For Nerds and Teachers ONLY: English Paragraph Structure


Korean freshmen are characterized by, among other things, a need for highly structured English language experiences. Particularly in TOEFL writing, students tend to be insufficiently educated about the structural and organizational features of an academic paragraph. The result is written work riddled with problems.

Teachers, as much as students, are guilty of dissing the skill. Instructors might say, at the end of class on, oh, future plans, ‘ok everyone, for homework write me a seven-to-ten-sentence paragraph about what you are going to do for the winter vacation’. In addition to lax instructions, teachers may be inclined towards giving vague feedback, like ‘watch your subject-verb agreements!’ or remarks like ‘this paragraph lacks a coherent thesis statement’ (ex-cuse me?).

Comments like these underscore the main flaw in the customary pedagogical approach to TOEFL writing skill instruction: before adequately addressing the constituent features of an academic paragraph, we dwell on its contents.

Writing in the EFL world is a victim of product-oriented approaches. Teachers push for results because curriculum requirements often prevent us from properly coaching the process. It takes time. But teaching the basics is not as tricky as you might think. Assuming that your students know how to compose a sentence, they are ready to understand the fundamental purpose and organization of a garden-variety humanities-style paragraph. Moreover, the insistence on attending to the details of a correct structure will set a standard that should reduce carelessness in other areas of writing like neatness and the thoughtful use of punctuation. 

The brain is what evolutionary psychologists call a pattern-recognition machine. So step one is to help our students to notice patterns in opinion text. The topic > reason > explanation sequence is particularly prevalent in this writing style.

T-R-E pattern-recognition training is best done through restrictive, progressive task work and should combine both implicit and explicit instruction techniques. We know that flooding a learner with certain types of input can help with their speaking, so let’s assume that massive exposure to a certain variety of text will have a positive effect on a beginner’s L2 written production.

After learners prove they are capable pattern-recognizers, controlled writing activities will help them get into the habit of paying attention to the details of a soundly structured paragraph: new sentences do not begin on a new line; words after periods are capitalized; text should be printed neatly and double-spaced. So, hopefully, no more of this sloppy stuff:

I tell white lie for my friend .
because make my friend feel good .
if i tell “very pretty”for my friend my friend feel good!
and i don’t want my friend hurt .
i listen “ugly” i feel bad and hurt.
So white lies need between friends .
(Received Nov 23, 2012, student X, Class X)

When your students are able to consistently produce sturdy paragraphs, take a deep breath and relish the accomplishment. Then turn the page and begin to coach content and form.

TOEFL Writing

Check out my lecture on the 6-Sentence Paragraph in Clear Strategies & Tactics here. Check out my other blog post just go the link.

If you are interested in learning even more about TOEFL Writing, check out my course Clear Strategies & Tactics

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2 Replies to “For Nerds and Teachers ONLY: English Paragraph Structure”

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  2. Interesting. Saudi freshmen are characterized by a lack of structured educational experiences (other than doing attendance procedures). Their lack of interest in material (other than knowing what’s on the test), makes teaching there so frustrating to teachers.

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