Unit 4: Fundamentals of Academic Essay Writing

26 Essay Structure

You may have learned how to write a “5-paragraph” essay with an introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion. This is a good starting place. The academic writing conventions you will learn in this course will be expanded upon in ESL 118, where you will learn more advanced approaches to academic writing.

Preview Questions:

  1. What does a “typical” essay look like? What are the parts of an essay?
  2. What are the parts of a paragraph?
  3. What are the qualities of a good paragraph?
  4. What’s the difference between a thesis statement and a topic sentence?
  5. Does every paragraph need a concluding sentence?

Topic Sentences

Writers can and should create a very clear “skeleton” for the ideas in an essay. That skeleton (or outline if you don’t like skeletons) usually consists of the thesis statement and the topic sentences for each paragraph or section of the essay.

Topic sentences in an essay lead the reader through your ideas in a way that feels logical and “readable.”

Good topic sentences include all of the following:

  1. Some kind of transition (The most significant challenge…; Another important aspect of…; The final factor to consider…)
  2. thesis reminder (e.g. “challenge” in the example above; Other common “thesis ingredients” are reasons, advantages, problems, and so on.)
  3. The topic of the paragraph (Let’s imagine it is technical problems)
  4. The controlling idea of the paragraph (What are you saying about the topic?)

When you put all of these things together, you might write the following topic sentence for one of your paragraphs/sections:

One challenge for students taking online courses is technical problems, which can have a negative effect on students’ success in a course.

Note: Often a section of your essay (one of your main points) requires more than one paragraph. In that case, only the first paragraph in the section requires this kind of “major transition.” Each additional paragraph still needs a topic sentence, but the goal is simply a smooth continuation of the same idea with a transition to the new sub-topic.

Suggestion: Your topic sentence repeats a supporting point (expressed in the thesis statement), but does so in a way that is different from the thesis (with new vocabulary or different word forms, if possible)

Exercise #1

Examine the thesis statement and topic sentences from the Peer Review Student Model. Discuss whether they contain the elements listed above. Suggest how they might be improved.

Thesis statement Peer review benefits both the writer and the reviewer, and it can be just as useful as teacher feedback.
Topic sentence for supporting point 1 Peer review is used in ESL classes to improve student’s English writing or get better grades on writing assignments.
Topic sentence for supporting point 2 Not only does peer review benefit the writer, identifying strengths and weaknesses in another student’s writing plays an important role in improving the reviewer’s own writing ability.
Topic sentence for supporting point 3 Although many students tend to prefer teacher feedback to peer feedback, there is evidence that peer review can be as helpful and meaningful as teacher feedback.

Exercise #2

Analyze the topic sentences of one of the sample essays or your own draft.

To sum up:

Key Takeaways

Each section of the body of your essay will begin with a topic sentence. This sentence typically occurs at the beginning of the paragraph and will develop one of the supporting points of your thesis. If the thesis statement is the “road map” of your essay, then the topic sentences continue to elaborate on the “directions” of where your essay is headed.


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