Colin Ward

Breaking the Mold: Paragraphing for Beginners

Photo source: mohamed_assan (Pixabay)

Since the beginnings of ELT publishing, many assumptions about the development of writing and grammar have become fossilized. As instructors, we’ve been told that beginning students cannot handle multiple paragraphs and more advanced grammatical concepts, such as infinitives or subordinating conjunctions. The aim of this post is to challenge that belief.

All well-established writing or grammar series from the major ELT publishers are based on CEFR levels. CEFR levels are standards established by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, and they describe the language ability of students from “basic” to “independent” to “proficient” levels. These levels are important because they not only dictate the material ELT publishers produce, but also impact the curriculum of language schools and the proper placement of students in language programs across the globe.

Because the CEFR descriptors are meant to apply to the proficiency of any language, they tend to be very general and non-prescriptive. This means it is up to publishers and materials writers to interpret how to transfer these generic descriptors into actual materials. Take a look at this example of students who would be classified as “high-beginning”:

  • Can give very short, basic descriptions of events, past activities and personal experiences.
  • Can tell a simple story.
  • Can describe everyday aspects of their environment in linked sentences.

The question begs, what is meant by “linked sentences”? Does that mean linking sentences with coordinating conjunctions like and, but, and so? Subordinators like when and because? Are they linked in the sense that they tell a story, and therefore form a unified paragraph?

When you look at most published materials available, the impression seems to be that ELLs are unable to produce multiple paragraphs until they are at a B2, or “upper-intermediate,” level. Look at one of the most tried-and-true series out there, Great Writing by National Geographic Learning. It’s popular because it’s easy to teach, but learners have to wait until the fourth book to make the leap from single paragraph to multi-paragraph essay. There’s no in-between. Great Writing is the norm, not the exception.

In fact, most ELT textbooks follow the same formulas, ones that have been around for decades. One that has pervaded writing textbooks is the five-paragraph essay, a decidedly restrictive formula that has been around since the early 1960s and is still with us today. Many scholars have criticized the five-paragraph formula. (For the most recent and comprehensive debate, see Caplan & Johns’ Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay).

Perhaps one of the most alarming criticisms is that it handicaps thought. As Campbell writes, “The problem with the five-paragraph formula is its structure stops the very thinking we need students to do. Their focus becomes fitting sentences into the correct slots rather than figuring out what they’re trying to say and the best structure to say it.”

Textbooks today are still having students slip their ideas into these arbitrary slots. They are told an essay is just a bloated paragraph that must be divided into an intro, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Others give the “essay as hamburger” metaphor—something I’ve always despised because of its ethnocentric and condescending nature. The result is students’ essays end up being very dry and unimaginative, not the fault of their own, but of the formula.

The other fault comes from the fact that students are asked to make the giant leap from single paragraph to four or five paragraphs. Why are we forcing them to be Neil Armstrong? Why isn’t there more scaffolding? Why can’t we help them to see how paragraphing can be used as a tool to generate ideas as opposed to stifling them?

This past semester, I was finally able to teach with a series we wrote for Oxford University Press called Trio Writing. Trio Writing was the best project Alice and I have ever worked on, largely because there was nothing out there like it, meaning we had much greater freedom to invent. We were tasked with teaching academic writing from the A1 level, which essentially assumes zero knowledge of English. After months of brainstorming, coffeeshop chats, and countless iterations, we had our epiphany – teaching paragraphing to beginners.

Now that I have actually taught with Trio Writing 2, I saw our theory turn into practice, and I witnessed some of the best writing I’ve ever seen from our Level 1 students. Here’s an example, which does not look at all like the writing of a Level 1 student:

I came away from this experience with a newfound confidence in our agenda to teach paragraphing to beginners. The fact is many advantages come from teaching 2-paragraph assignments, the biggest of which might be that it helps to scaffold (and not stifle) thinking. Students use paragraphing as it is intended—to shift to a new focus. To scaffold this, we decided to keep the paragraphs shorter and to make the shifts very clear, such as talking about two different places, people, or times.

Once the students got the hang of paragraph shifts, they ran with it, with several producing three or four paragraphs because they had more to say. This speaks to one of the other major benefits of teaching paragraphing to beginners, which is that more of their ideas are relevant. Almost every ELT writing textbook has a section on paragraph unity. And almost every ELT writing textbook has that quintessential activity of “read the paragraph and find the irrelevant sentence.” The message this sends to students is that their idea isn’t worthy of developing any further. It doesn’t belong.

But when you allow students to start a new paragraph, suddenly that idea can be developed into its own paragraph. We often see “irrelevant sentences” in students’ conclusions. How many times have we seen our students bring up a new point in the conclusion and instructed them to delete it? What if it’s a good idea that beckons more development? Why not reframe it as an opportunity to write an additional “body paragraph,” and then have them add a separate conclusion after that? Maybe they weren’t really finished saying what they wanted to say!

Another benefit of teaching two-paragraph assignments to beginners was that the concluding sentence had a much more meaningful purpose. With a single paragraph, it’s not very difficult to remember what the main idea is. It’s usually identified at the beginning in a topic sentence and then developed with supporting details. The concluding sentences signals the end, but have we strayed from the main idea so long that we must be reminded of it again? The dynamic changes when students write two paragraphs. Now they have two focuses. Once we read their second paragraph, a reminder at the end of the two focuses helps the reader. There’s more to summarize, and more reason to summarize.

When we were writing Trio Writing 2, another epiphany we had was teaching grammar at the point of need. Like writing textbooks, traditional grammar textbooks are also very formulaic and fossilized. Grammatical concepts are divided up into different books and boxes within books. Because of this, beginning students don’t see infinitives or gerunds because they aren’t “ready” for them yet.

But what if they need basic gerunds and infinitives to add supporting details? When my students wrote about where they meet new people (para. 1) and how they get to know them (para. 2), they needed infinitives: I like to meet new people in my neighborhood. I try to be polite. I introduce myself and offer to help them.

Another issue with grammar books is not just withholding grammar students may need, but also presenting too much grammar at once. Beginning grammar books teach students all the subject and object pronouns at once. However, when you think about it, who really uses all 14 of them at the same time? We don’t. It’s much more likely that we just need he/him or she/her, or if we’re talking about ourselves I and me. In Trio Writing 2, we scaffolded the pronouns, so students are introduced to he/she/it separately to write a two-paragraph assignment about someone they know who has good social skills. Another plus was they were more likely to remember to use the 3rd person -s!

We also teach basic subordinators like because and when because beginning students need them (and quite frankly, we hear them say them in class anyway!). Why must we delay such useful connectors when they can help our students express themselves in more detail? One of the best revision strategies I used in class was teaching because to add a reason. In her first draft about her behavior at the disco, my weakest student had written: We like salsa music. After teaching because, the sentence in her second draft was: We like salsa music because it makes us happy and relaxed. There was no need to get into any discussion of what a subordinating conjunction was at this level. She needed it and used it correctly, and that’s all that mattered.

This post is not about self-promotion. It is about a fervent belief that we can do more to help students make the transition from one paragraph to multiple paragraphs. By teaching two-paragraph assignments, our students are not going to feel that overwhelming sense of shock that inherently comes when leaping from one paragraph to the five-paragraph essay. As teachers, we can scaffold the process, give our students a meaningful reason to paragraph, and help them break the mold.

References:

Campbell, K & Latimer, K. Beyond the five-paragraph essay. Steinhouse Publishers. 2012.
Caplan, N. & Johns, A. (Eds.) Changing practices for the L2 writing classroom: Moving beyond the five-paragraph essay. University of Michigan. 2019.
Savage, A. & Ward, C. Trio Writing. Oxford University Press. 2015.

1 reply »

  1. As Alice Savage and I have discussed in the past, papers begin with an idea, not a structure. Or at least they should. That Campbell quotation sums up the issue with so many ESL/EFL writing texts and classroom approaches: “The problem with the five-paragraph formula is its structure stops the very thinking we need students to do. Their focus becomes fitting sentences into the correct slots rather than figuring out what they’re trying to say and the best structure to say it.”

    And I want to second your claims about teaching grammar. In writing classes in adult settings, we should teach the grammar that students need to make meaning on the page based on their writing goals. They have complex ideas and our job is to help them express those thoughts. -Margi

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