Friday, March 23, 2012

The Curious Case of the Topic Sentence

"Kelly, this sentence feels like it is missing something. I think it needs a signal or a lead in. I've got it. It needs a topic sentence!"


This is when I say, "Student, put down the pen. Back away from the paper. Now, slowly walk away from the table and towards me...come towards the light Carol Ann!"

Thankfully these situations are usually not quite that dramatic. However, I do get a bit freaked out when students tell me that their paragraphs lack focus and that the topic sentence is a sure fire fix.

Does the topic sentence represent evil (maybe...)?

No, of course not.

But in my mind the topic sentence is insulting to the reader of your work.

For Example:

My daughter Maisy likes to ride bikes and likes to let everyone know this fact. Last fall Maisy and her friends went on a long bike ride to the park and had a wonderful time. While at the park, she ran into some friends who had been dropped off by their parents, because they did not understand the joy of bike riding. Maisy immediately started telling the non-bike riders that they were missing out, and they should start right away. The naysayers moaned and groaned about the exercise, but Maisy would not take no for an answer. She insisted that bike riding was fun and a great way to spend time.

Do I really need that first sentence? It is a topic sentence for the paragraph, yes. However, from the sentences that follow, it is evident that this paragraph is about how my daughter Maisy is a bike riding fanatic and that no one is safe from her bike riding rants.

Who can we blame for this madness? As much as it pains me to admit, a Scots-Irishman named Alexander Bain started this whole topic sentence stuff back in the day--the 19th century. As a Scots-Irishwoman I think that I must stand up for the rest of my normally super cool culture and say, "Whoa whoa whoa. Don't judge us because of this guy!"

Back in the winter of 1974 Richard Braddock, a guy so cool that there is an award named after him , wrote an article entitled "The Frequency of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose", and it shook up the world of all those topic sentence believers.

This article itself is made up of an in-depth study that Braddock enacted in order to track the use of the topic sentence as well as the relevancy of it. The conclusion to the article suggests that teachers rely on the topic sentence while teaching writing because it makes structure and idea flow easier for students to comprehend, but that it is not this way for professional writers.

Thus, teachers should not tell students that professional writers or writing always includes the topic sentence. Although it might be a great way to get things started and help a struggling student along, relying on the topic sentence can actually become a crutch for students to lean on, and they can also hinder the progress they need to make in their writing.

So, what do we do if we don't use topic sentences?

We also write with paragraph unity in mind.
We also work diligently to develop transitions that make sense which in the end bring all these paragraphs and the main point together.

Here is an example of a paragraph that could follow the one about Maisy from earlier:

Maisy and her friends left the park and rode their bikes down to the video store. They each arrived winded and exhausted but were still exhilarated from the bike riding experience. Maisy looked around at her friends and said, "See, how great that was! We are tired but we also feel great!", and everyone nodded in agreement. Suddenly the idea of going into the video store to rent the new PS3 Modern Warfare 3 game wasn't as tantalizing and the group rode off into the sunset. Of course, Maisy would return another day to fight the battle of video game vs. exercise,   but today she proved to be the victor.

Is there a topic sentence in that paragraph? Nah. Does it transition from the one before? Yep.

Do you think I need to include a sentence that let's you know that this paragraph is going to be about Maisy and her philosophical triumph over a video game? Nope.


Cause you are a smart reader and you don't need me to tell you what the paragraph is going to be about, right? You can glean that information from my well developed paragraph.

So, in short. Do not channel Alexander Bain.

Instead, focus on good transitions and paragraph unity. This means that paragraphs don't necessarily have to have topic sentences. However, they need to be focused and unified around an important point with details, an example or set of related examples, or a detailed explanation.

Remember those things and your reader will be happy, and you will be super cool.

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