Outlining and Crafting Effective Thesis and Topic Sentences Activity

The following activity is designed for building a five-paragraph essay (introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion), which can be adapted in various course disciplines. Currently, it is catered to an English course, but it can easily be modified to meet the needs of a variety of paper structures.


Often, the steps in the writing process are not adhered to by most of our students because they are too time consuming; most think that it will be faster to just begin drafting the essay, but this is not the case. One of the most important stages in the writing process is the outlining stage; this is the time to organize your brainstormed list of essay ideas into a more cohesive and formal document (outline), which saves time in the long run.

To make writing a more enjoyable experience, the stages of the writing process need to be strictly adhered to: brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising, editing, and proofreading. To highlight the importance of outlining and maintaining focus wihtin an essay, I created a fun activity to incorporate into my English composition courses. The activity is also appealing since it engages all of your learners, particularly the kinesthetic learners, while actively, and physically (who likes sitting in a seat all day?), engaging everyone in the class, as well as promoting teamwork and encouraging critical thinking.


Introductory Activity

Before you begin the activity, you might want to ask your students how many times they have started composing an assignment without an outline to refer to (you can share your similar experiences as well):

  • How did they feel about writing (stressed, worried that they were on the right track, frustrated, anxious, etc.)?
  • Did they know what the main idea was that needed to be supported throughout?
  • Did they have enough details to support what they wanted to say, or did they just try to fill up space with unnecessary information (fluff)?
  • And, how many times have they read the essay during the revision stage and realized that they needed to remove a lot of the information that was already written since it didn’t directly support the content of the essay (this is never fun since we easily become very attached to our own writing – the delete key is quite intimidating)?

After the discussion, be sure to review and discuss the steps in the writing process and stress the importance of outlining and maintaining focus. Be sure to review a formal, MLA formatted outline template on the overhead for everyone to see and focus on the sections and the information that needs to be included within; keep in mind that fully developed paragraphs should not be supplied in outlines since short phrases are more acceptable. An outline is a great tool for you to organize your thoughts, whereas drafting is the time to fill in the sections with complete sentences and paragraphs. Review the following major elements of the Outline Template:

Introduction – hook, background information/definition, and thesis

Three body paragraphs – topic sentence (introduce main claim), support, etc.

Conclusion – review main points, rephrase thesis, and include a memorable statement/call-to-action


Student Activity

To begin the activity, split the class up into four-eight groups (depending on the number of students) and assign each one of them a different, broad essay topic and genre: you can classify them as argumentative, compare contrast, explanatory, and/or narrative if you like (I like to create a mix for a better understanding of the different writing genres). For example, you could give one group a notecard with one of the following writing genres and topics on it (feel free to be creative and add a bit of humor to the assignment as well):

  • Compare Contrast Essay – Online and Traditional College Courses
  • Argumentative Essay – Fracking
  • Explanatory Essay – Zombie Apacolypse

1) Once each group has been given a notecard with a specified genre and topic, inform them that they need to develop an informative thesis statement.

  • Remind everyone that a thesis should be the last, single sentence of the introduction that introduces the main idea, purpose, and three supporting points that will be discussed.
  • Ex: Forest Gump is a great movie due to the characters, plot lines, and cinematography.

2) When each group has created a detailed thesis for their topic, supply each table with an Expo marker and assign them each a space on the supplied white/chalk boards (or supply each table with a printed outline template) around the room. Inform them that they will begin creating a rough outline and developing their classmates’ outlines to understand the importance of outlining and maintaining focus through effective thesis and topic sentences (afterall, they are the building blocks of an essay).

3) Each table begins the activity by creating a three-pronged/part thesis statement and then they will rotate, clockwise, and review the thesis statement from the previous group.

4) Now, the next task is a bit different and they need to review their peers’ work. They need to ask themselves:

  • Does the thesis clearly identify the essay’s main idea/topic, if so, circle it?
  • If you can identify the purpose, circle that as well.
  • Then, underline the three supporting points in the thesis.

If the group determines that items are missing, or not effective, instruct them to make appropriate alterations.

5) Once the thesis has been revised, it is time for each group to create a topic sentence for the first body paragraph, while developing the original group’s (now revised) thesis statement.

  • Keep in mind that a topic sentence should clearly introduce the main idea that will be discussed within the paragraph, while specifically developing the main idea/purpose from the thesis, to create further cohesion, and to remind the reader of the essay’s focus. Also, topic sentences should not be questions, and it is preferable that they are more debatable in tone.
  • Ex: The characters in Forest Gump allow the film to stand out above the rest.

6) When the topic sentences have been created, the groups will rotate (clockwise) once again, and revise the previous group’s topic sentence, if necessary.

  • Make sure they circle the paragraph’s main idea, and underline the relation to the essay’s main idea/purpose.

7) Again, rotate the groups once the topic sentences are created. Have each group make the necessary revisions to the previous group’s work to create clarity, then have them draft new topic sentences. This will continue until each body paragraph on the outline contains a topic sentence.

8) Once the topic sentences are created, the groups can continue rotating around the room while incorporating at least three supporting points/claims within each body paragraph section (one at a time) within the outline. They only need to be bullet points or short phrases (not complete sentences or paragraphs) and they should develop the thesis and topic sentences

9) And/or, each group can rotate around the room again and incorporate appropriate concluding sentences within the outline (one at a time, per body paragraph section within the outline).

  • This can be helpful since concluding/transitional sentences are often overlooked, and it is a good idea to remind students that they can be created by rephrasing the topic sentences – to remind the reader of the paragraph’s main idea, while smoothly transitioning to another (make sure the reader knows you have finished discussing the particular main idea).

10) Once the thesis and body paragraph elements have been incorporated into the outlines that the students have been working on, conclude the activity by having each group complete the outline with a rephrasing of the thesis in the concluding paragraph


Supplemental Activities

1) As an optional, supplemental assignment, you can also have students create specified, complete paragraphs related to their group’s introductory topic, while utilizing the information that the rest of the class incorporated on the boards: introductory paragraph, one body paragraph, and a concluding paragraph. Or, have them create each one of the three body paragraphs, etc.

2) You can also have students write a reflection about their experiences:

  • Why is outlining important?
  • Which elements should be included in a thesis statement, and why is a clear thesis statement important?
  • How do you create an informative topic sentence? And, why are they important to have on each body paragraph?
  • Is collaboration helpful? Be specific and use examples that relate to the outliing assignment that was completed.
  • Was the activity helpful or not? Be specific within your response.


Concluding Thoughts

As you conclude the activity, remind the class about the importance of utilizing the outlining stage of the writing process. They should now understand that outlines will allow them to easily generate new ideas for an essay while organizing them appropriately, and ensuring that the essay’s topic is clearly identifiable and adhered to throughout. Also, they will leave the class with a better understanding of the elements that make up thesis statements and topic sentences, as well as a better understanding of their importance in written assignments.


Resources to Review

Following are several helpful scholarly articles to review that address the importance and techniques used to teach the writing process to various student learners:

Aghbar, Ali-Asghar, and Mohammed Alam. “Teaching the Writing Process through Full Dyadic Writing.” (1992): ERIC. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

Discusses the techniques used to teach writing to ESL, college students with various backgrounds, while working together.

Leopold, Lisa. “Prewriting Tasks for Auditory, Visual, and Kinesthetic Learners.” TESL Canada Journal 29.2 (2012): 96-102. ERIC. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

Discusses a variety of prewriting tasks that appeal to various learners, which can also apply to ESL students.

Marchisan, Marti L., and Sheila R. Alber. “The Write Way: Tips for Teaching the Writing Process to Resistant Writers.” Intervention in School and Clinic 36.3 (2001): 154-62. ERIC. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

Discusses strategies that have been effective at helping students with difficulties exceed, while understanding the importance of the writing process.

Neshaminy School District, Langhorne, PA. Writing to be Read: A Curriculum for Teaching the Writing Process. n.p.: 1980. ERIC. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

Supplies information, in a curriculum guide format, that will help instructors to effectively teach the writing process to their students.

Scott, B. J., and Michael R. Vitale. “Teaching the Writing Process to Students with LD.” Intervention in School & Clinic 38.4 (2003): 220. Professional Development Collection. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.

The article focuses on teaching the writing process to students that are affected with a variety of learning disabilities. The “writing process wheel” is discussed in detail as a valuable educational tool as well.