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Paragraph Development

Paragraph Development

Author: Gavin McCall

This essay discusses ways of developing a paragraph.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about paragraph development. From sentences and ideas to looking at examples of paragraphs that are or are not doing what they should, we'll cover it all.

The key to developing powerful, effective paragraphs that contribute everything they can to the progression of an essay is remembering that each paragraph should address a single controlling idea. This idea is represented by a topic sentence and supporting sentences, which work together to make each paragraph something like an essay in miniature.

We're going to discuss and demonstrate how to go about developing a paragraph to support the topic sentence. And just like it is with essay organization, the way a writer organizes sentences within a paragraph is up to him or her. But they should be chosen for maximum clarity and flow.

As we've seen before, there's no such thing as the perfect number of sentences in a paragraph, since each paragraph has different needs. What's important is that there are enough supporting sentences to adequately develop the topic sentence. Among these sentences, each will serve slightly different purposes, depending again on the needs of the paragraph and more broadly on the essay as a whole.

Some of the different kinds of sentences you'll find in academic paragraphs are topic sentences, which we should understand by now. But I'll just say that they should clearly and concisely communicate the controlling idea of the paragraph. Ideally, they should also be compelling and engaging. Paragraphs can also include clarifying sentences, which restate-- in different words, of course-- a point previously made.

Then there are elaborating sentences that add complexity or detail to a point made earlier, and claim sentences, which make new points or assertion. Evidence sentences are common too. These provide evidence for an earlier claim through the use of logic, sources, or data. And then we've got warrant sentences that make the connections between the claims and the evidence clear.

These last three-- claims, evidence, and warrant sentences-- are most commonly found in argument-based essays. And the last kind of sentence we're likely to find are concluding sentences, which, like the conclusion of an essay, wrap up the ideas discussed and possibly point to where the argument will go next. Often, they function as transitions between paragraphs as well. Now, it's important to remember that these sentence types should be used as needed. By no means are they required in equal number by all paragraphs, and some may not be used at all, even within an entire composition.

The best way to get a sense for how different kinds of sentences work within a paragraph is to see different sentences at work within a paragraph. To that end, we're going to look at four paragraphs from four essays and evaluate the way or ways their supporting sentences support each topic sentence. The first paragraph comes from an academic work whose primary purpose was to perform an analysis of Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children. As I go through it, try to identify the topic sentence and whatever supporting sentences you see.

"Midnight's Children, generally accepted as magic realism, owes its magical elements to the indigenous traditions of India and its realism to the West, creating a stereotypical polarity between Indian spirituality and Western secularism.

There are many examples of this, one of the most obvious being the interaction between Aadam Aziz, the German-educated doctor, and Tai the boatman, semi-immortal keeper of India's oral history, who together become Tai-for-changelessness as opposed to Aadam for progress. And throughout the book, Saleem's discourse with the illiterate Padma serve as another example of the different kinds of knowledge in India and the fictional presentation of it in Midnight's Children."

Even though you probably didn't understand too much of what was said here, unless you only just recently read the book, that is, it should have been pretty easy to identify the first sentence of this paragraph as the topic sentence. As for the other two sentences, the supporting sentences, both present evidence in the form of examples from the text or other texts in order to support the claim about the polarity of Midnight's Children.

And even if you don't necessarily understand the references that they're making, it should be pretty clear that both sentences, in addition to providing evidence, are also furthering and complicating the analysis that a topic sentence starts.

This paragraph comes from a different sort of essay, one that's more directly argumentative. Again, keep an eye and an ear out for the topic sentence and its support. "Men in our culture are conditioned to be overtly competitive and encouraged to suppress any feelings or personal tendencies that might be construed as feminine. This starts for the majority of men during childhood.

While tomboys are cute, an effeminate little boy is quickly dissuaded from showing such unmanly characteristics, either by his parents or his peers. The result of teaching boys from a very young age that big boys don't cry and real men stand up for themselves is that they grow up to be men who view other men as competition and use women as sexual objects in order to validate their own sexuality, dominance, and masculinity.

The result of the lessons we teach our sons has been generations of men with a tendency to have difficulties forming healthy relationships with women and even with other men, unless they knowingly choose to break the ideological rules of society, a very intimidating idea."

Like the last paragraph and many others in the field of composition, this paragraph opens with a main idea, arguing that men are conditioned by our society to be competitive rather than compassionate. This isn't a particularly engaging claim to make, as it's one I doubt many would disagree with on its face. But look at what happens next. Over the following two sentences, the general claim about men is complicated, first by talking about boyhood and then by comparing it to how girls are treated.

We're also given a source of information, presumably an expert on whose credibility some of these claims can hang. And the two sentences after that further complicate the claim by pointing out some of the more specific effects of our treatment of boys, the men they grow up to be. The last sentence is also functioning as a transition. Look at the very end. It introduces a new aspect of the topic, one that we can probably assume will be discussed in more detail as the essay continues.

The next paragraph we'll look at comes from a very different text, a piece of non-linear creative nonfiction that makes several varied arguments about what roads mean to people and to society. Read along with me. Don't worry if you have trouble identifying this paragraph's elements in terms of the types and functions of sentences that we've been looking at. The essay that this paragraph came from had a different purpose and method than most traditional academic essays.

But I would argue, and perhaps you'll agree, that the same kind of analysis can still work on it. We might just have to try a little harder. "Roads connect the houses of our childhoods to the rest of the world, and to the future as we'll eventually know it. And even though we adults tell our children that we are the masters of the road, that we decide where and how and when our worlds will expand, we know that's a lie.

Roads are freedom, we say. We believe that roads tell us of all the places we are free to go, of all the ways that we are not caged. But roads don't go everywhere. We can take road trips. We can drive with no destination. We can wander down any lonely highway we choose. But if we try to leave the road, what then? We'd be forced to ask ourselves.

So we don't. On the roads, we may find something like adventure in a place that's new to us, but we don't find anything that hasn't already been found. The road was put there so we could find it. And besides, we've got to come back eventually."

So, what do you think? It's not as clear, and this is certainly open for debate, but I'd say that the topic sentence is the second one. After all, it raised the point that many of the later sentences seem to be supporting or complicating in some way. It's more of an exploration into the subject than an argument per se, but there's definitely an element of persuasion here, trying to convince us that our understanding of what roads mean is incomplete.

Most of the supporting sentences are working to complicate or clarify the topic sentence or to elaborate on a point it raises. We don't have any evidence, really, but there's still support. Often in this kind of exploratory essay, when the writer isn't trying so much to prove something but to figure something out for him or herself, this is how paragraphs are constructed. Point, complication, point, elaboration, and so on.

Now we'll take a look at one more paragraph. As you'll see, this comes from an academic text, or at least what's intended to be an academic text. Read with me, and you'll see what I mean. "Language is a complicated thing to write about, since you are using it to discuss itself. And the requirements for language are hard to conceptualize because we often take them for granted.

It seems that we all have an internal system that helps us to learn language, but there is much dispute about what ages this system is active. I personally think that learning a first language at this time is required for normal linguistic skills. Besides the inborn ability to learn, we also require a society to which we can communicate.

As for the language itself, there needs to be a communicated symbol, or signifier, as Saussure called it. One of the biggest differences between our symbols/meanings and those used by animals is that ours are constantly changing."

So, what would you say is the topic sentence? It's a little hard to tell, right? This is often a sign of an inadequately developed paragraph, which is what I'd call this. I think the first sentence comes closest to being the main idea of the paragraph, though I don't think it's stating it very well. There's something here, something about language acquisition in general and how we develop it, that this paragraph is trying to say. But as for what exactly that is, I'm not sure.

I think part of the problem is that so many of what should be supporting sentences seem to be trying to make their own claims. And since they need support themselves, it's hard to say what main idea they're supporting. For example, the third sentence could be the main idea of its own paragraph. It would require evidence, probably from an outside source, to stand up to scrutiny. But it could do it.

On the whole, I'd say this paragraph is coming from a very early draft, one that needs expansion and most likely more thorough outline before anything more comes of it. Still, I can see some interesting ideas lurking just under the surface, ideas about language and what it means that humans have it and animals don't, for example. All this text needs is more time, more space, and probably more research.

But what do you think? What have we learned today? We learned about paragraph development, from how sentences and ideas work together to a bunch of example paragraphs. We got to see a lot. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.