I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about teaching students how to write a paragraph with deliberate precision.

Teaching students how to write with deliberate precision is, arguably, the most important thing I teach. In order to write an effective essay, a student needs to be able to write an effective paragraph. Recently my Year 13 Economics group discussed the essay title: “Evaluate the relationship between economic growth and economic development” and we came up with a reasonable essay plan. As a formative assessment of their writing skills, I asked each one of them to send me his or her own version of the second paragraph. I collated the paragraphs so that they were anonymous and then we chose the longest one to focus upon:

Economic growth increases the labour force which increases the employment in a country, this results in an increase in real disposable income which would then increase consumption as their spending power rises. The increases in real GDP per capita will result in an improvement in a country’s Human Development Index, as real GNI per capita in PPP $ is one of the components of HDI. This would create development as more real disposable income allows people inhabitants to purchase higher quality goods and services which will improve their material standards of living. Furthermore, an increase in consumption would increase tax generated on both, indirect tax e.g. VAT on the increase in goods consumed, and direct tax e.g. income tax as people are now earning more due to economic growth. This increase in taxation would increase the government spending of a country, assuming the increase in taxation is spent wisely and a country has strong political will. However if, like mentioned in the case study, there is current policy failings and lack of political will, this mean not lead to economic growth as the increase in taxation may be spent on war, an example of this is in the case study, Peru. They have a high relative growth rate, 6.7%, yet high homeless rate, 72%, and low HDI value. However if economic growth increases the taxation with good decision, for example China spends theirs on housing, it can improve the living conditions, thus result in economic development, this therefore suggests there is a positive relationship between economic growth and economic development, as long as strong fiscal policies are present. (8 sentences/268 words; average sentence length – 34 words)

On the face of it, a pretty decent paragraph; however, I pointed out to the students that, under timed conditions, it would be impossible to cover all the content required for an A grade answer if every paragraph was over 250 words long. Subsequently, as a group we spent the whole of the hour long lesson painstakingly reducing the paragraph to 125 words or fewer, with me operating the keyboard for them as we worked on a single projector screen copy of the paragraph. The final version omits no important content, is utterly precise and, at 123 words, is less than half the length of the original:

Economic growth increases employment which usually results in an increase in real disposable income which would increase consumption. More real disposable income enables people to purchase higher quality goods and services which improves their living conditions. Furthermore, an increase in employment would increase the direct and indirect tax generated. This increase is likely to increase government spending. If, as mentioned in the case study, there are policy failings and a lack of political will, the increase in tax revenues may be squandered. For instance, Peru has a relatively high growth rate of 6.7%, yet a high homeless rate of 72% and low HDI. In Chile, however, the increased tax revenue is probably spent on housing, which improves living conditions, resulting in economic development. (7 sentences/123 words; average sentence length – 18 words)

It was achingly hard work. Yet, with such a disciplined approach to writing and a great deal of practice, every A level student can become a better writer. Teaching students the thinking processes involved in expert writing helps equip them with some of the skills required to write with deliberate precision. Tomorrow, they will be sitting down in timed conditions to write their full first essay of term…a summative assessment of their learning to date.
Reference: Collins, A., Brown, J.S., & Newman, S.E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.) Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Draft version available at: https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/17958/ctrstreadtechrepv01987i00403_opt.pdf?sequence

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This post has 6 Comments

  1. John, this is excellent. This conciseness is what we are aiming for in English and getting there is painstakingly difficult and takes a lot of energy for the teacher and the student, but the results are fabulous. Thank you for sharing, A really valuable way of using a lesson.

  2. As a history teacher with just a few less years in the classroom I’ve also come to the same conclusion and spend a substantial part of my lessons from year 7 onwards writing an effective paragraph. Have you explicitly trained your students in normalisation (turning adjectives and verbs into, usually, abstract nouns? That was a real game changer for me as it was a really accessible tool for reducing the lexical density of their writing. If they say write less but say more this provides them with a huge advantage when writing under timed conditions.

  3. I am more disciplined at embedding this into any extended writing done with my sixth formers (Class Civ)- and accepting that it really does take an hour, as much as I would like to rush it!
    Progress sheets for each piece of extended writing, on which students write their targets from the last piece of writing, and the exam grade descriptors, are useful for keeping myself and the students focused on the writing style. This year I have added on the criteria we discuss in class to write a precise paragraph (thank you Dan Lyndon for the reminder, nominalisation will be next on my list). Last week I explained the use of the passive and active voice, comparing the two and getting students to rewrite sentences in the passive voice into the active. The checklist on the progress sheet is a reminder for students as well as me to check that they are using the techniques, and makes me feel less panicked about the amount of time spent on analysing one paragraph!

  4. Thanks for sharing John. Fascinating stuff… ever thought of using a tool like Hemmingwayapp to highlight/scaffold how “unnecessary text/content” can be identified and then edited?

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