The rubric I use to score all performance assessments (which I almost completely stole from colleagues) has an entire section called “function/structure” that I use to identify how proficiently students communicate in “paragraph length.” Indeed, the AP rubric (from 2007, which will be changing for 2014) talks about “paragraphing,” and for speaking uses words like “organized,” “well-developed,” and “cohesive” in the “topic development” section. To me, this doesn’t just mean whether you have paragraphs in your writing and indent the first line. With speaking, it can’t mean that. So, especially in speaking, what does it look like to communicate “in paragraph form”? Paragraph form suffers when students are so focused on using language that they lose coherence. When I’m scoring paragraph form, I’m looking for four things.
Whether speaking or writing, good communicators group ideas thematically. If you and I are talking about a party, we may talk about the food, who’s coming, activities, and so on, but we do it in groups, not haphazardly or jumping around. Students show low proficiency here when they’re hopping from topic to topic looking for something to say, rather than just talking/writing about the idea itself.
When moving from one idea to the next, good communicators signal the change and show how the two are related. I tell my students this can be as simple as reusing a noun from the previous sentence, or especially in speaking, learning to use phrases like “that’s why” and “and so/therefore.” Students need tools like time sequencing words (then, next) and causal transitions (therefore, because) to make their paragraphing guide you through their ideas and help them make sense.
Particularly as a side effect of completing requirements in an assessment, my students chronically think they can start with whatever requirement they’re trying to fulfill, and just quit whenever they’ve done what they wanted to do. Teach students that in their second language, too, good communicators frame their communication; they begin and end conversations and writing logically. Rarely would you just walk up to a friend and say, “There’s a party at my house, 8 o’clock” and walk away. But this is essentially what they try to do in the second language, because they’re focused on completing a requirement (identify the event and what time) rather than the function (invite your friend to a party).
Almost unconsciously, speakers (or at least good communicators) follow certain conversational rules. It’s why I can say “do you have a trash can?” when I come over for dinner, and you tell me where your trash can is. You understood what I needed even though I didn’t ask it. If you had answered “yes,” and left it at that, you’d be breaking a conversational rule English speakers normally follow.
One conversational rule is that when we interject something that doesn’t have to do with the current topic, we signal it with some sort of apology or explanation of why: “I’m sorry, this just occurred to me;” “before I forget, let me ask you…;” “that reminds me of what happened the other day.” If my students are going to insert something irrelevant into the conversation, I need to know why. That shows paragraphing.
Start giving your students tips on how to improve their coherent paragraphing in both speaking and writing; it’s a great way to help them push their proficiency higher.
Photo credit: Xosé Castro