Structure, Transitions, Rhetoric

What Does a Topic Sentence Do? (coordinate this handout with lesson plan that follows)

States your main point

Prepares your readers for what is to come

Topic: Skills employers value

Main Point: Communication skills are more important than technical skills to employers

Topic Sentence: A recent survey reported that employers consider communication skills more critical to success than technical skills.


Four Features of a Good Topic Sentence:

It states a main point about the narrowed topic.

It interests you, and it will probably interest your readers.

It is a statement that you can show, explain, or prove.

It prepares readers for the rest of the paragraph


Think Critically about Your Topic Sentence

Make sure it is specific.

Make sure it does more than just announce your topic.

Make sure it does not merely make an obvious point or state a fact.



Presents the main point of your paragraph; needs to be strong, specific, and interesting.

General  -  Working mothers are busy

Specific  -  Most working mothers suffer from exhaustion and a lack of any time for themselves.


Gives your readers an idea of the content of the paragraph; does not announce the subject; makes a statement about the subject.

Weak  -  In this paragraph, I will talk about cheating.

Forceful  -  Eighty percent of high school students admit to having cheated at least once.

It is a statement that can be supported by examples, an explanation, or some other kind of evidence.

Obvious  -  Many people visit Disney World.

Better  People of all ages will have fun at Disney World.

Fact  -  The state of Florida has no income tax.

Better  Many retired people on fixed incomes move to Florida because it has no income tax.

                                                                          --The College Writer’s Reference, 3rd ed.



Questions to Ask about Your Topic Sentence

Select an opening sentence in any one of your paragraphs and write it down.

Does my topic sentence include both my narrowed topic and the main point I want to make about it?

Is it a complete sentence?

Does it make a point that will be interesting to my readers?

Does it state something I can show, explain, or prove?

Can I find ideas in my prewriting to support this topic sentence?

Can I think of some additional ideas to support this topic sentence?

Does it make a single point?

Does it say what I want it to say?

Does it fit the assignment?

Try out different versions of your topic sentence.  Try sounding silly, or angry, or puzzled.  Choose the version you like best.

Write and adjust your topic sentence until you think it works.



Topic Sentences

The attached lesson plan was used in 1102; however, it can be adapted for1101.  We discussed the essay at length in class and agreed on its thesis.  I typed that thesis and the first line of nearly half the paragraphs of the essay for students to see what they had in common and how they related to the thesis.  At our next class meeting I asked students to identify their own thesis and list their topic sentences, making the same judgments they did on the published essay.

Thesis Statement and Topic Sentences taken from

“Streets of Gold: The Myth of the Model Minority”


But the Model Minority is another “Streets of Gold” tale.  It distorts Asian-Americans’ true status and ignores our racial handicaps.  And the Model Minority’s ideology is even worse than its mythology.  It attempts to justify the existing system of racial inequality by blaming the victims rather than the system itself.

Topic Sentences:

The Model Minority myth introduces us as an ethnic minority that is finally “making it in America,” as stated in Time (Doerner 42).

Trying to show how “Asian-Americans present a picture of affluence and economic success,” as the New York Times Magazine puts it, nine out of ten of the major Model Minority stories of the last four years relied heavily on one statistic: the family median income.

Such assertions demonstrate the truth of the aphorism, ”Statistics are like a bikini.  What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

Throughout their distortion of our status, the media propagate two crucial assumptions.

But the media make an even more dangerous assumption.

An emphasis on material success also pervades the media’s stress on Asian-Americans’ education status at “the top of the class” (“Asian-Americans” 4).

The media again ignore the fact that class division accounts for much of the publicized success.

Thus, it is doubtful whether the perceived widespread educational success will continue as the Asian-American population eventually balances out along class lines.

Most important, the media assume once again that achieving a certain level of material or education success means achieving real equality.

When Time claims “As a result of their academic achievement Asians are climbing the economic ladder with remarkable speed,” it glosses over an inescapable fact: There is a white ladder and then there is a yellow one.

Yet this media myth encourages neglect of our pressing needs.

Part 2

(This lesson follows the previous on thesis and topic sentences.  Ask students to read their own essays and answer the following questions.  Discuss their answers.)

Self Review Questions

Identify the thesis:







List effective topic sentences:






List less effective topic sentences:







Thesis Statements

I presented the following basic requirements for a thesis statement (earlier on paper, now on large screen):

Basic Requirements for a thesis statement:

1.  It states the essay’s subject–the topic that you discuss.

2.  It conveys the essay’s purpose–either informative or persuasive.

3.  It indicates your focus–the assertion that presents your point of view.

4.  It uses specific language–not vague words.

5.  It may briefly state the major subdivisions of the essay’s topic.

I lifted the following statements from student papers and we examined them in terms of the basic requirements for a thesis statement, again earlier on paper and now on large screen.  Try this with your own students’ thesis statements.

Student Thesis Statements—examples

            Everyday students of FDU have enough to deal with without having to deal with the local teens in the parking lot.  Security should step it up before students go Chuck Norris on the teenagers.

            FDU, being a “prestigious” university should take action concerning the teenage vandals.  Reason being, I’m sure the university does not want to be known for such occurrences.

            It is quite apparent that many cars have been vandalized in the “north” lot of Fairleigh Dickinson University.  Furthermore, many students have been harassed in the lot.  It seems as if the “north” lot has become a hang out place for teenagers after dark.  As a remedy to this problem, public safety should step up its patrol.

            Given that FDU promotes safety on its grounds, public safety should patrol north lot where the students are causing trouble.

            FDU is a “dry” campus for teenagers to come in and harass students, vandalize cars and behave to intimidate other students on campus.  Security should really step up patrol against local teenagers hanging out in the north lot after dark.

            The number of harassment complaints and acts of vandalism has increased due to the local teenagers that have begun to hangout in north lot.  In order for students and faculty to feel safe, University security should improve their patrolling.

            Teenagers have been harassing students, vandalizing cars, and have been intimidating, shouldn’t security set up patrol to stop this?

            Recently, local teenagers have been hanging out in the FDU student and faculty parking lot after dark.  The University’s security should take action in eliminating vandalism, harassment, and intimidation.

            Fairleigh Dickinson University’s public safety should begin to take action against the students harassing and intimidating other students to insure safety in the campus.

            Teenagers have been harassing students, vandalizing cars, and intimidating in the Northpointe parking lot at night.  Therefore, it is necessary University security administer greater discipline on these teenagers.

            Negative behavior of students can lead to an increase in University security because many individuals can either become harassed and/or intimidated and property can become damaged.

            Although University security is present, it has failed in preventing local teenagers from harassing and intimidating students and vandalizing property.

            University security should increase patrol at night because local teenagers are harassing and intimidating students, as well as vandalizing personal property in the North lot after dark and they need to be stopped.

            By intimidating and harassing students as well as vandalizing cars, the local teenagers who hand out in the North lot have warranted an increase in the amount of security that guards the area.

            FDU Public Safety needs to step up its security operations in order to eliminate the harassing of FDU students and the vandalizing of FDU student property that is done by local teenagers who hang out in the North lot after dark.


Instructors:    This is a fun and simple activity for the beginning of an Argument unit.  I moderate the debate itself very little, allowing the students to find their own way in the debate.  Not wanting to interfere with their ideas, while the students prepare for the debate, I often call each student forward for a brief consultation about where they stand in the class.

It’s also important to do some synthesis work after the debate, so that students can cull some usable skills from all the fun.  I have included the hand-out I ask students to complete for homework after the debate.  We discuss it for about 20 minutes in the next class period, with an eye toward the first draft of an argument essay.

Group Argument activity—prepare for a debate based on Buckley’s “Why Don’t We Complain” (takes the whole class period)

--30 mins in groups while I Conference, to prepare:

--Group 1 agrees with Buckley: Americans don’t complain enough!

--Group 2 takes the opposing POV, refuting possible points

--Tell students to ANTICIPATE ARGUMENTS,  and use EVIDENCE to support their claims!

--40 mins, debate


Argument Homework

Which team won the debate based on Buckley’s “Why Don’t We Complain”?  WHY? 

--Discuss answers as a class.


Take the next ten minutes or so to classify the following list of names into four to six categories.   You may classify the names by any logic that you choose; just make sure that your categories are consistent so that you can defend your classifications.

Thomas Jefferson George Eliot   Joan of Arc  Aristotle

Charles Manson Christopher Columbus  You   Chris Rock

Maya Angelou  Athena    Amy Tan  Lebron James

Pocahontas  Osama bin Laden  Lassie   George W. Bush
Elmo   Bart Simpson   Samuel L. Jackson God

Bill Gates  Hillary Clinton   Michael Jackson Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod)
Thomas Edison  William Shakespeare  Jack Black  Hideki Matsui

Jackie Chan  Martin Luther King, Jr.  Beyonce  

Add one name of your choosing


Lesson Plan: Description


“Blue” by Yusef Komunyakaa

  1. Your small group will discuss your answers to ONE of the following questions: Questions 1, 2, or 3 under “Analyzing Rhetorical Choices” on page 85 in your textbook. (You wrote these answers in your journal for homework.)
  2. Choose a member of the group to report to the class your answers to your assigned question.
  3. Your group will be assigned a color. Working as a group, and using Komunyakaa’s essay as a model, write phrases and sentences that characterize your assigned color. See if you can make a point, that is, associate the color with a central idea. (This may be difficult because you are working as a group.) Assign someone to be the recorder, to write down the piece.
  4. Read your group’s piece to the class.
  5. Discuss the results of these activities.
  6. Compare your discoveries about the meanings of color to the revelations in “Blue."

Description & Narration

Lesson Plan

Preparing to write an essay that combines narration and description


Description:Flavio’s Home” by Gordon Parks

Narration: “The Library Card” by Richard Wright

  1. Journal: Working individually, half of the students write descriptions in their journals. Half write narratives based upon something that happened that morning.
  2. Discussion: Pleasures and Problems (I write their answers on the board.)
    1. Students are asked what pleases them about writing the journal entry. Typical answers: new insights into common realities, focus on experience, discovering things about ordinary aspects of life, getting rid of tension and stress.
    2. Students are asked what problems they had in writing the journal entry. Some typical answers:
      • Narration: Where to start and stop (beginning, middle, end of the story); how much or how little detail to include; how to convey the meaning of the event; how to keep it interesting; how to give the most important information)
      • Description: How to organize the observations; how to find the right words to describe the object or person; how to convey the importance of the thing being described)
    3. Summarize the students’ observations.
  3. Begin discussion of the two readings by first asking students to search in the readings for solutions that the writers of the essays found to the problems that the students encountered when they wrote their narratives or their descriptions.
  4. Go through the readings paragraph by paragraph (not sentence by sentence), asking students to identify and take notes on specific rhetorical choices and strategies used in the essays, such as:
    1. For description: figurative language; vivid imagery (taste, touch, smell, sound, not only sight); juxtaposition; detail; lively verbs; strong adjectives; expressive adverbs; poignant omissions.
    2. For narration: chronology and signals; dialogue; embedded commentary (evaluation); selection of details; person (I, we, he, she, it, they, you)
    3. Other strategies employed in both narrative and descriptive essays.
  5. Distribute the handout that outlines the major discoveries noted in the discussion / analysis of the readings (Attached).
  6. Distribute the assignment (essay prompt) for the essay combining narration and description. Discuss.


Strategies for Incorporating Description and Narration into Your Essay





Vivid imagery (taste, touch, smell, sound, not only sight)



Lively verbs

Strong adjectives

Expressive adverbs

Poignant omissions






What? - AND - So what? (What happened and why is it important?)

Who? Where? When? Why? How?

Chronology and signals


Embed commentary (evaluation).

Select details.

Person (I, we, he, she, it, they, you)

“Page Turner”

Identify the situation.

Set the scene.

Unfold a worthy plot.

Resolve the narration in a compelling and logical way


Description & Dialogue

Instructors:    My classes have a great time with this exercise in class.  The first item in this lesson plan is actually a homework assignment, but the writing could be done instead as a free-write or group writing activity for the first 20 minutes in class.

The writing and lesson plan serve 2 purposes—1) it gets students thinking in terms of “dialogue” in their writing (i.e. an interrogative form), and 2) it helps students see the fruitlessness of using certain words in their writing because they can mean so many things.  I chose beauty, greatness, and hero here, but I could have used any other vague word we composition instructors try to wean our students off of.

Dialogue & Word Choice Homework

Pick one of the topics below and write a screenplay- or interview-esque dialogue in which two characters debate the topic (for about 600-800 words).  Don’t forget to be specific, and remember the lessons of Units 1 and 2.


--What is “beauty”?

--What is “greatness”?

--How does one become a “hero”?

Lesson Plan

Word Choice via Dialogue—45 mins

-- Collect dialogue homework

-- redistribute them to pairs who ACT OUT DIALOGUES in front of the class (no one acts out his own dialogue)

-- spend about 30 minutes acting out dialogues

Spend about 15 minutes on synthesis:

-- Which dialogues are most SUCCESSFUL?  WHY??

-- What does this activity show you about “beauty” “hero” and “great” as word choices?  What are some other words like this?

-- What does this activity show you about dialogues and what they do.

Cause and Effect

First for some creative thinking—imagine that you are Sir Isaac Newton’s less famous (and less intelligent) cousin, Fig Newton.  You are sitting under a tree one day, and an apple hits you on the head.  Annoyed, you try to figure out why this happened so that you can avoid such occurrences in the future.  You haven’t yet had the fortune of hearing your cousin’s theory, so you must go about developing your own.  For the next ten minutes, explain the principals of your theory in your journal.

Discuss answers as a class.

Working with Metaphor

I have borrowed the following definition from every student's favorite source for information—Wikipedia:

In language, a metaphor is a rhetorical trope defined as a direct comparison between two seemingly unrelated subjects. In a metaphor, a first object is described as being a second object. Through this description it is implied that the first object has some of the qualities of the second. In this way, the first object can be economically described because implicit and explicit attributes from the second object can be used to fill in the description of the first.

For the remainder of the class period you are to write an essay in which you consider the possible meanings of two extended metaphors. For the first part of your essay, you will explore the various implications or meanings of the metaphor "time is money." As you write, you are to unpack the implicit and explicit attributes that these two subjects share. You may recall that we worked on this notion briefly in class. Next, you will similarly unpack the possibilities suggested by "time is a river."  In your final paragraph(s), draw some conclusions about how these comparisons shape or change how we think about "time."  If you would like to invent your own example (such as “love is…” or “college is…”, etc.) you are more than welcome, but make sure that you keep the first term the same in both of your examples.


I use this very early in the term; it's great for getting students to recognize exactly what rhetoric is-- that they have internalized different rhetorics and that they need to pay attention to how they say/write things in addition to what it is they say/write.

I keep the "facts" stay the same, but unbeknownst to the students, each is made to convey these same facts via different rhetorics, and then we discuss what changes and how among the accounts.

Who:  Mark Smith  
What:  Murdered
When:  10:37pm; Saturday, May 21st
Where: Parking garage
How:  Multiple stab wounds

Please take ten minutes to write a newspaper story in which you report the news of the murder. Be as inventive as you like, but do not alter the main facts.

Please take ten minutes to write a eulogy– a speech of remembrance said at a funeral– as though you were Mark Smith’s good friend. Be as inventive as you like, but do not alter the main facts.

Please take ten minutes to write an official report as if you were the detective called to the crime scene. Be as inventive as you like, but do not alter the main facts.

Please take ten minutes to write a closing argument as if you were the prosecutor addressing the jury who will find Mark Smith’s murderer guilty or not. Be as inventive as you like, but do not alter the main facts.

When the students are done with the exercise below, I have them report individually and I list on the board the names they have grouped together WITHOUT revealing the category they have devised. Then the others have to try and figure out the category, which forces them to grapple with issues of commonality/logic, mutual exclusiveness, arbritariness (no two students categories were exactly the same and criteria varied), and agenda.


English Composition 1101

Fall 2005

Paragraph Exercise (unity, coherence and development)

            Select one paragraph from the essay you are discussing in your paper and answer the following questions:

Which sentence states the controlling idea?

What are the key words in the controlling idea?

What transitional expressions help achieve coherence?

What is the main method used to develop the controlling idea?


            Select one paragraph from your essay and answer the following questions:

Which sentence states the controlling idea?

What are the key words in the controlling idea?

What transition expressions help achieve coherence?


Constructing unified paragraphs:

  1. Make sure each sentence is related to the central thought.
  2. Sate the main idea of the paragraph in a clearly constructed topic sentence.
  3. Make paragraphs coherent by arranging ideas in a clear, logical order and by providing appropriate transition.
    • Some examples:
      • Time order
      • Space order
      • Order of importance
      • General to specific; specific to general
      • Topic-restriction-illustration
      • Problem-solution
      • Question-answer
  4. What is the main method used to develop the controlling idea?

Structure 2

Instructors:    You can use this activity any time during the semester, to help students “see” difference aspects of an essay’s structure.  You can ask them to draw a published essay, or a peer’s essay as part of a workshop; the former helps them model structures for themselves, and the latter helps them see deficiencies in their own essays’ structures.  I have also asked students to draw a “map” of an essay, rather than draw it free-form; sometimes the task of mapping results in more logical and thus learn-able forms.

Drawing Structure—takes whole class period

--Divide class into groups of 4

--Give out large pieces of butcher paper and crayons or markers (I got mine at Staples)

--30-40 minutes: Groups DRAW an essay the instructor has selected (see note above)

--instructor can float around and monitor group work or can use this time for brief conferences with students

--30-40 minutes: Groups present their drawing to the class, explaining their visual choices, and why they “translated” elements of the structure the way they did.

Synthesis: What did you learn about an essay’s structure by drawing it?  (Instructors can ask more questions of particular structural issues that students are having trouble with at that time—introductions, conclusions, paragraphing, etc.)


To mix things up a little, and get students thinking about writing beyond the textbook, I pick a current movie or tv review, or a great essay I heard on NPR (transcripts always printed online), paste it into a WORD document, and separate the paragraphs so that I can cut up the papers, leaving one paragraph on each page.

Then, I put students in groups and have them assemble the essay, numbering the paragraphs as they ordered them.

I then read the correct order to them, and ask them to record how many paragraphs they matched up correctly.

We then discuss WHY it was easy to match up certain paragraphs and not others, and discuss inter- and intra-paragraphs “transitions” they might have missed that provide clues about how to structure an essay and transition between paragraphs.

I try to end the lesson with a “What did you learn” about structure and transitions..?

NB: I always make sure to disguise my cutting edge with double-cutting because student t will try to do this lesson just by matching up the cut