Thesis Statement and Topic Sentence: Importance of Knowing the Difference

Many students have a tough time with the difference between a thesis statement and topic sentence. I believe that it is because as a student in elementary classes we are told that the topic sentence is the topic of the paragraph, essay or writing. In middle- and high-school the two are sometimes used interchangeably, so that by the time the student gets into college, they are still thinking that a topic sentence is the same this as a thesis statement. Unfortunately, they are wrong and their initial writings at the college level, and sometimes at the high-school level show the confusion with these concepts.

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First off, a thesis statement is the used at the beginning of an essay and it tells the reader what the essay will argue, show, compare and contrast or such. It is the reason for the essay. It is the argument that is being made and that the evidence, in the ensuing paragraphs, will support. This is not to say it is the first sentence of the essay. In fact, it is usually found at the end of the introductory paragraph in a 5-paragraph essay or in the last paragraph of the introduction of a research paper.

In contrast, a topic sentence would be the beginning sentences of all the other paragraphs in a paper. In a 5-paragraph essay it would be the first sentence in paragraph 2, 3 and 4 and would state the evidence to be discussed in that paragraph. In the conclusion paragraph, it would be a restatement of the thesis statement based on the evidence.

In my experience, I believe this confusion stems from the fact that when learning to write we are taught to write sentences, then paragraphs and then essays. Instead of teaching the student that the first sentence of a stand-alone paragraph is the thesis statement, the student is told it is the topic sentence. So that through the student’s academic career the two become intertwined and confused.

At a young age, this distinction should be given. Teaching the student that each stand-alone paragraph is like an essay works wonderfully even with the youngest of students. The student knows the first sentence is the thesis statement. If it is a 5 sentence paragraph then the middle sentences are the evidence, and the last sentence is the conclusion.

Why does this work? Because the student uses this knowledge throughout their academic career and even into the workplace in the future. Plus, they use this formula to create longer pieces of work at higher academic levels. By starting young and introducing the paragraph in this way, there is no confusion of thesis statement and topic sentence. The student knows the difference and is able to use that knowledge to write essays easily and comfortably without a thought as to whether their topic sentence works as a thesis. They know it doesn’t, and they know how to fix it. This builds self-esteem and promises improved learning and better grades.

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