Structuring persuasive paragraphs

Structuring persuasive paragraphs

In a previous blog, I wrote about the need to study persuasive techniques, not just spot them. It’s something I have been revisiting lately from a writing perspective because I am still encountering work which is peppered with persuasive techniques which don’t do anything except stop the writing mid-flow. On one hand, I like the fact that students are using techniques, but using them isn’t enough. One way to shift the approach to persuasive techniques is by focusing on how they can be used to structure paragraphs and build ideas.

Let’s start with something that appears in 90% of persuasive writing: statistics. Students can’t pronounce ‘statistics’ properly, but that doesn’t stop the proliferation of percentages. Instead of just using statistics, we can try to think about how figures can be used to structure ideas, like in this example from AIDS activist Mary Fisher to the Republican National Convention:

I would never have asked to be HIV positive, but I believe that in all things there is a purpose; and I stand before you and before the nation gladly. The reality of AIDS is brutally clear. Two hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying. A million more are infected. Worldwide, forty million, sixty million, or a hundred million infections will be counted in the coming few years. But despite science and research, White House meetings, and congressional hearings, despite good intentions and bold initiatives, campaign slogans, and hopeful promises, it is — despite it all — the epidemic which is winning tonight.

The number starts small, then grows. It is a structure also used by Malala Yousafzai in her speech to the United Nations:

There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for their rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goal of peace, education and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them. So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.

This technique, which I am going to call ‘statistic stacking’ works well enough on its own, but in each instance above there is a response to the numbers. In the former, the weight of numbers is used to show that the disease is winning, whereas the numbers in the latter are used to emphasise that Malala is just one person in many- and there is a nice use of anaphora to end the paragraphs too. The points are stronger after the statistics.

Now let’s focus on another staple of persuasive writing:  the rhetorical question. On their own, they can be clumsy and stop good writing in its tracks. But combined with something else, a rhetorical question becomes something quite special and functionally very useful. Look at this section of J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address, and what follows the question:

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

Another question is asked in Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In both examples, the question is asked at the beginning of the paragraph and the rest of the paragraph serves as the answer. The question is the foundation that the rest of the paragraph is built on. In J.K Rowling’s speech, the question is answered with a series of lists. In King’s, it is answered with anaphora. Question>anaphora is a structure of paragraph that works particularly well and which students can learn. The main idea is to ensure that the question is dealt with in some way. The question may not be the start of the paragraph- it could even come at the end, perhaps as a response to a list or anaphora.

Edit: Thanks to @JamesTheo for the feedback. The first example is hypophora, where a speaker asks then answers their own question. The second is procatalepsis, where the speaker states the opposing case and then offers a rebuttal.

The last idea I will explore on structuring a paragraph is the extended metaphor. Unlike the previous examples, metaphors are an underused element of persuasive writing, seemingly because imagery is more readily associated with narrative or description. But metaphor and analogy can work well in persuasion, such as in the extended metaphors in Barack Obama’s victory speech:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. But above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

Here’s another one from an article on Brexit:

At this stage, most people contemplating divorce are motivated by two things. First, they see only their spouse’s defects. Secondly, they fantasize about an idealized alternative future. Often, though not always, this involves a magically perfect new partner. But the most important motivation is the dream of freedom. No more nagging! No more unwelcome guests! All that money saved!

The metaphor carries the weight of the argument. With practice, students could get quite skilful in building these kind of paragraphs, or even whole texts. Schools are prisons. Smoking is poison. Fast food is an executioner. Find the common ground and build a paragraph around it.

So, instead of teaching some of these techniques in isolation, look to see how they can be the focal point or the foundation of a paragraph, how they can work in combinations with other techniques, and how they can punctuate an argument.

Filling subject knowledge gaps

I ended one of my previous blogs with this sentence: “I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher”. This is definitely true, but in all honesty I have tended to try to get better at the things that interest me, or the things that are most obvious, such as teaching writing. I get excited about something like rhetoric and then direct all my energies into it, but some areas inevitably get neglected. I am now going to tackle those areas- not weaknesses as such, but subject knowledge gaps that I need to fill.

The 19th Century

I am currently writing a scheme of work on 19th Century Literature and once I started putting together a knowledge organiser I realised that a) I knew nothing about the century and b) fitting a whole century on a knowledge organiser is not a task that should necessarily be undertaken.

So many holes in my knowledge were uncovered as I started. I didn’t know the first passenger trains were in 1825 for example. I didn’t know when the Crimean War was, or even the decades of important moments such as the abolition of slavery. To illustrate how problematic this lack of history is, imagine that we were studying “20th Century Literature.” We know instinctively how a book written in 1950 would be different to one in 1970, how one in 1912 would be different from 1920, but it is harder to understand how 1850 is different from 1870. Lumping everything together into the same 19th Century shaped box is not helpful. Dracula was published in 1897 and Frankenstein so much earlier in 1812, yet they are placed together in the same category of 19th Century Literature, with 85 years between them. To put this time gap in perspective, Tarzan and the Apes and The Lost World were published in 1912 while 1997 saw the publication Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone.

SKGAps 2To try and combat this breadth of ignorance, I have been listening to one of the Great Courses on Victorian Britain on my commute this term. I imagined that this would be a bit of a chore but I absolutely love it. The course is 18 hours long and I’m about a third of the way through. It’s constantly surprising and endlessly fascinating. It is changing how I view history and how I consider the texts produced in that time- it will help my teaching of 19th Century Literature no end. No more will I just say, “they were very religious in those days” as a catch-all statement about context for virtually any text before 1950.


SKGaps 1I know my grammar fairly well, but looking at the list of terminology that students in year 6 are expected to learn, I know that I couldn’t explain them easily to a novice. I think this is sometimes the case for teachers. We know our stuff, but teaching that stuff is another thing entirely. Even seemingly simple terminology such as ‘verb’ is much more complex than “It’s a doing word”. Mark-schemes for AQA mention ‘sentence functions’- easy to understand but quite difficult to get students to comment on effectively. I need to improve some of my knowledge of, and all of my teaching of, grammar. So the question is how do I get to the point where I am a grammar expert? The answer to this one- as it often is for me- is reading. Gwynne’s Grammar is the guide that I have chosen to read. However, I have owned this since 2013 and not read a word, so that might be easier said than done. I’m going to read 5 pages a day, starting today. By putting it in writing on this blog, at least my 63 readers will hold me to account.

New specifications

I am delighted to see the back of controlled assessment and I am already enjoying teaching new specifications. But the unfamiliarity can be a problem. I have brought myself up to speed with specifications and examinations, but there are always nuances that are not apparent until you start teaching, and sometimes only after you have taught it through. We have started teaching poems from the AQA Power and Conflict cluster and I have made sure that I am very familiar with every poem that I have taught, but I don’t yet know all of the poems that I will be teaching later on in the school year. At first I wasn’t so concerned about this, but it has become apparent to me that an overview of the whole selection of poems would make teaching each individual poem easier- for me and the students. Common patterns across the poems- themes, viewpoints, language techniques- have been discovered almost by accident, and a more thorough understanding of the whole body of poems would have meant that sequences were designed around this, rather than spotting them when they come up. This is my holiday reading for my two weeks off in October- a poem a day.

All of these things at first seem to me like the least exciting parts of being an English teacher: specifications, history and grammar. Yet reading some of the best poetry ever written, finding out about a century that shaped modern Britain and becoming more accomplished at the mechanics of language should never be described as ‘least exciting’, should they?

Further reading on English teaching:

Andy Tharby’s list of essential English teacher blogs: 25 Practical Blogs for the English Teacher

My original post on improving English teacher subject knowledge: Trying to be a Better English Teacher

My post on books to develop subject knowledge in English: An English Teacher’s Library


Trying to be a better English teacher

A few weeks ago I wrote about becoming better teachers of our subjects and concluded with: “I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher”. I thought it was worth trying to give examples of general approaches I have taken to improving my teaching. Here are some ideas that work for me, many of which could be transposed into different subject areas.

Collecting models

Whenever I read something interesting, I keep it. If I see an interesting sentence, I write it down. If a print advert makes me smile, I rip it out. If I see a colon used effectively, I save it for a lesson in the future. For students to become better writers, they need to be surrounded by high quality models. Everything we teach should be exemplified. I have a few posts on this, including Working With Mentor Texts, and I think this approach has improved my practice more than anything else.

When it can’t be found, I make it myself. I have found this particularly useful when it comes to essay writing. Students need to read essays and see what a good analytical paragraph might look like. If you don’t then you get the old ‘makes it more interesting’ or as I read the other day, ‘Shakespeare is trying his best for the play.’ The thing is, it’s really hard to comment on the effect of language. More examples=better responses.

Reading around the subject

There are lots of books with ideas on how to teach English, but they often tend to just give a few ideas for activities. Rather than reading books on teaching English, I would definitely recommend delving deeper into the subject, reading books which are not necessarily designed for teachers but will build subject knowledge and provide inspiration for lessons. I have started listening to audiobook lectures on the way to work now that my commute is longer, and already they have improved my teaching.

The great thing about English, is that anything you read can be useful. You can read a YA novel to recommend to students, you can read a history book to help learn about context. Every novel is a source of models and mentor sentences. Here is my list of books I recommend to start with.

Not making excuses and not dumbing down- the subject is exciting enough

It’s easy to apologise when teaching Shakespeare or poetry, subjects which students seem to approach with dislike, and say things like “well, we have to do it” or “I’ll try to make it fun”. Then whole lessons are spent trying to avoid contact with them. So instead of studying poetry, we study song lyrics and instead of writing essays on Macbeth, we design costumes for the witches. I used to do it so often, scouring the internet for ways to make my subject fun and doing lots of misguided things that I thought were necessary to make it all interesting. Obviously this came at the expense of learning. It’s okay to use things like Pop Sonnets as a way in, but students will always rise to the challenge if you teach the difficult stuff and support them to get there. For me, a love of the subject is cultivated by teaching the subject in all its glory and not trying to apologise for it.

Learning from other English teachers

There are so many great English teachers out there and lots of them blog. I love reading blogs because they are immediate, are personal, are often unfiltered, and are written by teachers based on their day to day experience. There are many blogs I enjoy by non English teachers of course, but the English teacher blogs have had the most direct impact on my teaching. Andy Tharby has a great list here to start from. Many tweeting teachers don’t blog but are generous in sharing what they do. A photograph of a classroom display might trigger some ideas, an interesting article might be shared which inspires a sequence of lessons, a throwaway comment might transform your approach to a text. I don’t spend as much time on Twitter as I once did, but it’s an invaluable source of inspiration. Not because it’s Twitter, but because it gives me easy access to these ideas. (Albeit we shouldn’t get too carried away with new ideas)

There is also this other thing called ‘real life’ which has quite a few more teachers! Chatting to colleagues in my department and in other schools is always useful. Seeing other teachers covering familiar topics in their own ways is wonderful and helps me to avoid becoming set in my ways. Our subject based school CPD this week consisted of our English department talking about a couple of poems and how we could teach them. The discussions helped everyone improve and I am sure our teaching of English Literature will be better as a result.

Developing efficient marking strategies

Man, the marking. I don’t think it can be avoided that English teachers mark a great deal. Because of this, English teachers need to develop strategies to make marking simple and effective. I honestly don’t hate marking any more because I have efficient methods and I continue to work on them. Every English teacher should prioritise making marking more efficient.

5 seems like a nice number to stop on. I’d love to see some other suggestions in the comments.

Remixing texts

The inspiration for this post comes from this blog from @Missjlud.  I loved the idea of Blackout poetry and was already considering how to use it my own lessons when I was asked to create a scheme of work for Expressive Arts, which we do as an additional GCSE in year 11.  I jumped at this opportunity because I love teaching the subject and began to think of how we could use this. (Expressive Arts covers art, creative writing, music, drama, dance- students must integrate two of these for coursework.)

I took the step of combining Art and English departmental meetings in order to tap in to the wide range of ideas.  Both departments teach Expressive Arts and I thought it would be a really positive experience to join our brains, especially when it is relatively new to all of us.  (I have already committed to team-teaching Expressive Arts with an Art NQT which I know will I be mutually beneficial.) The discussions were even more productive than I had hoped and I was introduced to a number of writers/ artists that I would never have discovered without the collaboration.  The theme of remixing and reimagining emerged- taking things out of context, breaking things and reconstructing them.

Here then are some of the ideas:

I am a big fan of Dave Gorman.  I like the way that he embraces chance in a number of his projects e.g. The Googlewhack Adventure.  On his radio show, Gorman often reads his ‘found poetry’.  Usually this is constructed from web comments from articles on ‘controversial’ subjects as in this example below about the Sugababes:

John Hollander: ‘anyone may “find” a text; the poet is he who names it, “Text”‘.  While students may well create something good enough from randomly selecting the lines for their poem, I would recommend they collect an excess of lines and then refine what they have.  Here are some ideas below:

Make a poem from the school planner.

Use YouTube comments/ web comments.

Make a poem from Twitter.

Swap exercise books and create found poetry from those.

Write down what you hear in the classroom.

Watch a clip from a film and write down dialogue as a poem.

Flick randomly through a dictionary/ book.

Use the random article feature on Wikipedia.

Another idea is book spine poetry, although it may test the patience of your librarian:





I followed the trail of Blackout poetry to Austin Kleon.  His site has examples of his work.  For Expressive Arts, we need to study practitioners, so we will read his biography…then turn it into a blackout poem!


I also purchased ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips, as recommended by one of my Art colleagues.  He is an artist who bought a 3 pence Victorian Novel and turned every page into a piece of art.  There is a slideshow here.  30 unique versions of the same page would make a fantastic classroom display.






I was also introduced to Graham Rawle, who wrote an entire novel from cuttings of ‘Woman’s World’ magazine.  Although it may seem like writing a ransom note, students can create text from cutting up magazines, newspapers or even old textbooks?



And Keira Rathbone, who creates images using a typewriter.





Here are some further ideas on how remixing could be used in an English lesson:

Genre swap- explore the stylistic conventions of a text by converting it into a different genre.

Reconstructing texts-  my colleague Elaine begins many poetry lessons by cutting up the poems and asking students to reconstruct them.  She can add more than one to help students compare the differences or even just insert one line from another poem.

Create a ‘madlib’ from a well-known text e.g. The Raven and analyse the change in tone/ meaning.

Alphabetise your text and ask students to reconstruct it, like this version of Visiting Hour by Norman MacCaig.  They can also use this as a way to analyse patterns of language.






Making Connections

Fittingly, the idea for this blog post came through a series of connections. Through the power of Twitter, my blog was linked to from this blog from @plestered.  I watched the video on the site and in it the teacher Andy Smith spoke of the way that he finds inspiration for his lessons from TV quiz shows.  Right at that moment I was watching Only Connect on BBC4.  An idea was hatched…

So I stole the word wall idea from the show and created a fairly simple starter activity.  Simple in that it was easy to make but it led to very complex thinking.  You can play some of the word walls here.  The idea is that there are 16 words and the teams must place them into 4 groups of different categories.

In my lesson, I just wrote down 16 things from Of Mice and Men.  Mainly characters, but I threw in some other ideas.  Here is what I made.  It took me about 5 minutes. onlyconnectOMAM

Making connections is an essential higher order skill.  It is explicitly in the markscheme for Band 5 in GCSE English Literature:  “make a sustained discussion of links and comparisons between texts; make apt selection of details for cross reference; at the highest level, make subtle points of comparison and probe links confidently.”

Crucially, the need to make four groups means that a) pupils have to reconsider their ideas and reject some ideas and b) there is some real divergent thinking when students end up with 4 seemingly unconnected ideas.  I was very clear in saying that I didn’t plan any connections so there was no point in asking me ‘is this right?’

It is a brilliantly differentiated activity too.  If I give 4 characters and ask what they have in common or which one is the odd one out, I have restricted the number of answers.  It is also easy to fall into the ‘read my mind’ teacher mode where there is an expected answer.  In trying to find 4 groups of 4, some students can make simple connections and as the options decrease the challenge increases.  Below is an example from one of the students.  The second answer led to a great discussion in class.

I also asked the students to solve a wall from the show (wall 2) and they loved it, although the word ‘gimlet’ sent one student into uncontrollable fits of laughter!

I am pretty sure that this sort of thing has been done many times before in classrooms up and down the country but I love stumbling upon things like this which are easy to create but lead to some complex thought.

Here are further ideas to connect

Hexagons are all the rage.  I love Think Link from Triptico for this and it’s even better because the demo board is based on OMAM.  You can laminate hexagons or use hexagonal post-its.  If you ‘explode the node’ and write a paragraph based around the intersection then it will be ready made with lots of detail.

Triangles are equally useful.  Write whatever you want on the side and ask students to connect.  You can have planned answers with some red herrings or just make them random and see what happens.

…or squares?

I can’t remember where I have stolen this from but if you just write a bunch of words on a page scattered out then students have to draw connections.  They can then write up their findings easily by starting at one point and exploring all the links.  Here is an example from Romeo and Juliet: RandJWordList

How is _______ like a ___________?   Set up a random name selector to pick a character and another to pick a thing.  Or pick them out of a hat.  How is Lennie like a tumble dryer is my favourite so far? “He breaks down/ powerful/needs someone to control” etc.  You can do this in so many ways.  Take two random things and find the connections.

Six Degrees of Separation from @fullonlearning:  Give a starting point and an end point.  This could be images or other stimuli. Students have to get from one to the other in six (or more or less) steps.  This is just one of many excellent ideas on connections and creativity from Zoe Elder’s ‘Full on Learning’.  I used it recently with quotations from Dulce et Decorum Est.  Another way is to turn this into a loop so the last step links to the first step.  This episode of ‘Wikiwars’ is another interesting way of approaching it:

Draw up a grid or create a Blockbusters style honeycomb and challenge students to get from one side to the other by making connections between words/ topics etc.  You could be ambitious and set up a room with ‘stepping stones’ on the floor.  Students can move to the next one only with a valid connection.  The next one across cannot go exactly the same way.

Teach connectives:  As an English teacher, I feel that students who can use a wide range of these can articulate ideas and explore connections easier.

Magic square: arrange topics in a 3×3 grid.  Pupils get a point for every connection they can make: horizontal, vertical, diagonal and 4 corners.