Planning And Paragraphing Activities
Stimulating ways of quickly improving your students’ vital writing skills of planning and paragraphing.
Planning and paragraphing are perhaps the two most important skills when writing in English. Having a clear idea of what will go into each paragraph makes writing it and understanding it much easier. The idea of one topic per paragraph with clear linking between ideas is also stronger in English than in many other languages – so much so that in English if your best idea doesn’t fit into any of your paragraphs you have to leave it out! Writing exams also give a lot of points for good paragraphing and, although it can take practice to get good at this, it is a lot easier to learn than stopping all mistakes with prepositions and articles. It is therefore worth spending at least 25% of all writing classes specifically on planning and paragraphing. Luckily, these topics are much more made for classroom discussion and interesting activities than most other parts of writing. Here are some classroom ideas:
The best way of planning a piece of writing is usually to underline important words in the task or text you are to reply to, brainstorm your ideas onto a mind map, and then group those ideas into paragraphs while discarding all bad ideas or ones that don’t fit. Two or three paragraphs plus some kind of opening and closing is usually about right for most EFL writing, e.g. FCE and IELTS exam tasks.
Once students have gone through this planning process in groups, they can compare their mind maps and plans with other groups or look at a version by the teacher or in the book. They could also actually write their texts from their plans (probably for homework), compare the finished products in the next class, and then talk about which plan worked best and why. Alternatively, you can give different students different paragraph plans to write from and then get them to compare their finished answers and guess their partner’s plan. Another possibility is to give them different planning processes to use and then discuss the results.
A more competitive way of practising planning is to ask them to find as many different ways as they can of arranging the information into different paragraph structures.
Perhaps surprisingly, correction activities work at least as well for paragraphing as they do for spelling, punctuation, grammar etc. The task with the most impact is to give them a text with no paragraphing at all and ask them what is wrong. You can then ask them to put slashes where they would divide it into paragraphs. As in all the correction activities below, it is also useful to ask them to label each paragraph with its topic. This is especially so with reports, where these topic labels can then be used to write section headings.
Other obvious paragraphing correction tasks are to give them the text with the paragraphs in the wrong order or with the text split into paragraphs at the wrong points. You could also give them a text that doesn’t match the accompanying paragraph plan or give them a text with an entire paragraph (e.g. conclusion or disadvantages) missing.
You can also ask them to correct errors that consist of sentences that are missing, not needed or wrong in particular places in the text. Examples with sentences that are wrong include finding sentences which shouldn’t be in the text, sentences that should be in different paragraphs, and sentences that should be in different places within the same paragraphs.
A trickier task is to give them a text where some of the paragraphs have sentences missing, e.g. statements that are made without any support (examples, reasons etc), or one-sentence paragraphs. These could be the same in every paragraph of the text, e.g. first lines and/or last lines missing from every one. It is also possible to give them just the first and last lines of each paragraph and get them to spot that the middle is missing, perhaps writing it in before they compare with the whole text.
One typical paragraphing problem that could be related to a single sentence or a whole paragraph is conclusions and introductions. Common errors include the text not matching the introduction and/or conclusion and the conclusion being a bit sudden, e.g. “For the reasons given above…” when it isn’t obvious that the advantages above are actually more important than the disadvantages.
Cut Up Text Activities
Many of the activities above can be made more dynamic and easier by giving the text to students cut up into sections. The easiest task to prepare and complete is to give them the text cut into paragraphs and ask them to put them in order. This can be made more challenging by giving them extra paragraphs that don’t fit and should be discarded. You could also give them two texts mixed up to divide and put into order.
A more challenging task is to give them texts cut up into sentences. They rearrange the sentences into a whole text, both using the sentences to decide what the paragraph topics should be and using their ideas for what the topics of the paragraphs are to help put the sentences into order. Again, you can make it more challenging by adding extra sentences that should be discarded or by mixing up two texts (probably on very different topics to make it manageable).
Single Paragraph Activities
You can also start the discussion with just a single paragraph taken from a text. You could give the students one paragraph and ask them to discuss what should go before and after, and then read the whole text and compare. A similar idea is to give them two similar paragraphs. They should discuss which seems like a better paragraph and then look at the text and see which one actually fits better.
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.