Overview: This activity invites students to conduct a close analysis of the topic sentences in a published work and then apply their observations to their own drafts.
Author: Magda Gross
Activity name: Topic Sentences and Coherence
Class: PWR 1/PWR 2
Activity brief description: Students often don’t understand that the topic sentence is the gateway to the paragraph. Writing short, effective topic sentences can often be a make or break skill at the college level. I noticed my students have been writing 3-4-5 line topic sentences. I wanted to teach them to write short, effective introductory topic sentences. Also, this activity allowed me to teach backwards outlining- the topic sentences they re-wrote became their outline. They could then check for the global coherence of their papers. This was a full 1.5 hour activity. It involved both teacher directed work, peer reviewed moments, as well as individual writing time.
Schedule: I like to use this when a first draft is due. I will use this when their first draft of the RBA is due.
Activity length: Approx. 90 min.
Introduce the activity. Explain that glancing at their writing you have seen a major gap: the topic sentence. Take student answers- what makes a topic sentence good? Write answer on board. Explain that those academics who write for the popular press are wonderful examples of master topic sentence writers. Jill Lepore (New Yorker), Elizabeth Kolbert, and Malcolm Gladwell are good examples to bring up.
Here I do something perhaps unique to my personality- I bring in a Jill Lepore book or a Gladwell book and I have a student open it to a RANDOM page. I read out loud every topic sentence on that page one at a time. After each I stop dramatically- I ask- What is this paragraph about? What will come next? How long is this sentence? And in every case, without ever having read the book, the students can effectively answer each question. I then hand out an excerpt from a Lepore or Gladwell book. In groups, I have the HIGHLIGHT all the topic sentences, I have them COUNT the words in the sentences, and take the average (for gladwell it is 12, for lepore it is 18). I have them talk in groups about what makes the sentences successful.
We come back as a group- we take the average, and socially construct an effective topic sentence list.
Then I tell them to take out their first drafts. They are told to switch with a partner. The first thing this the partner does is highlight their fellow students’ topic sentences. Next, they count the number of words in those topic sentences and take the average (the average is about 25-37 words). They write and circle the average on the top of their paper. Usually this moment gets laughs and gasps. The partners then work on one another’s papers to try to re write the topic sentences at 18 words or so. They conference and share what they did. Then they switch back and work on their own.
We come together as a class, and share out our experiences.
Next, in pairs, they backwards outline their own papers- in discussion with a partner if they want. The outline should consist of topic sentences. Here, the teacher must guide the discussion about global coherence. My students have already outlined for each paper, so they will understand why we are outlining. If you have not outlined with your students before, feel free to skip this step. If you would like a great reading on global coherence- the book “Writing with clarity and grace” chapters 11 and 12 are wonderful.
Wrap up class, and link this to the importance of writing with ethos, pathos, logos, and clarity.
Directions for students:
This activity was originally published as an Activity of the Week in fall 2014.