A simple trick to improve the humble topic sentence

I recently read a blog post by Kristian Shanks (blog here) where he discusses the importance of teaching pupils to write a sentence before writing a good paragraph.

This is vitally true, and – I would argue – in the same way a fish rots from the head down, so too does a paragraph: that first sentence is key.

But what should it look like?

Well, a common complaint among history teachers is that pupils are too often descriptive when they need to be analytical.

Yet the feedback, ‘be more analytical’ is almost useless. Most pupils, even at sixth form, do not really have a clear grasp of what analysis (or evaluation) looks like.

It therefore make more sense to give them concrete strategies to improve their work. A simple but effective one is helping them to improve their ‘topic sentence’ and make it into an ‘argument sentence’.

For the sake of clarity, here’s how I define those two terms:

Topic sentence = introduces the topic or theme of the paragraph

Argument sentence = introduces the topic or theme of the paragraph in relation to the overall question and, ideally, gives an indication of its relative importance.

Some examples:

Topic sentenceArgument sentence
A second reason Hitler came to power was because of the Great Depression. The most important reason Hitler came to power was because of the Great Depression as this led the German public to vote for extremist parties.
Another factor in William’s victory was luck.Although tactics were undoubtedly important in William’s victory, a more significant factor was luck, as this tipped the battle in his favour at the decisive moments.
A third cause of the Cold War was the actions of the Harry Truman. Another important cause of the Cold War was the actions of Harry Truman because they destroyed the wartime relationship between the USA and USSR.

You will notice in each of the examples in the right-hand column that an explanation is given.

By ensuring there is a ‘because’ (or ‘as’ or similar) in that first sentence, it forces the pupil to begin their paragraph in an analytical way. It forces them to actually answer the question in their first sentence of every paragraph.

Of course, this alone does not guarantee an analytical paragraph. But the first sentence it is as good as any a place to start.

A brief aside

The keen eyed among you will have noted that the second example in the table also refers back to the previous paragraph (about tactics). This is an example of a ‘Janus-faced sentence’.

For an excellent blog post on this by John Tomsett see here.

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