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?
What does a good paragraph look like?
- Introduce an image and ask students to write down everything that they may choose to write about on a post-it note – one idea per posit it. After a minute organise students into groups and get them to share their post-it (you’ll need to stock up for this!) grouping relevant post-it notes together to form groups.
- When students have successfully created a set of groups, get them to give each one a heading. Model writing an effective topic sentence and ask them to do the same. Encourage students to compare their topic sentences and discuss which are the most successful.
- Make the explicit link between this process and paragraphing. Model the process of taking group and turning it into a well crafted paragraph. And ask students to do the same. Physically move post it notes into a logical order that makes sense so student understand the process of order within paragraphs as well as between them.
Does paragraph length matter?
- Look at a document with paragraphs blocked out. Which is most visually pleasing? Ask students to consider why this matters?
- Ask students to suggest what the very short paragraphs might be about? Hopefully they’ll make a connection to the headline and suggest that particularly important or provocative points are visually punctuated by the shorter sections.
- Look at a comment piece like this amusing offering from Charlie Brooker and discuss how the short paragraphs work. How would we see this in narrative or descriptive writing? Ask students to find an example of interesting paragraphing from a novel and bring it in for the next lesson (always worth have some spares to hand…) . Ask students to discuss them in pairs and identify the purpose and impact of the shorter paragraphs.
- Give students a block of text and challenge them to edit the paragraphs to maximise the impact. They can follow this up by annotating their choices and presenting them to each other or the class.
How do we make our writing fluent and cohesive?
- Give students the same two paragraphs linked in different ways. Ask them to first identify the methods used and then rank them for effectiveness. Students have to have a clear sense of the methods available to them before they can start to select the most appropriate ones to use in their own writing. This was the list my Year 11 came up with:
- Causal Connectives
- Sequencing Connectives
- Conversational Discourse Markers Anyway, So…,
- Adding ideas e.g. Moreover
- Emphasising the previous idea
- Ending on a question – starting with the answer
- Disagreeing (qualifying connectives)
- Illustrating (introducing an example)
- Tangent (introducing an aside)
- Referring back
- Take a good piece of writing – preferably something written by someone in the class (a willing volunteer would probably be best) and have it blown up on to A3 paper. Use the mark scheme to decide on a mark for content and organisation. This is also a good opportunity to familiarise students with the mark scheme.
- Get students in groups to edit the links between the paragraphs; you can add an arbitrary limit like no more than 15 words should be added overall if you want to add a sense of competition. There is nothing more powerful than reading the original writing and then the improved version so students can see the instant impact of their decisions.
- Now return to the mark scheme and see what improvements have been made with just a few words added.
- To understand the different approach descriptive or narrative writing needs, you might need to return to the list and think about which methods might be appropriate/inappropriate or which might need tweaking to make them work when writing has a different structure and purpose.
- Although less competent writers may find introducing a running motif or semantic field makes their writing feel clumsy, those ready to take on the challenge of using a motif need to see some sophisticated examples to understand its power. Match reports often draw on militaristic semantic fields (see our earlier post about using the language of football here) The best way to show students how to successfully build in a semantic field or pattern into their writing is to model this live. I took a group (anyone who felt they were ready to try this self selected) and worked with an autumnal stimulus image and we wrote collectively building in a semantic field of death to underpin their descriptions with an eerie mood.
There are of course many more ways to tackle paragraphing in a positive and empowering way; for me, this is going to become a much stronger focus in the way I teach writing. Hopefully the shared language my class now have to describe paragraphing and cohesion is also going to allow me to improve the quality of the advice I give to my students in feedback as well.
We would love to hear about the other ways you are teaching paragraphing and cohesion. Please feel free to add your ideas below.