Check out these videos also about writing and paragraph construction:
Two weeks ago, one student asked me “How do I write a paragraph?”
This student, and many others, need help answering questions like:
“Should the main idea be at the start?”
“How can I structure a paragraph?”
“How can I clean my sentences?”
And that’s why today I’m real happy to give you this new tutorial with Andrew Watt, a , English teacher,
What happens in this podcast?
Good question, we discuss:
- Topic Sentences and building a paragraph around one idea or topic.
- Putting the most important information first.
- Expanding ideas, giving details and supporting arguments.
- How to connect ideas and finish paragraphs.
Download the whole episode here, for free, then sign up.
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You are now listening to the IELTS podcast. Learn from tutors. Your host: Ben Worthington.
Ben: On this episode we have Andrew Ward. He’s an English teacher in the US and I was watching a few videos and I thought he’d be really be helpful for some of the IETLS students for the stuff that he says and the stuff that he said on his videos and he’s also got a blog and that he puts his poetry, he gives tips and his YouTube channel is full of tips as well for good writing.
That you can just find him on YouTube on the Andrew Ward. And in this episode he’s going to tell us about paragraphs, how to write good paragraphs and how to clean the past sentences. So, also, just one small thing from me if you have a few minutes spare I would really appreciate it if you could go over there. Go over to iTunes and give us a five star I think that would be awesome. Have a listen to this episode and yes, send me an email if enjoyed it. Tell me what you thought about it.
I know that some students have challenges with paragraphs. Could you explain the concept and the rules we have to consider when we are writing the paragraphs? I saw some videos and you said focus on the main idea. Focus on specificity and those qualities.
Andrew: Sure. What kinds of things do your students write on their exams?
Ben: Right then. Well, there’s typical questions and it might be something like a let’s see. Pollution is inevitable due to the industrialization of the countries, of developing countries. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of industrialization and pollution. And then it’ll be something like 250 words. Yeah? So it’s like modern and modern factors and things and activities that are going on in society. Stuff you’ll see in the newspaper. Topics you’ll see in the newspaper.
Andrew: So the way to approach a paragraph is to decide what the overall subject of the paper is going to be. So let’s say that it’s the pollution example. As an English writer, I would say, okay what are three sources of pollution that I know? Well, there are cars, automobiles, and trucks on the road. That’s one source of pollution. Another source of pollution would be wastes from factories. That would be a second one. And a third would be accidents like a spill of oil from a tanker running aground somewhere.
Andrew: So there are my three examples: transportation waste, factory waste and accidents. That goes with the effects of industrialization. Each of those is going to be a paragraph.
Andrew: So that I’m learning to separate my big ideas first. Pollution is the overall subject. Here are three examples of pollution, I’ve got three paragraphs. Let’s pick one of those three paragraphs and break it down further. Let’s pick cars. You know transportation. Let’s look at the first paragraph.
Andrew: My first sentence is going to start with very general words like transportation and maybe vehicles and highways. It’s going to have words about very general, specific or very general categories of things that cause pollution in the realm of transportation.
Andrew: My last sentence in that paragraph might be my family car. A paragraph would start with the most general example, and would end with the most specific and local example.
Ben: Right. That’s how you would structure the paragraph. First introduce the big general idea about pollution in transport, and slowly boil it down to something very specific and giving an example, a personal example in this case of the family transport and your family vehicle.
Andrew: Right. So it would start with, if you were writing about Spain, you might start with the big highways in Spain and then you would talk about – I don’t even know if Valencia has a ring road or not. Way that goes to the outside edge of the city.
Ben: Yeah, yeah.
Andrew: And then you might break it down to specific vehicles on the street. Here in the United States, about 1974 or 1975, we started requiring cars to burn only fuel without lead in it.
Andrew: And it turns out that we were poisoning children before 1975, because the lead would become vaporized in the gas fumes from burning leaded gasoline and it was getting into children’s lungs and it was poisoning them.
Andrew: You know, here’s a very specific example of pollution and it has a lot of very specific data attached to it. It has a year, 1975. It has an element from the periodic table, lead. It has a specific kind of lead namely, lead vapour. It has gasoline vapour. All those are very specific concept and a specific kind of pollution. It’s quite another thing earlier in the paragraph to talk about highways and cars and carbon monoxide. But at the end of the sentence we should be down to measurements and specific sources of pollution and my family’s car. So, very general at the beginning of a paragraph, and very specific at the end.
Ben: Right. I see. I see.
Andrew: There’s a reason for that. Most people, when they read, their eyes reengage with the paragraph at the beginning of a new paragraph. But their brains sort of glaze over the last few words of the last paragraph.
Ben: I see.
Andrew: They get tired. Their eyes get tired but at the introduction of each new idea, I’m reading a paper about pollution. Oh, I see the transportation is the first big issue. Oh, I see that factory waste is the second big issue. Oh, I see that pollution is the third or accidental pollution is the third big issue. Our brains won’t necessarily retain all of the information in the paragraph, but we do pick up on the big ideas about what we’ve read. So, by thinking about the overall structure of your two hundred and fifty words, you start with the big idea as the start of each paragraph and you bury your details later in the paragraph.
Ben: I see. Right then. And when we’re giving examples, this is when we would put the details in. The numbers, the dates, the places, and almost like evidence as the more details the system are believable and credible.
Andrew: When I teach debate club, we teach kids to make an assertion, first. And we want them to assert something. There I am changing assertion to a verb. A student must assert first. Is the claim being made? That’s the first sentence in a paragraph. The next few sentences are reasons why the assertion is true. And then the last sentences of the paragraph are the evidence that the reasons are true.
Andrew: It’s kind of like you are building a house, but you’re building it from the roof, down.
Andrew: Right? The assertion is the big slope of the house on the top of the house. The reasons are the walls of the first and the second and the ground floor. And evidence is the foundation. It’s the actual concrete blocks in the ground that prove what’s being built on top of it.
Ben: Yes, I see.
Andrew: And this means that your students, as long as they’re not having to write this on the fly, that is in the spur of the moment, that they can plan their essays ahead of time if they know the topic.
Ben: It depends. Sometimes they know, well. They know the topic areas which are basically quite broad, but the general rule is they make a plan before they even start. They see the exam question and they have maybe 40 minutes, and then they write a plan and then they actually produce the essay.
Andrew: So, then it becomes a case of knowing some evidence. And you know the evidence in Spanish or in English, as long as you can translate between the two. Right? But you have the evidence ahead of time and ideally you learn a large body of evidence ahead of time.
Andrew: And then you build your essay the way that we normally build houses. Foundation, then ground floor, then first floor, then second then roof, right?
Andrew: So this is the hardest thing to get across the students sometimes, is that we want them to start off writing with the big idea and work their way down to the details. But the best way to plan your essay is to start with what details you know, and then choose your assertion and your reasons based on what evidence you’re able to put forward. So we as teachers ask them to write from the roof down to the foundations, but the students have to be thinking about the work from foundations up to roof.
Ben: So they see a question, they should try and think what solid evidence they have related to that and then build up from that and take a stance depending on what evidence they have related to it.
Ben: I get you.
Andrew: Which is actually upward. Trying to convince students that this is the way that they should work, is very hard. And of course it doesn’t help because they see governments and politicians frequently, and corporations, decide that they want to do something and then create the evidence to back that position up. They start with the assertion, we should build the factory or we should build a new highway and then they create the evidence that supports that particular idea, which is not the way that we ask them to learn how to write, of course.
Ben: Awesome. All right. That was, that was good. I like that advice, I think I’ll definitely incorporate that into the teaching, into my teaching. Okay, and then another thing you said for improving the cleanness of the sentence, first to cut the repeated words and to make it more concentrated.
Andrew: So, let’s say that we’ll take the Guardia Civil example from probably from 1963 or ‘64 when my grandfather was painting, not grandfather, my uncle was painting in Spain, right? We could say, the Guardia Civil inspected my uncle’s paintings and inspected his papers. We’ve used the word inspected twice.
Andrew: But it’s better to say the Guardia Civil inspected his paintings and his papers.
Ben: Yeah. I see.
Andrew: Right? So we’re using one verb rather than two. The other way to phrase that, would be, another awkward way of phrasing that would be: the Guardia Civil inspected my uncle’s paintings and subjected his papers to an inspection. We’ve used the word inspected as a verb and we’ve used inspection as a noun. But again, the simplification is: the Guardia Civil inspected my uncle’s paintings and his papers. So, squeezing down to shorter sentences sometimes makes your writing look simple like you don’t know a whole lot of words. But in fact, it’s a very sophisticated thing.
Andrew: Poorer speakers need to use a lot of words to say very simple things, whereas, people who speak any language natively, whether it be Spanish or English are capable of squeezing a lot of meaning into a very small number of words.
Ben: Exactly, yeah. It’s just more powerful. It’s more succinct.
Andrew: It’s more powerful because they know a lot more vocabulary, they have a lot more words at their disposal and they can shift back and forth between tenses. They know how to describe past, present and future.
Andrew: And they know how to shift words from being nouns to being verbs and vice versa.
Ben: Yes, so it’s all just a lot more controlled. Yeah, and carries more punch for each word.
Andrew: Right. Anytime you can take three or four words and replace them with one, you should.
Ben: We’ve been doing them and we did this with some advanced students. For example in saying, for example instead of saying, “The local government do not have resource, do not have money”, we could just say, “The local government or even the council lack finance.”
How can a student like clean a sentence that was in your videos. You spoke about cleaning a sentence and cutting repeated words and things like that. Could you just explain a bit about that please?
Andrew: Sure. Students in the United States have a tendency to create run-on sentences. What I mean by run-on sentence is usually a sentence that contains three or more complete sentences inside of it, that aren’t joined together by any conjunctions. They’ll be joined together by commas, perhaps but no real punctuation.
Andrew: So, it’s a good idea for students to pick a number under 20 and try to write sentences that contain that many words or fewer.
Ben: I See.
Andrew: So, let me see if I can give an example of this. I happen to have a student paper in front of me. Let me grab one here and see what I can find.
Andrew: It says, “The rich plantation owners had more influence than the yeoman, so slavery was more influential in Southern States.” It’s not really a very good sentence, but let’s work with it. “The rich plantation owners had more influence than the yeoman.” Let’s start with the first clause.
Andrew: There’s the word “the” in English is very complicated because it’s one of those words that can be used or doesn’t have to be used. But it’s not a good way to begin a sentence. So, in this case I’d advise the student to clean up the sentence by dropping the word “the” and starting with “rich.” So I’d say, “Rich plantation owners” and that becomes the subject of my sentence.
Ben: I see.
Andrew: “had more influence than yeoman” is the predicate of the sentence and I would want him to try to replace “had more” with a stronger verb choice. “Had more” is two words and what I want him to do is try to find a verb that gets across the idea of “had more influence” and as it so happens I can use the word “influence” as a verb, right?
Ben: So we transform the noun to a verb to move the sentence along.
Andrew: Just transpose the noun to verb, right. Now, “Rich planters or rich plantation owners influenced”, now I have the option of giving a good direct object. Right? I can put in a direct object. In my Latin class, I would call it an accusative case noun, where I’d say, “Rich plantation owners influenced state governments more than yeoman” and the yeoman in this case is a term from American history. They are southern land owners who do not own slaves.
Andrew: Sort of a weird case of a word. So “the rich plantation owners” becomes just “rich plantation owners”, rather than “the rich plantation owners”, “influenced”… So I’m getting ahead of myself. My sentence by eliminating the “the” and changing “had more” to just “influenced”, my sentence is now, “Rich plantation owners influenced than yeoman”, which is not very good and I need a direct object now.
Ben: I see.
Andrew: “Rich plantation owners influenced state governments more than yeoman.”
Andrew: So, their ideas about slavery influenced government more. Maybe that’s where I want to try to go with this. So, the cleaning process is frequently taking weak verbs like “is” and “had” and transposing nouns from being nouns into being verbs and using them as verbs in order to strengthen and focus the ideas that you’re trying to get across to your reader.
Ben: Yes. And then use that sentence – go on. Sorry.
Andrew: Is that helpful?
Ben: Yes, yes. I was going to say if you’ve got verbs and they’re describing things, it’s like you said, instead of “had more influence” you say “influenced”, you say the same thing or a similar thing with one word instead of three, and it moves the sentence along.
Andrew: Right, and it also gives power to the subject of the sentence. Right? In the case of “had more influence”, the assumption is that that influences a physical thing that you can hold on to. But influence is not. It’s a very abstract noun. So by making it “influenced”, as a verb, you the writer are giving power to the subject of your sentence because you’re saying that it has power to make a change.
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