When you write it is important to remember that your reader needs help in following your line of thinking. You can give such help by using explicit structural signals: a paragraph is one of such signals.
In academic writing, the paragraph signals a thought unit: i.e. a paragraph deals with one main idea or topic, or with one aspect of a large topic. When you indicate a new paragraph (by indentation or an empty line) you signal to the reader that you are moving on to a new topic or to a new aspect of the topic.
Typically a paragraph consists of three components:
§ topic sentence;
§ supporting sentences;
§ concluding sentence.
The thought unit of a paragraph is often indicated – or controlled – by a topic sentence. This is the sentence that sates the topic (the main idea) of the paragraph and controlling ideas concerning that topic. Controlling ideas are words or phrases in a topic sentence that need further explanation. Usually you can ask questions about controlling ideas that will be answered in the paragraph that follows the topic sentence.
The other sentences of a paragraph are then seen as supporting sentences: they extend, develop and support the topic sentence by examples and supplementary evidence. In order to support the topic sentence adequately, every supporting sentence must be related in one way or another to the controlling idea of the topic sentence.
Look at the following example:
Taking exams is required of all students, and to do their best, students should use the following methods to prepare themselves.
The topic of the sentence is ‘taking exams’. The controlling idea is ‘methods’. All the supporting sentences in the paragraph should present these methods.
Task 1. [individually, then in pairs]
Identify the topic sentence of the paragraph below. State the topic of the sentence
and underline the controlling idea. Discuss that with your partner.
Skinner and others applied his findings to modify behavior in the workplace, the classroom, the clinic, and other settings. In World War II (1939-1945), for example, he worked for the U.S. government on a top-secret project in which he trained pigeons to guide an armed glider plane toward enemy ships. He also invented the first teaching machine, which allowed students to learn at their own pace by solving a series of problems and receiving immediate feedback. In his popular book Walden Two (1948), Skinner presented his vision of a behaviorist utopia, in which socially adaptive behaviors are maintained by rewards, or positive reinforcements.
The following phrases, or ones similar to these, can be used in your topic sentence to express the controlling idea:
the reasons for
the causes of (the effects of)
the steps for (the procedure for)
the advantages of (the disadvantages of)
the ways to (the methods of)
the different sections (parts, kinds, types) of
the characteristics (traits, qualities) of
the problems of
the precautions for
the changes to
Task 2. [individually]
Write a topic sentence for each of the following topics. Use one of the phrases above
or one of your own for your controlling ideas.
1. perspectives in psychology
4. humanistic psychology
As far as the place of the topic sentence in a paragraph is concerned, there are two main structuring methods. The first is to put the topic sentence at or near the beginning of the paragraph. This method, going from the general to the specific, is called deduction. The second method, called induction, is to start with the supporting sentences and proceed towards the topic sentence, i.e. going from the specific to the general. In academic writing, deduction is the most common method for organizing a paragraph.
In a visual representation of the structure of the paragraph, the two methods may look in the following way:
Task 3. [individually, then in pairs]
Identify the structuring method of the paragraph in Task 1. Draw a tree diagram
of the structure of the paragraph. Fill in the boxes with appropriate sentences.
Most paragraphs have more complicated structures than those presented in the diagrams above. They contain supporting sentences which are subordinated to one another on different levels and in different patterns. Study the paragraph below:
(1) From the start of psychoanalysis, Freud attracted followers, many of whom later proposed competing theories. (2) As a group, these neo-Freudians shared the assumption that the unconscious plays an important role in a person’s thoughts and behaviors. (3) Most parted company with Freud, however, over his emphasis on sex as a driving force. (4) For example, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung theorized that all humans inherit a collective unconscious that contains universal symbols and memories from their ancestral past. (5) Austrian physician Alfred Adler theorized that people are primarily motivated to overcome inherent feelings of inferiority. (6)He wrote about the effects of birth order in the family and coined the term sibling rivalry. (7) Karen Horney, a German-born American psychiatrist, argued that humans have a basic need for love and security, and become anxious when they feel isolated and alone.
Its structure may be visualized in the following way:
Task 4. [individually]
Analyze the paragraphs below and draw a tree diagram of their structure.
(1) To probe the unconscious mind, Freud developed the psychotherapy technique of free association. (2) In free association, the patient reclines and talks about thoughts, wishes, memories, and whatever else comes to mind. (3) The analyst tries to interpret these verbalizations to determine their psychological significance. (4) In particular, Freud encouraged patients to free associate about their dreams, which he believed were the “royal road to the unconscious.” (5) According to Freud, dreams are disguised expressions of deep, hidden impulses. (6) Thus, as patients recount the conscious manifest content of dreams, the psychoanalyst tries to unmask the underlying latent content—what the dreams really mean.
(1) The humanistic movement was led by American psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. (2) According to Rogers, all humans are born with a drive to achieve their full capacity and to behave in ways that are consistent with their true selves. (3) Rogers, a psychotherapist, developed person-centered therapy, a nonjudgmental, nondirective approach that helped clients clarify their sense of who they are in an effort to facilitate their own healing process. (4) At about the same time, Maslow theorized that all people are motivated to fulfill a hierarchy of needs. (5) At the bottom of the hierarchy are basic physiological needs, such as hunger, thirst, and sleep. (6) Further up the hierarchy are needs for safety and security, needs for belonging and love, and esteem-related needs for status and achievement. (7) Once these needs are met, Maslow believed, people strive for self-actualization, the ultimate state of personal fulfillment. (8) As Maslow put it, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is ultimately to be at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.”
The topic sentence tells the reader what the paragraph will be about. The ideas stated in the rest of the paragraph should all refer to the given topic and the controlling idea. Otherwise the paragraph will lack unity and coherence and will be difficult to understand.
Task 5. [individually]
Read the following paragraph and cross out sentences that do not support
the topic sentence.
The modern cognitive perspective is in part a reaction to behaviorism and in part a return to the cognitive roots of psychology. Like the nineteenth-century version, the modern study of cognition is concerned with mental processes, such as perceiving, remembering, reasoning, deciding, and problem solving. To conceive of human actions solely in terms of stimulus and response may be adequate for the study of simple forms of behavior, but this approach neglects too many important areas of human functioning. Unlike the nineteenth-century version, however, modern cognitivism is not based on introspection. Thus, the modern study of cognition is premised on the assumptions that: a) only by studying mental processes can we fully understand what organisms do; and b) we can study mental processes in an objective fashion by focusing on specific behaviors, just as the behaviorists do, but interpret them in terms of underlying mental processes. The cognitive perspective developed partly in reaction to the narrowness of the S-R view.
The last element of paragraph structure to be considered is the concluding sentence. The concluding sentence signals the end of the paragraph and leaves the reader with important points to remember.
A concluding sentence is not absolutely necessary; in fact a concluding sentence is not customary for every paragraph in a multiparagraph essay. However, for single paragraphs, especially long ones, a concluding sentence is helpful to the reader because it signals the end of the paragraph and because it is a reminder of the important points.
A concluding sentence may serve three purposes:
1. It signals the end of the paragraph.
2. It summarizes the main points of the paragraph.
3. It gives a final comment on the topic and leaves the reader with the most important ideas to think about.
You may use one of the following end-of-paragraph signals to introduce your concluding sentence:
As a result,
We can see that …
It is clear that …
These examples show that …
There can be no doubt that …
The evidence suggests that …
Task 6. [individually]
Analyze the paragraphs in the tasks above in terms of the presence of a
concluding sentence. State if the concluding sentence summarizes the main
points of a paragraph, or gives the final comment on the topic in each case.
Task 7. [individually]
Write a paragraph about one of the psychological approaches. To perform this
task you may want to
- reread Unit texts and use any other materials on the topic; and
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