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”

Reflecting on your GCSE Results: Six Questions for Teachers

I start to get nervous about GCSE results about a week before they come out. I anxiously look back at the paper, obsess about particular children who could have gone either way on the day and  have anxiety dreams that steadily intensify as the big day looms. As a Head of Department, I worry about whether I’ve got interventions in the right place, put in enough support for trickier groups and done enough to mitigate staff absence. And let’s not forget that it’s not actually us taking the exams – we do everything we can to give students the best possible chance to do well but on the day their success is their own and although it can be tempting to take the credit, we are a tiny part of each student’s achievement (or failure).

In terms of my class’ results, I try not to worry (though writing this particular post before seeing them does feel a little like tempting fate) They are normally strong as they should be after a significant time teaching; if you are leading a department then helping students achieve good results is a crucial part in winning the confidence of your team and convincing them that you know what you’re talking about. My results haven’t always been consistent though, particularly not in the early years of my career and I believe the way we reflect on our results is absolutely crucial in building successful outcomes in the long term: whether that involves unpicking a class that haven’t performed as well as  expected, working out what went well in order to replicate it in future years or looking for opportunities for marginal gains in a strong set of results.

It’s not always a comfortable process. One of the most consistently brilliant GCSE teachers in my department is one of the best people I’ve ever seen at working through her results effectively. However good her headlines figures are, her analysis of her results is always focused on the one or two students that haven’t achieved or the question that isn’t answered as well by her class as others in the department. It’s this forensic analysis and brutal honesty that make her such an effective practitioner. She celebrates her successes but is rigorous in identifying where she thinks she can improve her practice for the next year. She does just that as well.

If your results are not as good as you hoped they’d be,  the process of analysing them is so much more important than beating yourself up about it. Here are some questions that might help you to think about your outcomes and some actions that are going to have a meaningful impact on your teaching next year:

  1. Were the results what you were expecting?
  • If your results are much higher or lower than what you forecast, this is something to think about for next year. If there’s a trend of being too harsh or over generous, this is an easy bias to identify and rectify for your next year’s teaching. You might find it’s more subtle and you tend to have underestimated a particular group e.g. high attainers or been generous in your assessment of grade 5 students.
  • Ask yourself if you are forecasting accurately or using more cautious forecasts to motivate students. Be brutal – has it worked? If not change your approach next year. If we approach things in the same ways, we’ll get the same results.
  • If your results are erratically inaccurate then find out which of your colleagues are spot on and arrange to do some joint marking or ask for a second opinion around grades you feel less sure about in your early September assessments.

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Conflict Poetry: 5 Ways to Use Image Strips

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 resources@creativeenglish.co.uk 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”