fun’ lessons that are full of activity with no real thought or value behind them. Continue reading “Why we should still be having fun”→