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Recipes for Effective Literacy Instruction

Effective Topic Sentences

The quest for effective topic sentences reminds me of an old TV commercial—I think it was for tacos—in which people argued, “I like making them!” vs. “I like eating them!”  In the case of topic sentences, you must know how to FIND them before you can WRITE them.  So this section addresses both angles.

NOTE: Before you read this page, make sure you've taught Argument vs. Evidence Steps 1-3 on the Argument vs. Evidence page.


1. Teach students to identify and underline the thesis/topic sentence.  Given passages, use “I do/We do/You do” approach to practice this skill.  See Arg vs Evid Step 3 How to Find the Topic Sentence-Desk Paragraph Lesson in the Download Zone.

2. Give students sample effective topic sentences for which they must generate relevant evidence (bullet points are OK to start; later they can add the rest of the paragraph).  Model this, then have groups try it and report back to the whole class.  Then students do it independently. 

3. Give students a range of effective and ineffective topic sentences and ask them to infer what makes them effective/ineffective.  Ineffective ones should suffer from these common problems:fact, not argument  too broad/general (“Everyone knows"…)  too specific (not much you could say about it)  irrelevant to the thesis (if one is given).

4. Give students paragraphs that include effective and ineffective evidence and ask them to infer what makes the evidence effective/ineffective.  Ineffective evidence should suffer from these common problems: irrelevant to topic sentence self-contradictory  inaccurate/imprecise (eg, hyperbole)  not convincing (relevant but not compelling as support—ie, “So what?”).  PS: See my TLC Blog post on how and why to build quote sandwiches HERE.  See also this TLC Blog post on selecting and explaining evidence HERE.  You will also want to download Selecting and Explaining Evidence-Student Copy.

5. Give students effective topic sentences about texts they are reading or have read, and require them to write the rest of the paragraph, providing effective evidence and explanation for support.  For tips on how to help students write strong paragraph responses, see this MiddleWeb blog post, then use these tools: Paragraph Responses-Sample, When I Was Puerto RicanLORD OF THE FLIES Paragraph Assignments, and PARAGRAPH RESPONSE Scoring Checklist in the Download Zone.  For support on how to teach students to build "quote sandwiches" (context, evidence, and explanation), check out these TLC Blog posts on quote sandwiches.


1. Use content that you want to reinforce, so the reading serves two purposes.

2. Use pre-existing texts and simply doctor them to suit your needs so that you won’t have to create sample paragraphs from scratch.

3. After students have written their own paragraphs, use their (anonymous) examples as teaching tools.

IN THE DOWNLOAD ZONE for Effective Topic Sentences:


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