How to Help Students Improve Their Topic Sentences

Writing a good topic sentence is surprisingly still a problem for many middle-school students. Students usually have one of two problems. The first problem is that many students write an incomplete phrase as a topic sentence, putting a period at the end. These students are confusing titles and topic sentences. The second problem is that the topic sentence students write is not general enough to the whole paragraph and should really be another supporting sentence.  This post will only deal with a solution to the first problem.

I discovered an easy one-on-one method to help students work on the problem of confusing title phrases with topic sentences. I suggest having a long list of about fifty simple essay titles prepared. Point out that titles are not complete sentences. Ask the student who has trouble to change the title phrase into a complete sentence. Many students will immediately change it into a question. While a question can be used as a topic sentence, I don’t them use questions, because this doesn’t solve their basic problem; it allows them to get around their basic problem.

If the student just cannot change the title into a declarative topic sentence, then help him. Give him three or four examples; then move on to the next example. This technique works even better with two or more students in a small group. Ideally, the group should be composed ONLY of students who have the same problem. (It’s of no help to anyone to be placed in a competitive group–or class–with others whose level of competence far exceeds their own.)

Points can be kept with a tally-mark system of who can come up with the best topic sentence. I also give students a chance to change and adjust their answers (after hearing another child’s answer) before I choose whose answer is best. If they are all equally good, I give points to each child.

Here are two examples:

Title 1: How Technology Affects People’s Lives

Example Topic Sentences:

A. Technology affects people’s lives in many ways.

B. We would be lost without technology in modern life.

C. Technology can have either a positive or negative influence on our lives.

Title 2: Comic-Book Heroes

Example Topic Sentences:

A. My life as a child was filled with comic-book heroes.

B.  Comic-book heroes inspire us in real life.

C.  Real-life heroes are better than comic-book heroes.

The second student problem, that of using as a topic sentence one which should really be a supporting sentence is a little more difficult to solve, and requires more one-on-one work in a different approach.

–Lynne Diligent

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4 Responses to “How to Help Students Improve Their Topic Sentences”

  1. Brian Rude Says:

    This strikes me as a very good article. I say it “strikes me . . .” because I have no experience teaching writing or teaching kids of this age. Yet it does touch on something a little broader that I feel is important. That broader issue is the question, what should educational writing be like?

    When I was young and first interested in teaching I did something that came natural to me, I looked for writing on teaching and learning. So I went to the library. I’m thinking of my freshman year at college at the University of Missouri, which at that time was bragging about having a library with a million volumes. In my last year of high school I decided I wanted to be a teacher. That was probably not a very sensible decision, but I was young and idealistic. Over the three years I spent at Mizzou I got quite familiar with the education section of that library.

    I had some idea what I expected to find in writing about teaching and learning. Of course the vision in my mind was very unformed and open. I was only vaguely aware, after a year or so, that what I was finding in that big library about teaching and learning didn’t seem much like the vision I had in my head about what I should find. When I got out of college and the years went by I gave a lot of thought to teaching and learning, and I did a lot of writing about my ideas of teaching and learning. So in a sense I never got away from the question of what educational writing should be like, but neither did I really try to form an idea in my mind about it.

    But this article brings me a bit of deja vu. It reminds me of what I expected to find way back in my freshman year at college when I would explore that big college library. I expected to find some “how to” writing – how to teach this, how to teach that, how to . . . . whatever. In other words I expected to find articles like this one. I can’t say that I verbalized that expectation. Rather I realized I had that expectation from reading this article. I took it for granted that articles like this one would form a part of the educational literature. And I didn’t really realize that it doesn’t until reading this posting about teaching topic sentences.

    Critics could argue that “how to” articles are not very scholarly, not very scientific, not very deep. Well, yes, there is an important point there. Certainly we have to go beyond “how to” writing. But I think we have gone too far the other way. We have totally dismissed the basic simple “how to” writing. You can’t go beyond something if you have never arrived at that something. The field of education could use many more simple how-to articles like this.

    In other contexts I have argued that simple, accurate, and comprehensive description must form the basis of any science. I explained this best in my article “rules and Methods of Science” at And in other contexts I have argued that the field of education has never made that simple necessary beginning.

    Good article, Lynne. Tell us more. Keep writing.

  2. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Thank you, Brian. I certainly could have used a lot more “how to” articles when I was a new teacher (and still search for them as a veteran teacher, when teaching something new). The best course I had in ed school was called “Teaching Reading in the Content Area.” It was a course especially designed for secondary teachers because one of the biggest problems are students who are unable to understand their text books. This course was designed to help teachers help students with this problem. The entire course was a practical, “how to” course. But most courses tended to be more “theoretical” and I think it was assumed that practical aspects would not be picked up until student teaching. I think the reason for this is that most courses are mandated by the state to cover LEGAL requirements, as opposed to really helping new teachers with practical teaching matters! I think in the “olden” days, when prospective teachers didn’t need to have so many degrees, or even were set up to teach in one-room schoolhouses, that the old “Normal Schools” which gave lifetime certificates actually specialized in the practical type of education you are talking about. I, too, have often wished for that sort of teacher training.

  3. ct Says:

    ” What are the main concerns students have after graduation about repaying their educational financial debt?”- is this a good topic sentence?

    • Lynne Diligent Says:

      The only thing wrong with it is that it is lacking in commas. It should read: “” What are the main concerns students have, after graduation, about repaying their educational financial debt?”

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