Paragraph Structure


By Susan K. Keenan, Ed.D.
Department of English
National technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

A "paragraph" is defined as a group of sentences that form a distinct subdivision of a larger whole (Webster's New World Dictionary, 1968). In reality, a paragraph is much more than that. Paragraphs can, and in many situations, do exist independently of an essay, chapter, or book. These are called "stand-alone paragraphs." Beyond their stand-alone ability, paragraphs are much more complex than merely a group of sentences, as indicated in the above definition. Consider the following:

I got cold. Last winter was mild. That book is new. I exercised every day. I learned how to raise body heat.

Despite the fact that there are four sentences above, and despite the fact that they are placed in proximal location rather than in list form, these sentences do not constitute a paragraph. What is missing is an overriding unity. This unity can be established loosely by means of transitions, which delineate relations between ideas.

Because last winter was mild, I exercised every day. Still, sometimes I got cold. Then I read a new book and I learned how to raise body heat.

While the above sentences now demonstrate some relation to each other, they still do not constitute a paragraph. A paragraph must demonstrate unity through a central idea, called the "topic sentence." Once the topic sentence has been established, the sentences that follow, or those forming the body of the paragraph, must support this central idea. That is to say, these sentences, which are details and/or examples, must relate directly to the topic sentence and, in doing so, may also relate to each other.

Paragraphs, then, are the smallest units of written discourse that develop a central idea through related sentences. As such, they are essentials of written communication if a writer is to successfully express more than isolated thoughts. Beyond their status as organized sentences relating to a central idea, paragraphs are a microcosm of a larger and more complex form of discourse, the "essay" (see the SEA Site module, Basic Essay Structure). Yet to conquer the paragraph is to be well on one's way to conquering the essay because, though they vary in length, the structure of both the paragraph and the essay is basically the same.

Paragraphs generally are composed of the following parts:

1. A topic sentence which contains the paragraph topic and a controlling idea

2. Body sentences which give details and/or examples for the topic sentence

3. A concluding sentence

Contents of This Module

  • The Topic Sentence
  • Placement of the Topic Sentence
  • The Paragraph Body
  • The Concluding Sentence
  • Paragraph Organization Specific to Various Rhetorical Modes
  • Research Findings and Implications
  • Guided Practice
  • Action Steps

Major Considerations

1. The paragraph is the building block for essays.

2. A well-written paragraph demonstrates the writer's ability to focus on a specific topic

and generate sequential details that convey his or her ideas to the reader.

3. Understanding the structure of paragraphs better enables the reader to anticipate

organization, thereby enhancing understanding.

4. Producing well-organized paragraphs poses a challenge to many deaf students.

5. The ability to produce well-organized paragraphs is essential to the academic success of deaf students.

Process Summary

The "topic sentence" is the sentence in which the main idea of the paragraph is stated. It is unquestionably the most important sentence in the paragraph. The topic sentence generally is composed of two parts: (a) the topic itself and (b) the controlling idea.

The Topic

The topic is the subject of the paragraph. It is what the paragraph is all about. The following are topics suitable for a paragraph:

The SLR camera
A wedding cake

Writing effective topic sentences, however, involves more than merely stating the subject of the paragraph. A good topic sentence is specific and well focused, guiding the entire paragraph. A good topic sentence:

Has new information. It is not a fact that everyone already knows to be true (for example, A dictionary has meanings for words.).

Is specific. If the topic is too general (for example, I like camping.), the reader will not know what to expect in the paragraph.

Is general enough to invite exploration of the topic. If the topic sentence is too specific (for example, Webster's New World Dictionary has more than 40,000 words.), there will be nothing else to say on the subject.

Is strong. Starting a topic sentence with there is/are (as in There are several ways to cook rice.) is a weak opener.

Is stated in positive language. Negative language (for example, You might hate to do it, but you should keep your room clean.) should not be part of the topic sentence.

Is not an announcement. A topic sentence should draw the reader into the paragraph. Announcements (like This paragraph will discuss how to build a bird house.) hold little attraction for readers.

The Controlling Idea

Even if all of the above conditions for a topic sentence are met, an effective topic sentence needs one additional element, the "controlling idea." The controlling idea is the point of the paragraph. It guides the ideas that provide support for the paragraph and limits the scope of the paragraph. Here is an example of a topic sentence with a controlling idea that guides the support for the paragraph:

Running provides many healthful benefits.

The topic of this topic sentence is running. The controlling idea is healthful benefits. That is, the reader knows from this sentence that the paragraph is generally about running. And the reader also knows that the point of the paragraph will be to enumerate the healthful benefits of running. Limiting the scope of the paragraph through the controlling idea may happen in one of two ways.

1. The controlling idea may reveal the writer's opinion, point of view, or attitude toward the subject of the paragraph, which automatically will set parameters for discussion of the topic. OR…

2. The controlling idea itself may provide specific limitation. In either case, this limited scope, then, serves to unify the paragraph, since any discussion must be within the parameters of the controlling idea.

Here is an example of a topic sentence with a controlling idea that states the writer's opinion-the first way to limit the scope of the paragraph:

The basics of using an SLR camera can be mastered with considerable practice.

The topic of this sentence is an SLR camera. The controlling idea is mastered with considerable practice. From this single sentence the reader knows that the topic of the paragraph is the SLR camera and that the paragraph will discuss mastering the basics of using this camera. Additionally, the reader knows that such mastery comes with practice, the writer's opinion or perspective.

Here is an example of a topic sentence with a controlling idea that specifically sets limitations for the scope of the paragraph.

When writing a laboratory report, you must complete four sections.

The topic of this sentence is a laboratory report. In this sentence, the controlling idea specifically states the limitation-four sections. Thus, the reader can predict that the writer will list and describe the four sections in order.

Topic Sentence at the Beginning and the End of the Paragraph

Traditionally the topic sentence is the first sentence of the paragraph. In this lead position, it functions to introduce the examples or details which will explain the controlling idea. If the paragraph is meant as a freestanding unit of discourse and not part of a larger whole, the topic sentence, or rather the ideas it contains, are frequently restated at the end of the paragraph. In this position, the restated topic sentence serves as a concluding statement. Such repetition of the topic helps the readers to follow the content of the paragraph, especially if that content is complex in nature.

A diagram of this type of paragraph development might take the form of an hourglass, where the topic sentence and its restated counterpart form the broad base and top, and the supporting details occupy the intervening space.

Graphic of hour glass figure labeled: Topic Sentence at top, Details and center, and Top Sentence at bottom

The following sample paragraph is one that has a topic sentence at the beginning and at the end of the paragraph:

Throwing a clay pot, the age old art of making pottery on a wheel, is a process that requires many steps. Assuming the potter does not have to make his own clay, the first step toward the finished product is wedging the clay. Here, the potter kneads the clay to prepare it for throwing. Wedging cannot be rushed. A minimum of fifty turns is required to rid the clay of air pockets and align its molecules. Once wedged and formed into a ball, the clay is thrown onto the center of a potter's wheel. Now the material must be centered. Centering not only takes strength but time as well. The clay must be coerced into a perfectly symmetrical shape, dead center on the spinning wheel. To proceed with poorly centered clay is to court certain disaster in the form of tilting, uneven pots, or worse, the total collapse of the piece. When correctly centered, the clay is ready to be opened. To do this, the potter finds the center of the clay and slowly sinks a rigid finger into the still-spinning clay. Only now can the clay be shaped. With a steady but gentle hand, the potter pulls up the sides of the pot until the desired height is reached. Now the shaping is completed and the pot is ready to be dried, fired, and glazed. Thus, even though a clay pot may appear simple to make, fashioning one by hand is a long and sometimes tedious process.

The concluding sentence of this paragraph reminds the reader of the controlling idea of the paragraph, namely that throwing a pot requires many steps. Note that the first and last sentences, while similar, are not identically phrased.

Topic Sentence at the Beginning of the Paragraph

Concluding remarks of a paragraph do not always restate the topic sentence and, in fact, in some paragraphs may be missing altogether. However, a topic sentence is still needed. A second and also common placement for the topic sentence is in the lead position with no repetition in the last sentence.

A paragraph of this nature starts with a strong, general topic statement with subsequent supporting details narrowing from this broad beginning. Such a structure provides the reader with immediate knowledge of the topic and scope of the paragraph and thus serves as a map for the details that follow. This type of structure is most frequently found in newspaper articles, where the headline may also assume the role of topic sentence. A diagram of this paragraph type would be the top half of the above hourglass, or an inverted triangle.

Graphic of top part of the hour glass figure labeled Topic Sentence at top, Details at bottom

The following sample paragraph begins with a topic sentence. The details which follow it repeat the controlling idea of the paragraph and are arranged in chronological order, that is, from first to last:

Constructing a wedding cake is a complicated process. Before any baking takes place, the size of the cake and the decorative design to be used must be determined. Then the layers are baked. On a large cake the bottom layers may be as much as sixteen inches in diameter. Because of their size, these layers must be baked one at a time, a process which may actually take an entire day. Once the layers are cooled, same-size pairs are matched and frosted. Since large wedding cakes are surprisingly heavy, half-inch dowel rods must be measured, cut, and carefully driven into the bottom layers. These wooden posts provide hidden support for the weighty upper layers. When all the layers are set in place, flowers, garlands and leaves of frosting are added. These delicate touches individualize the wedding cake and transform it from merely a cake into a culinary work of art.

In the paragraph above, the topic sentence is Constructing a wedding cake is a complicated process. The steps involved in constructing this type of cake are told in time order, beginning with baking and ending with decorating. Note that, although the paragraph draws to a logical conclusion, the topic sentence is not repeated in the end position.

Topic Sentence at the End of the Paragraph

While it is most common for topic sentences to begin the paragraph, they do not always do so. Consider the following sign, seen in the window of a beauty salon:


No exceptions.

Unless they are booked for service,

No Children

In this situation, No exceptions is clearly not the topic of the sign, and No Children clearly is. Yet the subject, No Children, is placed in the end rather than the head position. When this idea is extended to the paragraph, the topic sentence, placed last, serves to summarize the previous details. Paragraphs written in this way can be diagrammed as an upright triangle, with the broad base representing the topic sentence:

Graphic of bottom part of the hour glass figure labeled: Details at top, Topic Sentence at bottom

Paragraphs are written in this form primarily for one of two reasons: (1) to create suspense or (2) to bring up a controversial topic only after sufficient groundwork has been laid. In the case of the sign in the beauty salon, the message is made gentler by stating the only situation in which children are allowed before stating the more controversial behest, No Children, in the final position. The act of providing convincing data or groundwork leads the reader to the topic sentence, which then also serves as the conclusion.

The following sample paragraph is an example of one in which the topic sentence and controlling idea appear in the final position:

People do it everyday. They log on to their favorite website and browse for hours, checking out bargains. They dump every possible wish into their shopping carts, knowing they can cast each one aside before they finalize their purchases. On the way, they may enter a sweepstakes in the hopes of winning a trip to Cabo San Lucas, or maybe even a new SUV. And then, when they have decided on their purchases, they enter private information without giving it a thought. With a keystroke, they release their personal data into what may or may not be a secure zone. Despite what much of the public believes, internet shopping is not safe.

In this paragraph, the idea that internet shopping may not be safe could be considered controversial. For this reason, groundwork is laid before the final, topic sentence is stated.

Topic Sentence in the Middle of the Paragraph

Perhaps the least common placement for a topic sentence is in the medial position. Placed here, a topic sentence can provide a transition between two kinds of details, those appearing before the topic sentence and those appearing after it. In this paragraph structure, the controlling idea may be of a cause/effect or comparison/contrast nature. The topic sentence, then, serves the function of linking sets of related but different data. A paragraph of this type can be diagrammed as a diamond with details at both ends and the broad, topic sentence in the middle.

Graphic of the top and bottom of the hour glass figure swapped so that narrow end is at top and bottom and wide in the middle,  labeled: Details at top and bottom, and Topic Sentence in middle

The following is a sample paragraph with the topic sentence in the medial position:

When a camera flash is used in a low-light environment, the subject's eyes may appear red in the finished photograph. What is known as "red-eye" is the result of light from the flash reflecting off the pupils of the eyes. The phenomenon of red-eye can be lessened by using the red-eye reduction feature found on many SLR cameras. This feature activates a lamp which shines a small light directly into the subject's eyes. When this happens, the diameter of the pupil is reduced, thus tightening the opening in the iris. Since a smaller pupil means a smaller host for the reflection, the chances of red-eye occurring are greatly reduced.

In the above paragraph, the topic sentence is The phenomenon of red-eye can be lessened by using the red-eye reduction feature found on many SLR cameras. It serves to connect information about the cause of red-eye (found at the beginning of the paragraph) with information about how the problem can be alleviated (found after the topic sentence).

Structure of the Paragraph Body

The body of the paragraph is the support for the topic sentence. Supporting sentences are details or examples, or a combination of both, which reinforce, explain, or discuss the writer's perspective on the topic. Not all body sentences provide direct support for the controlling idea, however. Some sentences serve to further delineate or explain a point of support.

A basic outline for a stand-alone paragraph looks like this:

Topic sentence

A. Supporting sentence

  1. Detail
  2. Detail

B. Supporting sentence

  1. Detail
  2. Detail

C. Supporting sentence

  1. Detail
  2. Detail


Concluding sentence and final thought

In this outline sentences A, B, and C provide support for the topic sentence. The details, listed under these supporting sentences provide further explanation of the points of support. The following sample paragraph adheres to this general structure:

Even though I didn't relish the idea of being in New York City, I decided to attend graduate school there for several important reasons. First of all, Columbia University allowed individualization in programming. Perhaps most important, I learned on my first visit to the university that the professor who would be my advisor would allow me to do much of my work in Rochester and travel to New York only for special meetings. The university also accepted work I had previously done and applied it to my degree. Besides the coursework, I knew and respected the two professors who would be my advisors. Both people have taught and researched in the field for many years. They have much information to share and I knew I could learn a lot from them. Despite my reservations about spending time in New York City, I found that once I became familiar with the part of Manhattan where Columbia is located, I could get around easily. Streets and avenues run perpendicular to one another, so it was difficult to become lost. When I became braver, I learned to take the subways as well as the buses instead of taxis and saved myself a lot of money. Even though at first I had doubts about studying in New York, it was a good decision.

Topic sentence: Even though I didn't relish the idea of being in New York City, I decided to attend graduate school there for several important reasons.

A. Supporting sentence: Columbia University allowed individualization of programming.

  1. Detail: I could work in Rochester and travel to New York only for special meetings.
  2. Detail: …accepted work from other programs

B. Supporting sentence: I knew and respected my two advisors.

  1. Detail: Both have researched in the field for many years.
  2. Detail: They had much information to share.
  3. Detail: I could learn a lot from them.

C. Supporting sentence: I found I could get around easily in New York.

  1. Detail: …difficult to become lost because the city streets and avenues are perpendicular to each other.
  2. Detail: I learned to use subways and buses.

Concluding sentence and final thought: Even though at first I had doubts about studying in New York, it was a good decision.

Notice that there are three statements that support the topic sentence and that each of these statements has details that explain more completely. Notice also that the topic sentence and concluding sentence are similar in structure and meaning.

Unity in the Paragraph Body

"Unity" is the degree of relationship among the sentences in the body of the paragraph. Paragraph unity requires the thoughtfully planned development of the controlling idea through details and/or examples. This is achieved when each sentence clearly connects to the topic and possibly to the other sentences as well. The relation to the topic sentence is important because any sentence that strays from the topic blurs the purpose set forth in the controlling idea. The following paragraph contains two sentences that drift from the stated topic:

The phenomenon of red-eye can be lessened by using the red-eye reduction feature found on many SLR cameras. In order to activate this feature, simply press the button on the top of the camera until the "eye" icon is highlighted. Photographers don't need to be concerned with any of the other icons in this position. These icons allow for manual control of shutter speed and focus. When the red-eye feature is turned on, a small light will shine into the subject's eye. This light causes the iris to close, thus reducing reflection, and the chances of red-eye.

In the above paragraph, the topic sentence is The phenomenon of red-eye can be lessened by using the red-eye reduction feature found on many SLR cameras. For unity in the paragraph, all subsequent sentences should relate to the red-eye reduction feature. The following sentences stray from the stated topic:

Photographers don't need to be concerned with any of the other icons in this position.

These icons allow for manual control of shutter speed and focus.

Coherence in the Body of the Paragraph

"Coherence" is the ability of sentences to flow naturally one to the other, forming an integrated discussion rather than a series of separate ideas. This is usually accomplished in two ways:

1. by the use of transitions

2. by following an order logical to a specific rhetorical pattern, or composition type.

Transitions are words and phrases that connect the ideas in one sentence to the idea in another sentence. They smooth the movement between sentences and show relationships. This decreases the chance for reader misunderstanding. Transitions come in many forms (see, also, the SEA Site module Expressing Logical Relationships):

A. They can be "sentence connectors": on the other hand, similarly, then, furthermore, in addition, moreover, besides. For example:

Most simple birthday cakes need no additional support. On the other hand, wedding cakes with their many layers are almost certain to collapse unless they have a solid infrastructure.

B. They can be "coordinating conjunctions": and, but, so, or, yet.

The point-and-shoot camera may be simple to use, but the photographer lacks the control he has with an SLR camera.

C. They can be "subordinate conjunctions": even though, because, although, while, since, unless, whether.

Even though a laptop computer is small, it has all of the same features of the larger desk-top model.

In addition to the use of transitions, coherence is established through the presentation of ideas in a logical order. Logical order is the degree to which the ideas within the body of the paragraph flow from one to the other. There are three general kinds of order that can be used when organizing ideas for a paragraph. These are:

1. Chronological order
2. Spatial order
3. Emphatic order

In "chronological order," the information is organized in time. Here the writer states what happened first, second, third, and last. Chronological organization is typical of, although not limited to, narrative writing. The following paragraph is an example of one organized chronologically:

I had several frightening experiences on my first night in Tokyo. The first scary thing happened when I walked into the airport. Even though I have traveled extensively before, I have always been able to read the signs. This time was different. When I looked around the airport, I realized that I couldn't even tell where to go because I could not understand any of the signs. When I finally got through customs, I took a huge bus to the downtown airport. On the way I saw many soldiers carrying rifles and it made me nervous. When the bus finally arrived at the downtown airport I had to look for a taxi. Because it was now very late, there were only a few around. Finally I found one and gave the driver written directions to the convent where I would be staying. The driver looked angry and I became uneasy again. An hour later we arrived at the convent. The driver took my bags to the door and knocked loudly, but no one answered. He said something to me in Japanese which, of course, I didn't understand. Then he pointed to a telephone nearby and to my purse. I opened it and gave him some money. I waited nervously while he made a call. A few moments later he took me back to the door of the convent where Sister Suzanne was now waiting. Her friendly face made me forget the bad experiences I had had that night.

"Spatial organization" utilizes the concept of space. The information presented in the paragraph, then, is organized from a start point to an end point, proceeding logically from one to the other. Spatial organization is frequently used in descriptions where the writer moves in an orderly manner form one feature to the next. The following is an example of a paragraph organized spatially.

The inside of Bill's refrigerator was horrible. On the top shelf was a three week old carton of milk. Next to it sat a slice of melon that had started to get moldy. To the right of the melon sat the remains of a macaroni and cheese dinner that had been served a week earlier. On the shelf below was a slice of cake from his sister's birthday party. Though there was food, none of it was edible.

The above paragraph is ordered spatially. The reader is drawn from the left of the refrigerator to the right and from the top shelf to the one below.

"Emphatic order" utilizes the concept of importance. The coherence of the paragraph is established in one of two ways: (a) from least to most important, or (b) from most to least important. The following is an example of a paragraph using emphatic order:

After looking at all the brochures and talking to several salesmen, I decided to purchase an SLR camera. For several years I had been dissatisfied with the results I was getting from my point-and-shoot camera. The framing was imprecise and the focus was not always accurate. I had planned a vacation to an area that promised many fabulous photo opportunities, and I wanted to capture each one with accuracy. But the most important reason I decided on the SLR camera was the great versatility it offered.

In the above paragraph, the organization moves from the least important idea (dissatisfaction with the results of the point-and-shoot camera) to the most important idea (the versatility offered with the SLR camera).

Coherence, then, in paragraph writing is established through the use of chronological, spatial, or emphatic organization.

In addition to these three kinds of organization, there are those specific to "rhetorical patterns," or kinds of written composition. This means that certain kinds of writing-persuasive, for example-will follow a kind of organizational pattern specific to argumentative (or persuasive) rhetoric. The following are the kinds of organizational patterns used in specific rhetorical modes (Atkinson & Longman, 1992; Trimmer, 1992):

(a) subject development-used in definitions, explanations, narratives, or examples
(b) cause/effect
(c) comparison/contrast
(d) enumeration/sequence

The information presented in any of the four organizational patterns above must itself be ordered chronologically, spatially, or emphatically. This order allows the reader to move logically through the material presented. For example, "enumerative order" (also known as "partitive order") simply means that divisions of the topic are proposed in an opening statement and subsequent sentences identify each part. The order in which those parts are presented, however, must not be random, but rather must follow a predetermined sequencing pattern-chronological, spatial, or emphatic.

The section on rhetorical organization provides a more detailed explanation of organizational patterns specific to rhetorical mode.

The topic sentence and the body now completed, it remains only to end the paragraph. This is accomplished through a "concluding sentence," essential to the stand-alone paragraph. The purpose of this concluding sentence is two-fold: (1) to reiterate the main point developed by the body sentences and (2) to signal the reader that this is the end of the paragraph. The concluding sentence for a stand-alone paragraph should accomplish one of the following:

(a) Restate the topic sentence of the paragraph
(b) Summarize by referring to the key points in the paragraph
(c) Draw a conclusion based on the information set forth in the paragraph
(d) Offer a final observation about the controlling idea
(e) Make a prediction based on the details of the paragraph

The concluding sentence often begins with a transition word to signal the reader. Here are some examples of transitions used with concluding sentences:

all in all
in other words
in any event
in brief
in short

In addition to the concluding statement, the writer may wish to include a "final thought." The final thought is the last sentence of the stand-alone paragraph. If the writer has not had an opportunity to interject an opinion about the topic, the final thought is the last opportunity to do so. The following is an example of a concluding statement and final thought:

You can gain both muscle and stamina if you follow these simple steps. Although any exercise program takes time, the results are bound to please.

The first sentence of the pair is the concluding statement, which reiterates a general statement about exercise and the steps to follow in order to achieve muscle and stamina. The last sentence is the writer's opinion about the results of such a program.

The preceding information describes a "generic paragraph," one most likely written as a stand-alone paragraph. In reality, however, paragraphs, especially those undertaken for academic purposes, take on specific forms for specific purposes.

Most discourse can be categorized into one of three types:

1. narrative
2. informative
3. persuasive

"Narrative writing" discloses the writer's experiences, feelings, or perceptions and, as such, is writer-oriented. In "informative writing," the emphasis is on explaining the subject matter. This type of writing is used to convey knowledge, give instructions, or share ideas. While informative writing emphasizes the subject, the focus of "persuasive writing" is on the reader. The purpose of persuasive writing is to influence, frequently with the underlying goal of effecting change (National Assessment Governing Board, 1998).

Each of these types of writing has corresponding "organizational patterns." These organizational patterns provide a structure for relating details to the main idea, thus determining relationships within the paragraph. Understanding these relationships can help readers better understand the information in the paragraph. That is to say, if readers recognize the organizational pattern, they will better know what to expect in the paragraph.

Organizational patterns for rhetorical writing (Atkinson & Longman, 1992; Trimmer, 1992) are as follows:

A. Subject development organization-used in narrative writing
B. Comparison/contrast-used in informative writing
C. Cause/effect-used in informative writing
D. Enumeration/sequence (also called problem/solution)-used in persuasive writing

Organizational patterns vary according to content, topic and purpose. Additionally, each organizational pattern is characterized by its own set of "transition or signal words."

Subject Development

Subject development organization is used in narrative writing. The term "narrative writing" actually includes discourse that describes, explains, or shows a process or a work of fiction. In subject development organization, the topic sentence forms the basis for a collection of details that describe or sometimes define the topic. They relate to the topic but may not relate to each other. This type of organizational pattern can be found in both fiction and nonfiction writing and is also frequently found in text chapters (see enumeration/sequence pattern below).

The following is an example of a narrative paragraph:

Camera movement at the moment of exposure can produce what is known as camera shake. Camera shake, which can cause blurred pictures, can occur for two reasons. Sometimes the camera itself is held incorrectly. To be certain the camera is steady, wrap your right hand around the camera grip and stead your hand by setting your elbow lightly against your body. Use your left hand to hold the lens from underneath. When you are ready to look through the viewfinder, press the camera against your forehead. Even though the camera may be held correctly, camera shake can still occur if the shutter button is incorrectly depressed. To correctly depress this button, always use the center of your finger to touch the shutter button. Be certain you are holding the camera with your entire right hand before depressing the shutter button. When you are ready to take the picture, apply steady but gentle pressure to the button. Following these simple steps will help prevent most cases of camera shake.

The above narration explains the possible reasons for the occurrence of camera shake and offers specific directions on how to prevent it.

Signal words or transitions typically used with subject development paragraphs include: after, as long as, during, then, at the same time, later, since, second, as soon as, at last, until, subsequently, whenever, before, next, finally.


Discourse that is organized to compare or contrast is used to inform. The purpose of this kind of writing is to show relationships between concepts or objects. The pattern may be organized in one of two ways: (1) point-by-point or (2) block.

In the "point-by-point" organization, a detail or idea related to one object is compared with a corresponding detail or idea related to another object. In a "block comparison," all of the cogent details for the first topic are enumerated and then corresponding details for the second topic are enumerated. Visually, a point by point paragraph will be set up as follows:

Visually, a block style paragraph will be set up as follows:

The following is an example of a comparison/contrast paragraph organized following the point-by-point style:

Although no one will refute the simplicity and convenience of a point-and-shoot camera, anyone truly serious about photography will need to purchase a fully manual SLR camera. While the SLR requires a great deal of practice, it offers better control in focusing and better framing precision. With a point-and-shoot camera, focusing is accomplished by the camera. Despite this seeming convenience, the primary subject of the composition may not always be front and center. When this is the case, the subject may blur, since the auto focus hones in on the most central figure in its range. With the SLR camera, focus control remains with the photographer. Since it is up to him to assign focus, the primary subject of the composition may be far left, far right, or even behind a closer object, such as an animal in a zoo behind bars. A second advantage to the SLR camera is precision of framing. With the point-and-shoot, what the photographer sees in the view finder is not identical to what the lens itself sees. While the view finder has etched corners which are supposed to indicate outer margins of the photo, these are less than exact. However, with the SLR, the photographer looks directly through the lens. This enables him to precisely frame his composition. Thus, even though a point-and-shoot camera offers convenience and ease of use, it lacks the control and precision available with the SLR camera.

This paragraph compares a point-and-shoot camera with an SLR camera and is organized point by point. That is, focus control (the first point) is discussed in terms of both the point-and-shoot camera and the SLR camera. Then framing (the second point) is discussed first in terms of the point and shoot and then the SLR camera.

Visually, this paragraph will appear as follows:

Point #1: focus control

topic #1: point-and-shoot camera

topic #2: SLR camera

Point #2: framing

topic #1: point-and-shoot camera

topic #2: SLR camera

If the information in the above paragraph were formatted to fit a block style organization, visually it would appear as follows:

Topic #1: point-and-shoot camera

point #1: focus control

point #2: framing

Topic #2: SLR camera

point #1: focus control

point #2: framing

That is, the writer would discuss the attributes of focus and framing first with the point-and-shoot camera and then these same attributes with the SLR camera.

Signal words or transitions typically used with the comparison/contrast paragraph include: similarly, likewise, however, on the other hand, on the contrary, one difference, unlike, while, both, another similarity.

To use the comparison/contrast pattern, students should be able to (1) identify the signal words that show the comparison or contrast and (2) identify the items to be related (compared or contrasted).


A cause/effect pattern shows relationships between an action or response and a pre-existing reason. Said another way, a cause is what makes an event occur, and the effect is the result of the event. This pattern describes what happened and why it happened. Discourse that shows a cause/effect relationship is informative because it gives information to the reader. This pattern can be organized in one of three ways:

The following is a cause/effect paragraph that represents the first kind of organization:

Although social activities in college can be very tempting, students must know when to resist such temptations and turn instead to the task of studying. To postpone studying at the college level is to court certain disaster. The most immediate consequence of not studying is that the student is ill-prepared for the next class. Not only will the student be unable to participate in discussions, he or she likely will be unable to effectively understand the lecture, especially if it is of a technical nature. Beyond the immediate consequences, not studying on a regular basis means putting in additional work at a later time just to catch up. Compounded, this can lead to an almost insurmountable task, the result of which is cramming. Cramming for exams is rarely effective, producing instead a hazy understanding of the subject matter, overlaid by a heavy need for sleep. A student who has crammed for an exam is almost certain to do poorly, and poor exam scores can lead to failure. Failing an entire course seems a high price to pay for the distraction offered by the many social events offered in college.

The above paragraph represents the first kind of cause/effect organization. In this paragraph, one cause-social activities-leads to a series of results (effects). Note also that the effects are enumerated emphatically. That is, they are ranked according to importance with the most important one, failure, placed at the end of the paragraph.

Signal words or transition words used with the cause/effect paragraph include: therefore, thus, because, as a result, one cause, one effect.

To use this pattern, students should identify whether the paragraph will discuss cause or effect. The cause or effect word should appear in the topic sentence. Students should also rank order either the causes or the effects, or both.


The enumeration/sequence pattern lists major points of support in one of two ways: (1) random order-that is, all items share equal importance with each other; or (2) rank order (also called emphatic order), where the list is sequenced. When support is randomly ordered, the pattern may become indistinguishable from the subject development pattern (see above). However, when the topic support is rank-ordered, any one of several types of persuasive writing is the result. Organization of this type, therefore, is also known as "problem/solution pattern."

In discourse of this type, brief background information is presented, followed by a statement of the problem. The remaining sentences offer solutions. While the step-by-step progression of ideas can be developed using chronological sequencing or even spatial sequencing, emphatic sequencing is the most common organizational structure.

Although this structural pattern offers solutions to problems or answers to questions, its main purpose is to influence the reader into taking action of some kind on the topic. Recognizing this pattern enables the reader to better understand the content. To best use this pattern, the learner should be able to: (a) identify the topic, (b) identify the writer's perspective on the topic, (c) recognize the support points, and (d) identify the signal words that indicate the points (frequently a numerical progression of points).

The following is an example of a enumeration/sequence organization found in a persuasive paragraph:

Despite the dangers we are daily warned against in all kinds of meat and meat products, a strong case can be made against turning to vegetarianism as an alternative. First, it is not convenient to be a vegetarian. Finding foods on many menus that can fill the dietary and sometimes moral needs of a vegetarian can be difficult. The situation is compounded when traveling. While airlines offer food for special dietary needs, arrangements for them must be made well in advance. More important than convenience, however, is the consideration of dietary balance. To be a vegetarian means to learn appropriate and healthy alternatives for protein found in meat and animal products. Not to do so is to risk the vegetarian's very health since protein is an essential part of the human diet.

This paragraph is organized emphatically, with the most important point, that of health risks, left to the end.

Signal words or transitions for this kind of paragraph include: first, third, then, next, finally, above all, best of all, especially, in fact, more important, the last point to consider, worst of all, most important.

Research Findings

Deaf students' difficulties mastering written English skills are well-documented (Bochner, 1982; Maxwell & Falick, 1992; Moores, 1982; Musselman & Szanto, 1998; Paul & Quigley, 1990). Traditionally, studies examining deaf students' written English have focused on structural items such as vocabulary and syntax rather than a functional analysis of the text, that is to say, how well the writer's message is understood (Maxwell & Falick, 1992). More recently, however, researchers have analyzed the communicative success of one kind of writing produced by deaf students, the narrative.

While the above studies focus on a single rhetorical mode-the chronologically ordered, often experientially based story-they make several points that can be applied to other modes of composition. These points are:

1. Linguistic cohesion is an area of textual weakness in deaf students' writing and one which can interfere with message delivery (Maxwell & Falick, 1992).

2. Story sequencing (rhetorical organization) and cause/result relationships are weak areas in deaf students' writing (Klecan-Aker & Blondeau, 1990; Cambra, 1994)

3. Deaf students benefit from the teaching of the structure and format of rhetorical modes (see the Cambra study and Mayer, 1999).

The Maxwell and Falick Study

Maxwell and Falick (1992) compared narrative texts from hearing and deaf children to discover a rationale for how these texts might differ beyond the obvious fact that deaf children lack the experience of hearing. These authors examined the linguistic devices used by deaf and hearing students to make their texts cohere. That is, they compared the quantitative and qualitative use of cohesive devices-or how text is tied together so that it functions as a single and meaningful unit-in summaries of first-hand experiences (retelling a movie plot).

The authors' focus on cohesive devices is based on their belief that deaf students frequently lack a clear understanding of the communicative function of their writing, which likely stems from how they are taught. According to Maxwell and Falick, deaf students are traditionally taught grammatical structures out of context. As a result, while students can reproduce the structure, they frequently do not understand how that structure functions in written communication.

Results of the study showed that, while there were not significant quantitative differences between hearing and deaf students' use of these cohesive devices, there were qualitative differences. Although the deaf students used cohesive devices, their use was very basic. For example, deaf students used significantly fewer conjunctions, devices that presuppose the presence of other components, in discourse. They almost exclusively used and, then and because to conjoin ideas, while hearing students used too, also, or, nor, for instance, after that, just then, suddenly, at…time, finally, at last, in the end, so, for, and then.

The authors concluded that, despite the cohesive devices used, deaf students' texts seemed to lack overall contextual unity. They suggested that deaf students' difficulties in writing may be in part attributable to lack of exposure to a wide variety of written discourse models rather than to the sentence elements within the text.

The Klecan-Aker and Blondeau Study

A second study on deaf students' written narratives (Klecan-Aker & Blondeau, 1990) analyzed samples three ways:

1. Using a T-unit analysis which looks at independent clause (sentence) length
2. Using an adaptation of story grammar components, or rules that define the structure of a narrative
3. Using Klecan-Aker's own classification system for differentiating and categorizing children's narratives

Results of this study showed that deaf students used both fewer clauses and fewer words per T-unit than their hearing peers. Results also showed that students experienced problems with one part of the story grammar, the internal response or feelings of the main character that motivate the action.

The researchers posited that students' inability to state these internal responses was reflected in their inability to successfully use subordination (dependent clauses), because subordination reflects more abstract use of English. Klecan-Aker and Blondeau also found that the majority of stories analyzed could be classified as true narratives, a developmentally advanced stage of this writing mode.

The Cambra Study

The results of Cambra (1994) underscore the importance of actively teaching specific points of writing. Cambra's study was divided into three parts: (a) a pre-test, (b) intervention activities, and (c) a post-test. Pre- and post-tests were written samples. The intervention activities focused on the structure of the narrative and included such areas as cause/result relationships and sequencing as well as writing strategies like the use of linguistic cohesion.

Results of the study showed an improvement in students' organization and an improvement in use of the story elements (parts of the narrative) following intervention activities. The study reaffirmed the difficulty deaf students have in recalling elements of an episode. It also showed that students do not always understand the meaning of what they have read. This was evidenced by the students' introduction of new characters and other elements in their retellings.

The Mayer study

Mayer (1999) examined the compensatory strategies used by deaf writers. Mayer noted that less proficient second language writers have to struggle with the demands of "communicating content under the production constraints of operating in a second language in which the fundamental aspects of lexicon, syntax and grammar do not yet operate with relative automaticity" (p. 39.). Mayer suggested that there likely is a threshold level of proficiency in a second language necessary before the writer is able to attend to the task of composing.

To better understand how deaf students compose, Mayer videotaped two students while they composed and then used the videotape as a prompt for student verbal reports on their composing process. The two students reported that they remembered what teachers had taught them and consciously used it in their composing process. One student also reported that direct instruction helped her structure parts of her text. The students also reported remembering experiences with texts and applying those experiences to their writing.

The author concluded that previous experience with reading and writing affected the students' current writing experience. She further concluded that direct instruction in writing plays a significant role in subsequent student production.


Research has not examined deaf students' writing beyond retellings and experiential narratives. That is to say, to date, available research does not include a functional analysis of academic writing in the rhetorical modes discussed in this module. While speculative, it is nevertheless reasonable to assume that deaf students' difficulties with writing earmarked by the above studies would also be found in more exacting and complex kinds of writing. It is further reasonable to assume that, if deaf students benefit from activities that teach to problematic areas in narrative structure, they might equally benefit from direct teaching in other rhetorical modes.

Action Steps

Actions steps for this module are divided into receptive and expressive steps. In either situation, teachers should be aware that truly effective paragraphs are more than a series of loosely related ideas. Therefore, all teachers should understand the structure and functions of a paragraph, as discussed in this module, in order to help their students achieve academic success.

Receptive Action Steps

1. When text is introduced in a course, have students identify the topic. This will help them focus on the general information they can anticipate reading.

2. Have students identify the topic sentence of a paragraph. This will give them access to the controlling idea. Identifying the controlling idea will provide them with the writer's perspective on the topic.

3. After students read a text, have them outline, in list form, the major points that support the identified controlling idea.

Expressive Action Steps

1. Be certain that students have a clear topic in mind prior to writing.

2. Students should be able to determine their opinion or perspective with regard to their chosen topic and should be able to phrase it appropriately.

3. After students have written their topic sentence, they should be able to clearly identify both the topic and the controlling idea. If they are unsure about either part, they should rewrite their topic sentence before continuing with the paragraph development. If they do not have a definitive controlling idea, the subsequent developmental sentences will likely not reflect a clear focus.

4. Students should limit their discussion to the scope of the controlling idea.

5. Once the body sentences have been written, students should be able to list the supporting points for the topic sentence (see receptive action plan #2). If they list every sentence, they may be including details for the supporting points rather than the supporting points themselves.