Topic sentences


When teaching students to write an essay, the first step is to plan out what will go in the essay. Often students want to just "jump right in" - but this often leads to essays that lose focus or do not address the demands of the question.  The flip side is that a lot of students that do planning simply list a bunch of key words without really developing any argument.  The list is almost a free association of all that they remember with regard to the topic, regardless of how tangential it may be to the question.

Getting students to practice using topic sentences is a good way to help them to develop their organization skills.  Topic sentences should do three things:

  1. They should directly answer the question.  If the question is Evaluate research on conformity - then a good topic sentence will be One of the problems with conformity research is that it is difficult to test it under natural conditions.  This sentence directly answers the question and is preparing the reader for part of an argument. Notice how specific it is.  Poor topic sentences are very broad - such as There are many strengths to conformity research.  If topic sentences are well written, I should be able to read the topic sentences for the essay and have a good understanding of the overall argument.
  2. Topic sentences limit what is going to be in the paragraph.  Every sentence of the paragraph should be related to the topic sentence. Each paragraph, then, presents a single argument and should be focused and developed.
  3. Topic sentences also help the reader to transition between ideas.  Use of transition words like in addition, on the other hand, contrary to the studies already discussed or more importantly. 

Writing task 1

There are at least two ways that students can practice the use of topic sentences in their writing.  One way is to provide them with the topic sentence and ask them to write the paragraph.  This is good for several reasons.  First, it models good topic sentences.  Second, it avoids the problem of writing a poor topic sentence and then writing a poor paragraph.  Finally, it helps demonstrate strategies for answering a question and demands that the student only write about that aspect of the question in their paragraph.  You can also show them that certain topic sentences may be good to use for certain command terms.  For example, for examine, a good sentence might be: The Foot-in-the-door technique is based on several assumptions. This directly addresses the command term.  For the command term Discuss, a good topic sentence might be There are several implications of the research on conformity.

Here are some topic sentences that students could use to complete a paragraph in a Paper 1 ERQ. The boxes below contain samples of what students should do to complete the paragraph.

1.  Experiments are often used at the biological level of analysis because they control variables and allow for cause and effect relationships to be established.

Students should give an example of a study and focus on how variables were controlled. For example, in Martinez & Kesner's study of acetylcholine, that one group only received a saline injection. Why was this a good control? How did this help to establish a cause and effect relationship?

2. Although deception is problematic, there are important reasons why it is used.

This would be part of an essay where students were asked to "discuss ethical considerations."  A clear example of how deception is used and why that choice was made would be important.  For example, why was deception used in Schachter & Singer's study?

3.  One of the key strengths of schema theory is that is has many applications.

When evaluating theories, it is better for students to really develop some ideas rather than simply present a laundry list of strengths and limitations.  So, for applications, students could discuss how it is used to explain memory distortion, human development, learning and/or abnormal behaviour, such as depression.

4.  Another social factor that affects memory is deprivation.

If students write a sentence like this, the sentence just screams out "how?" Simply giving an example is not enough.  The example needs to be linked back to the topic sentence.  For example, that deprivation leads to higher levels of stress and potential atrophy of the hippocampus.  This explain how this factor affects memory.

5.  One of the characteristics of collectivistic societies is the focus on one's in-group; this is demonstrated in research on helping behaviour.

In a question asking students to examine one cultural dimension, the response should be looking at the components of the dimension and the assumptions about how this affects behaviour.  Social Identity Theory is intrinsically linked with the I-C dimension.  A student would have to give an example of how the dimension affects helping and what assumptions about such cultures help us to understand this difference in behaviour.

6.  Attribution errors are often made as a way to preserve our sense of self.

Once again, if it is an "examine" question, this topic sentence looks at the underlying assumptions.  The need for "self preservation" is evident in the self-serving bias.  Since group membership is important to an individual's identity, in collectivistic societies, modesty bias plays a "similar but different" role.

Writing task 2

I said that there were two methods to get students to improve on this skill.  After having students practice writing the paragraph, I would have them practice writing their topic sentences.  A simple way to do this is to read out a prompt and have students respond with a topic sentence.  There are several ways to do this.

1. Have them each respond by writing the topic sentence and emailing you their response.  This is a great way to start off or end a class.

2.  Have them write down their topic sentence and then have them share it with a partner.  Working with their partner they should peer edit the topic sentence to make it more precise.  After having them do this, you can end the activity or take it a step further.  First, you could have the partner write the paragraph with their buddy's topic sentence.  A more time consuming activity is to have students put all of their finalized topic sentences in a Google Document or on the board.  Then have each student choose which three they would use if they were going to write the essay.  Discuss why some topic sentences are better than others.  If you want to use this as a summative assessment, then have them complete the essay with three of the topic sentences from the list.

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