#7. Thinking in Paragraphs (Part 1)
by Jayna Tokie Tanaka
At the beginning of every academic year, I ask my classes, “Does anyone know what the first sentence of a paragraph is called?” Every year, I hope that someone will raise his/her hand and say, “I do!” However, as of the first of this month, April 7, 2016 to be exact, I have not received an affirmative answer. How can this be? How can students go through six or more years of studying the English language and not get the idea of a paragraph? The English paragraph, the academic English paragraph used by students to write reports at schools and by scholars to write essays and theses, has a particular structure and must be learned quite early when studying English as a second language for students to grasp the contents of lessons and comprehend reading matter used in classes. The purpose of the structure of the paragraph is, of course, to make the message of the writing as clear as possible. Writing a report for school means presenting the ideas you have without confusing the reader. The first thing to do is decide what your first sentence will be, the one that is called the “topic sentence.”
The topic sentence tells the reader exactly what you want to say about the topic. There is no need at all to trick your reader into guessing what you want to say, as some of my students are wont to do. The topic can be anything at all, as long as you have something definite to say about it. Let us say the topic is growing vegetables, something I love to do. The purpose of the paragraph would be to tell why it is a very good idea to grow some of your own vegetables if you have access to a garden plot and the time to devote to it. Since the topic is “growing vegetables,” this phrase must be in the first sentence. What do you want to say about it? You want to say that “it is a good idea to grow some by yourself.” The only thing you can do with this topic and the part that is called the “controlling idea” is to connect them. What do you have then? The first sentence of your paragraph will be: Growing some of your own vegetables is a good idea for several important reasons. The first sentence of a paragraph includes the “topic” and a “controlling idea” about the topic. In the rest of the paragraph, you must only explain why you wrote such a sentence.
The reason the group of sentences called a “paragraph” exists is to explain an idea. The first sentence above about growing vegetables immediately makes the reader ask, “Why?” Of course, the writer must answer the reader’s question. The writer limited the controlling idea by adding the words “several important reasons.” That means that the writer probably has three or four reasons, and we assume they are not trivial ones. The reasons are probably the following in order of importance.
A. The vegetables will be free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
B. They will taste better because they can be eaten as soon as they are harvested.
C. Everyone in the family, including the grower, will feel closer to the natural rhythms of life.
To finish this paragraph about growing vegetables, the writer must add some examples and details to the reasons to make the case convincing to the reader. That will be the topic of the next column: How to make convince the reader that the topic sentence is a good idea.
When you listen to good speakers, you will realize that they also “speak in paragraphs.” In other words, they will give you an idea that they have, and then they will go on to explain that idea with examples and details. Your speaking and writing will improve dramatically if you keep this in mind.
Jayna Tokie Tanaka（ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ）