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Organisation of a paragraph

Each paragraph in a text contains a main idea which is related to the other major points presented in the text. Unity, or concentration on a single topic, is essential if a paragraph is to be effective.

The main or controlling idea in a paragraph is generally contained in a topic statement, often at the beginning of a paragraph. Although this is the most typical paragraph pattern, topic statements may be placed in any position in a paragraph or in more than one sentence. The topic statement contributes to establishing a meaningful pattern to the various pieces of information conveyed within the paragraph.

It is usually helpful to present generalisations about the topic before specific information. Although many paragraphs contain a single generalisation which contains the main or controlling idea, in some cases paragraphs contain generalisations of different levels. Moreover, the level of generality of a particular statement depends on the context.

There are numerous ways of supporting the main idea of a paragraph with supporting information. The following are some of the most commonly encountered:

  • Definition (formal, informal, and expanded; especially in the non-science disciplines, may involve competing definitions)
  • Classification (formal and informal)
  • Description (physical, function, and process)
  • Expansion (may involve paraphrasing or summarising the evidence of other researchers on the topic)
  • Cause and effect
  • Comparison/Contrast
  • Exemplification (may involve facts, statistics, evidence, or details that support the topic)

Exercise 1

Click on the highlighted text to see the comments.

Below is an extract from a Masters thesis in linguistics. Which of the following patterns of organisation are used? Tick all appropriate boxes.

Linguists and educationalists have for many years had conflicting views about the value of correcting linguistic errors in the speech and writing of second language learners. With regard to the practice of correcting written errors, one extreme view is that corrections do not have a significant effect on student errors and teachers should, therefore, adopt less time-consuming efforts to direct students' attention to surface error (Robb, Ross and Shortreed 1986:91). The more moderate view does not dismiss the value of correction as a useful teaching technique, but rather, it emphasises the importance of consistency and systematicity if the positive effects of correction are to be realised (Cohen and Robbins 1976:60; Rivers 1981:306; Lalande 1982:140).

Check your answer

The paragraph is organised as an expansion of "conflicting views" and explores this principally by means of contrast, while noting an important point of comparison: i.e. what the two views share.

The pattern of organisation of a text is related to its purpose. These patterns can be used to organise paragraphs, or entire sections of a document. In practice, they are generally combined with one another, depending on the purpose of the writing. For example, a paragraph which is essentially about physical description may need to include a definition of a key term and a simple classification.

Moreover, a combination of patterns is necessarily involved in writing a specific section of the thesis, for example the Introduction. Although the section has only one major purpose, it is organised into a number of stages, each of which has its own function.

Note that in a long piece of a work such as a thesis (particularly in the arts and social sciences), you may find that at times the argument needs to extend beyond the typographic bounds of one paragraph, such that we can identify conceptual paragraphs - usually two fairly long paragraphs following through the same idea.

Exercise 2

What do you think is the predominant pattern for each of the following extracts taken from a linguistics thesis? Choose the most appropriate pattern from the dropdown list.

1 Theoretical support for the facilitative role of conscious attention in improving linguistic accuracy in writing is found in the cognitive accounts of second language acquisition (SLA) proposed by Bialystok (1978) and Krashen (1981). Although there are major differences between the two theories in relation to the effect that conscious knowledge has on 'acquisition' as opposed to 'learning', both accounts recognise that conscious knowledge can be used to monitor (self-correct) second language (L2) output (Bialystok 1978:78; Krashen 1981:2).
2 It is this inductive application of concordancing for independent student language learning that forms an integral part of the proposed computer-assisted model for error treatment. The concordancer has long been regarded as a useful tool for investigating student errors in writing. A typical classroom application for the tool is that in which students search a corpus of selected expert texts to investigate problematic linguistic structures as identified in corrective feedback received on their writing (Johns 1986:161). In these instances, however, the corpus has not included students' own reformulated texts. Other concordancing applications which include students' texts in a corpus have been reported, but these differ from the application in the current study in that they use students' uncorrected texts in the corpus (Johns 1986:161; Tribble and Jones 1990:53, 66; Bruce 1991 cited in Pickard et al, 1994:300)
3 On considering Krashen's views regarding the value of focusing on form in writing, it would seem that in contexts where accuracy in writing is demanded of students, the question for teachers should not be 'whether to correct', but rather 'how to correct without raising the student's negative affective filter'. The aim should be, as Tomasello and Herron (1989:392) have suggested, to provide correction in the context of an accepting social environment, so that errors are more likely to be viewed as a logical part of active learning, rather than as something to be embarrassed about. Vygotsky's (1978) theory of the social nature of human learning and cognitive change provides the theoretical underpinning for such an approach. Drawing from his work, Jones and Mercer (1993:22) emphasise the importance of providing 'cognitive support' in an interactive and personalised environment.
4 Any notes made by students in preparation for the interview/conference session were collected. In addition, the session was tape-recorded and selected parts were transcribed. A written summative evaluation of the students' attitudes towards the corrective feedback/concordancer technique and their beliefs about learning outcomes was also collected.
5 It seems that M's interest and motivation to use the concordancer, and A's lack thereof, can be explained by a series of interrelated factors. As discussed above, individual differences relating to preferred learning strategies are likely to impact considerably upon a student's ability to adapt to using the concordancing technique for focusing on linguistic form. Inexperience with using unfamiliar inductive strategies, and the provision of only limited preparatory training led to A's failure to adapt to the new focusing strategy. Consequently, his motivation to persevere with the technique was dampened.
6 Students' specific investigations and use of strategies for focussing on form in the first stage of corrective feedback and the second stage of concordancing were recorded. Outcomes of focussing on form were recorded in terms of:
  1. observations made
  2. questions triggered from observations
  3. other questions (ie, when focussing on form was unproductive).
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