One of the problems students face when starting an Advanced Level course is that they’re expected to engage with various forms of extended writing (essays, book reports, term papers…) with which they may have previously had little or no experience. And this can be a big step-up for many students.
There are, of course, a range of ways to ease the transition but integrating them into classroom practice can be time-consuming. This is where Paragraph Practice – a hybrid of structure strip and learning mat – comes into play by encouraging students to regularly practice low-stakes writing.
The underlying objective is to get students used to the idea of paragraph writing and stacking: understanding the structural rules of writing an academic paragraph and using those rules to their advantage by replicating them a number of times to produce an extended piece of writing.
Although this particular Paragraph Practice Mat is designed for A-level students whose extended writing is assessed through a range of objectives (Knowledge, Understanding, Analysis, Evaluation…) the underlying principles are much the same for other exam systems and can be adapted accordingly.
The Mat is designed to be used throughout a course to encourage students to practice writing paragraphs that cover all the required Assessment Objectives and how you use it is, of course, up to you. Some might prefer it as a Starter activity – giving students a question at the end of the previous session, for example, so they can prepare a paragraph answer – while others might prefer to pose the question near the end of a session and students have to complete it in the 10 or 15 minutes before the session ends.
Using the Mat
Initially you will need to pose a question that can be answered in a single paragraph.
Once students have grasped the basic principles of paragraph construction it will be possible – and probably desirable – to develop more-complex questions that allow students to chain their paragraphs into a complete piece of extended work.
The Mat consists of 3 rows, the first two subdivided into 4 columns. Each column (State, Apply, Argue, Conclude) contains simple instructions about how to fill the column directly beneath:
State: Begin by clearly stating the main point of the paragraph: whatever it is that’s going to be discussed. This is basically a simple statement of what the paragraph is going to be about and will usually involve writing one or two sentences that clearly identifies the main point that will be discussed in relation to the question.
Apply: Next are a couple of sentences that, firstly, explain why the point just stated is relevant to the question and, secondly, briefly indicate how it is relevant.
Argue combines the analysis begun in the previous section with evaluation by asking the student to state and consider two examples: one that supports the argument made at the start of the paragraph and one that criticises or refutes it.
Conclude: The final section is used to draw a conclusion about the question based on the argument outlined and discussed in the previous sections.
The final row brings the above together in a complete written paragraph.