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Gathering thoughts

Huw Thomas looks at ways to teach paragraphs

This week, I shall sit Year 6 down with last week's writing assessments and ask: "Where are the paragraphs?" As ever with this aspect of writing, we teach, they learn ... and then forget. Here are my suggestions for securing the practice of paragraphing.

To begin with we need to be able to define paragraphs to our children. I start by looking at a sentence - a unit that says something, then (fully) stops. When a group of sentences all have something in common they can be gathered into paragraphs. This is the crux of paragraphing - it organises writing to make it easier to read and comprehend. When it comes to indenting the first line of a paragraph, one little tip is to leave a space big enough for the word "space" to fit in.

Paragraphs spring from planning. If you plan a report about a subject and have five or six sub-headings, those are your paragraphs. If your persuasive text makes three points to forward your thesis, each of those is a paragraph.

If it's a story, it's a bit more complicated, but once again the planning is the guide. I advise my pupils to start a new paragraph when something new happens, such as a person being introduced or a place being reached.

Open the paragraph with a sentence that settles the reader into a new chunk. Imagine the story is on the telly and ask: "Where would we put the advert breaks?"

Numbers feel like a bog-standard way of approaching creative writing, but a side of A4, in a Year 6's plain writing, is usually 250 to 300 words - a variance allowing for the bubbly letters and spider scrawls. You're looking at three to five paragraphs in a page like that, with paragraphs of between five and eight sentences. I'm not wanting to reduce writing to maths, but this gives a guide, and one that children look for when encountering this way of organising a text.

To teach the idea of paragraphing you can both create and edit texts. Work with some un-paragraphed texts and decide where to make the breaks. It will be interesting to see if different groups make the breaks in similar places. The ideal texts here are ones children have produced in an earlier burst of writing. Can they revisit them and put green lines where they would have broken a paragraph?

Try looking at printed texts and seeing if they can find alternative ways of paragraphing them. Would they have put the breaks in different places? You could start your class on this piece, but be warned: there is at least one place where I think I've misplaced a paragraph break and one where I could have made one, but didn't.

Huw Thomas is a headteacher in Sheffield. He would like to hear your ideas on teaching paragraphing and to know what you think of his.


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