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Reading when a paragraph starts with a topic sentence, and when it doesn’t

My undergraduate students often tell me that it’s really hard for them to discern how to read a paper, particularly dense articles written by people with PhDs who often speak in “academiquese”, but that their faculty assign them to read. This frustrates me because I know that there is nothing I can do to change how other academics’ write. I can only try to help my students learn some heuristics about how to identify the key idea within a paragraph, and read/highlight/scribble accordingly.

Reading and highlighting and scribbling

I wrote a Twitter thread explaining how some writers whose prose I enjoy generate their text and how we could find the core idea of a paragraph when it’s at the beginning (as a topic sentence) or when it’s embedded within the paragraph. The first example (by Dr. Malini Ranga and Dr. Carolina Balazs) is a perfect article to showcase how to read when a paragraph starts with a topic sentence, as the vast majority of the paper is written using this model.

Dr. Ranganathan and Dr. Balazs do an excellent job of outlining their paper using topic sentences, and it shows throughout the manuscript, as you can tell from my Twitter thread.

The second example I used came from Dr. Farhana Sultana’s piece in Water International on water justice. Here you can tell how to discern the main idea because she clearly outlines the two key factors under study, and links back-and-forth to those ideas.

The third example comes from Dr. Christiana Zenner’s Just Water book. While she mostly starts with a topic sentence, sometimes she does not, but she clearly outlines the core idea of what she is trying to transmit in the paragraph.

While I’m writing these blog posts to guide my undergraduate students, I am hoping others will benefit from using these heuristics as well. You may be interested in my other blog posts on reading strategies for undergraduates.

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