How to write a paragraph

We saw earlier how students hate having their time wasted. And so do we! We have far too much to do, and not enough time (or money!) to do it. If you ask your ‘just-got-their-B1’ B2 students to write a part 1 essay without any training, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. The motivated ones will do it in thirty minutes or so, the unmotivated ones will do it in 20 minutes if you’re lucky, and you’ll spend far too long marking and correcting some terrible writing.

To solve this, we should be teaching writing in small chunks; if our students are able to produce effective paragraphs, the whole task of writing a 190+ word task becomes much more manageable. As with plans, there are four stages to this:

1: Having a positive effect on your target reader

Several years ago, on a break between classes, I picked up a copy of the excellent EL Gazette and started flicking through the articles. I came across this catchy headline:

It engaged me. I was thinking about changing academies, and as a competent speaker of English I knew that the why not + infinitive question is used to introduce a plausible and often attractive option. I continued reading, and the introduction kept me engaged:

Matt Salusbury visits Poland to discover modest pay packets for English language teachers – but generous holidays and a rich history and culture could make it a country worth considering.

So far, so good. As author’s target reader, I’m hooked and want to keep reading. But that changes with the second paragraph:

It can be tough earning a living as an English teacher in Poland. Even being a native speaker there doesn’t necessarily confer an advantage over locally recruited teachers in terms of hourly rates.

At that point I stopped reading, closed the magazine, and made a coffee. If this text had been an exam task, it’s communicative achievement mark would be affected because the target reader is no longer engaged with the article. I suspect this effect would be improved if that paragraph had one final sentence to encourage the reader:

It can be tough earning a living as an English teacher in Poland. Even being a native speaker there doesn’t necessarily confer an advantage over locally recruited teachers in terms of hourly rates. Nevertheless, there are many upsides to consider.

Maybe the author’s point was to brace the prospective expat for a frugal life, or to weed out casual readers like me. But this point of keeping the target reader engaged is crucial if we want our students to produce effective pieces of writing. Take a look at this (unedited) paragraph from a C1 student in a mock exam:

Secondly, convencional wisdom holds that language skills are now much deficient and they blame Smartphones. Ten years ago, if a child was boring he would read a book, which improve their language, but nowadays, they spend all their free time chatting online. That won’t be a problem if people wrote properly in social network sites, but it is not the case. It may be because they are in a hurry or simply because it’s more convenient for them to avoid writing some vocals or even words, and punctuation signs are out of the question. On the flip side, smartphones bring us the possibility to search on the internet any spelling or gramatical doude that we have.

There’s one sentence here that doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the paragraph. It’s the final sentence, starting with on the flip side. It doesn’t fit because the whole paragraph has been discussing negative aspects of Smartphones. It’s a negative paragraph. Introducing this alternative viewpoint, without any explanation or evaluation, makes the message less clear. Communication isn’t achieved.

Our students often have a tendency to throw all of their ideas into a given paragraph. After all, if the ideas are there, they’ll get the marks, right?

Unfortunately not. Paragraphs should have topic sentences, and a clear order of information, in order to keep the target reader engaged. I often demonstrate this with the following activity, where I ask students to build up a paragraph one sentence at a time:

What’s interesting is that when you do this with your students, you can pinpoint exactly when the writer starts to disengage the target reader. It happens at the start of sentence 4. Can you decide which of these paragraphs is the better?

If I had to name the best artist in the world, I’d say it was Peter Gabriel. He’s perhaps the most innovative live performer I’ve ever seen. There are other great showmen like Queen or The Rolling Stones, but for me nothing compares to Gabriel.

If I had to name the best artist in the world, I’d say it was Ed Sheeran. His lyrics really resonate with me, and his music is always so catchy. Jason Derulo also has some good songs, but they aren’t as fun to listen to as Ed Sheeran’s.

Before you decide, let’s look at how we order information in a paragraph. Several decades ago, a linguist called Norman Fairclough wrote about the known-new contract, which is essentially a formula for the order of information in a sentence. Take a look at this sentence about a black hole, and decide which is the correct sentence to follow it (a) or (b):

If you said sentence (b) is the correct one, you’re right. You’re probably saying it’s because it sounds better (and that’s what your students will probably say, too). That’s correct – it sounds better because it follows the expected order of information in a sentence.

The known-new contract explains how a sentence will usually start with information which is known or understood by the reader or listener. It will then introduce a new idea or information at the end of the sentence. If we start a sentence with new or unexpected information, it often surprises the reader and makes them work harder to understand you ideas. This is where the target reader becomes less engaged, and communication is harder to achieve.

So, now go back to the paragraphs about Gabriel and Sheeran, and decide which one is better. Click here to find the answer

2: Use Topic Sentences to capture the reader’s attention

Several years ago I attended a Cambridge English training day on the B2 and C1 updates in 2015, led by the brilliant Mike Epps. Mike outlined how we can divide organisation in writing into three different levels which correspond to the writing assessment scales for B1, B2, and C1:

In order for students to pass the organisational element of their C1 writing, they should be demonstrating effective use of these organisational patterns. However, I argue that an organisational feature like topic sentences is something basic which can be introduced to students at B1 level, and maybe even earlier. With a clear topic sentence, students can (a) identify the subject of each paragraph, making sure they include the necessary information for the task, (b) engage the target reader, and (c) demonstrate an advanced-level feature of organisation. In other words, using topic sentences well can help students nail their Content, Communicative Achievement, and Organisation marks. They’re worth teaching.

Topic sentences are short introductions to a paragraph. They inform the target reader of the theme of that part of the text, and usually are found at the start of the paragraph. For our purposes, we only really need teach three types of topic sentence (although a Google search will give you many more possibilities for higher level students).

A list of topics which the paragraph will talk about.

In my free time, I like playing video games, listening to music, and hanging out with friends.”

This is the simplest of the three, which all B1 students could use with ease. They work well in articles and letters, and are an easy way for weaker students to use topic sentences.

An action statement which introduces the topic.

“When you first arrive at the restaurant, you won’t believe your eyes.”

Teasers are a little more challenging, but they lend themselves to more informal tasks like reviews or articles.

An interesting fact, a catchy quote, or a rhetorical question.

“Have you ever wondered how many teenagers are stressed?”

If you want a topic sentence to capture the reader’s attention, this is it. Rhetorical questions are another example of C1 organisation, so bringing it to B2 can only be a good thing for your students!

We should give our students lots of practice in identifying topic sentences. Here are five simple ways of developing awareness of topic sentences:

  1. Give students a selection of topic sentences to identify the type.
  2. Give students a theme/topic, and in groups write examples of each type for the topic.
  3. Use a text from a previous class to identify the topic sentences and their type.
  4. Give each student a different topic sentence, and ask them to write the rest of the paragraph (around 3 sentences). When they’ve finished, they post their paragraphs on Padlet. In the next class, give students all the topic sentences, and in pairs try to match to the different paragraphs.
  5. Take the topic sentences from a new text and display them on the board. Students work in pairs to identify the type, and predict the content of the whole text. This can be an effective method for reading a text quickly for gist, and can be invaluable for higher level exam students.

A crucial aspect of using topic sentences well is to bear in mind their function: to help the reader understand the text’s message. It’s therefore essential that students become aware of the dangers of including unnecessary ideas or information (which are not relevant to the topic) somewhere in the paragraph. For example in these paragraphs below, the topic sentence appears in green whilst the additional, unwanted sentence appears in red.

Here is a full lesson plan for B2 level on using topic sentences in writing.

3: Learn what ingredients make up a paragraph.

Use this poster along with the writing recipes to help your students write their best paragraphs. Please contact me if you would like to purchase a copy of this poster for your classroom.

The perfect paragraph has six simple ingredients. To make your ideal short text, follow these simple stages:

  1. First, plan your writing to decide what content points you need. Choose your main idea.
  2. Brainstorm some ideas to explain this main idea.
  3. Choose a type of topic sentence. Write it. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect, as you’ll review it later.
  4. Write one or two sentences to support and explain your topic sentence.
  5. Remember to use a variety of ambitious grammar and vocabulary for your level.
  6. Connect your sentences together using a variety of linkers.
  7. Write a final sentence, like a conclusion. Explain why the main idea is important, and how it connects to the topic of the writing task.
  8. Read you paragraph again carefully, and check your topic sentence fits.

4: Get lots of practice writing paragraphs.

There’s no point trying to run before you can walk. Successful exam writing comes from having lots of practice writing paragraphs, and having them critiqued and corrected. I recommend you start by doing micro-writing tasks in class in pairs or individually. Use scraps of paper or the chat box, or get your students to post their writing on a Padlet page.

You don’t have to scramble for topics either. The next time you come across two or three warmer questions at the start of a lesson, turn them into a micro-writing task. Give you students one or two minutes just to think about their ideas, and another five mintues to write their responses. Then tell them to read their writing again and add that all-important topic sentence. Collect the writing in for you to read and give feedback, and set the students on the warmer questions in pairs or groups. By doing this, you’ll not only get an opportunity to practice your students’ writing skills, but also give them a chance to rehearse their ideas in private before they reveal them to their classmates. In short, they’ll speak more.

When you’re happy that students know what they’re doing, why not start setting mid-week homework of a short paragraph? I’ve borrowed this idea of the ‘paragraph’ of the week from a colleague in the US, and it works a treat. Spend a few minutes at the end of the class brainstorming ideas for the paragraph, and collect them in at the beginning of the next class. Click here to get a whole pack of tasks.

Answer to paragraph task:

The answer is the Gabriel one, because that final sentence follows the order of information. Click here to continue reading.

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