Introduction to topic sentences

In this lesson I give you a quick introduction to one way to write topic sentences for IELTS essays. First of all I talk you through what they are and what they do and then show you an example of how they can work.

topic sentences

A key concept – move from general to particular

Before you read on it will help to understand this concept:

If you want to explain something, it is almost always a good idea to start with a general explanation before you add any details. That way you help people understand what you are talking about step by step. If you put in too much detail first, they will probably get confused.

I’d add that the more complex the idea, the more you need to think about this principle. It applies in academic writing too.

Understand what topic sentences do

Topic sentences are a guide to the examiner. They help  them understand

what your main points are

the structure of your essay

if you are answering the question

When you write, these are the points you need to think about. I’ll try and show you below how you can do this.

See an example of how this works

Read this question

There is an increasing trend for people to live on their own and not share accommodation. What is causing this to happen? Do you think it will have a positive or negative effect on society?

You should see that there are two main questions to answer and one logical approach (the clearest and easiest one) is to answer each question in one main paragraph.

Addressing the question

One job of the topic sentences is to show the examiner how you are doing this. Look at the red bits below, you should how clear it is that I am addressing the question.

There are two main ways in which changing family relationships are responsible for more people living by themselves………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

This phenomenon is likely to be harmful to society both on the personal and social level…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Top tip – borrow, change and adapt words from the question in your topic sentences.This will make it clear that you are on topic. Just don’t steal everything!

Making the main ideas clear

Another job of the topic sentence is to show the examiner what your paragraph will be about generally – what comes next. Think of it as a signpost. Look at the blue bits below and you should be able to tell what my paragraphs will be about – two things about families and something on the personal and something on the social level.

There are two main ways in which changing family relationships are responsible for more people living by themselves………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

This phenomenon is likely to be harmful to society both on the personal and social level…………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

One way to make it work for you

This is not always an easy skill to master. It may look simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. One way to make it work is just to ask yourself questions. Here are the ones I suggest. They may look the same, but they are in fact rather different and have different purposes:

 How does this paragraph answer the question?

The answer to this question is something like

“I agree with the proposal”

“I think it is dangerous”

You should see that these are very general answers that state your position to the question. This will give you the red language from my examples.

What am I going to say in this paragraph generally?

The answer to this question should be slightly different – it will contain more detail. The sort of answers you should get are:

“I have 3 different reasons why it’s a bad idea”

“The main reason why it’s a bad idea is……”

Again, you should see that this says what comes next in your paragraph. This is the blue language in my examples above.

 The writing stage

This is the tough bit of course. Here are some quick thoughts:

you need to think/plan first – you can’t write a topic sentence until you know what comes next

each paragraph should be about one main idea – this may mean not using all your ideas

keep your topic sentence short (not more that 16 words or so) – if you are writing much more then you may be including too much detail

Where next?

Writefix is an exceptional site for writing. It has loads of good materials. Try this as a starting place and then start browsing:

Purdue OWL is another site you need to know about that has great writing resources. Start here:

You may want to check out this resource lesson I wrote for teachers, it too has ideas you can use:

Here is the complete essay and a quick lesson on coherence

Important footnote

In the first version of this lesson I described a topic sentence as a map – that was a big mistake. Maps contain lots of details and can be hard to read and take time to understand – this is exactly what a topic sentence should not be.

This new and improved version describes topic sentences as signposts. Signposts can be understood immediately and show you what way to go without using too much detail. Take a look below. You are aiming for the first one and not the second!!!!

signpost

newcastle map

 

 

   

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5 Responses to Introduction to topic sentences

  1. Nilanthi January 2, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    Pl. send me the IELTS

  2. piyumi March 23, 2015 at 5:48 am #

    very helpful. thank you very much.

  3. Matthew Andrewes May 1, 2015 at 6:56 am #

    Hey Dominic,

    My name’s Matt and I’m an English teacher in Japan. I have a couple of IELTS students and I just wanted to say THANK YOU. Your material is really helpful and I know that one of my students did much better on their reading practice exam because of your advice. Hope that you have a good weekend,

    Matt

    • Dominic Cole October 10, 2016 at 11:30 am #

      Hi

      Sorry for the very belated reply but thank you for getting in touch – it’s always nice to hear when something has helped.

  4. Anonymous October 11, 2016 at 6:11 pm #

    Thank you so much for really really useful advices.

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