Building an argument: paragraph structure

time to complete: 20-25 minutes

Now it’s time to make the main idea you have for each paragraph into clear, concise topic sentences. Each topic sentence needs to communicate exactly what you will include in the paragraph. Let’s have a look at an example from the Applied Linguistics student’s outline:

Outline – Paragraph 3 

Topic: Turn-taking – different in different cultures

Topic sentence:

Turn-taking varies greatly depending on the language being spoken.

Outline adapted from Whitehead (2016)

Once you’ve got a clear topic sentence, the information you’ve collected from sources and your critical comments need to organised into a logical structure. Look at the framework below and click on the arrows to expand and read more about each element:

This is where you state to the reader what you will explore in that paragraph.

More information about your topic.

You can summarise, paraphrase or directly quote from the source. Remember to always include an in-text citation that matches the referencing style of your department.

Explain concisely why the source’s idea is important, demonstrate that you understand any complex terminology, link it to the next source you use, etc.

This could be another source that builds on the first source, agrees or disagrees with the arguments, has similar or different findings, etc., but the author’s ideas help you to say what you want to say in your essay.

What can you learn from the two sources? How do they link or build on each other? Why are they important?

Imagine your tutor has just read your paragraph and has said, “Ok, interesting ideas but why is this information relevant? What are you trying to say? What’s your conclusion based on what you presented?”

In this final sentence in your paragraph, you need to make absolutely sure that they know exactly why you’ve included everything and how it links to your main argument. Remember we said that linking your sentences back to the thesis/question is a type of critical comment.


Keep in mind that this is a just suggested framework and paragraphs can be organised in various ways. For example, you might have two critical comments on the same source, or you might add a supporting sentence to give more information on your source before commenting on it.

Now, let’s do some practice to check if you understood how to structure a paragraph when building an argument.

Task: Below are the sentences from a paragraph in jumbled order. Put them in order by using the paragraph structure. 

Paragraph adapted from Whitehead (2016)

You can now read the explanation of how each sentence into the paragraph structure and reinforces building the student’s argument. Pay close attention to the highlights as they indicate connections between sentences.

Conversational styles vary to a large extent across cultures. 

  • It introduces topic and links back to essay question and thesis statement:

Discuss how a person’s cultural background can impact on their conversational style… (from essay question)

Cultural background makes turn-taking challenging… (from thesis statement)


Cutting (2015) comments on conversational styles of students from Spain and China and cites a Spanish student misinterpreting a Chinese student’s two second pause as him not having understood; in fact, the Chinese student wanted to show he was thinking about what had been said.

  • It introduces a source and shows understanding of the topic.
  • Links back to topic sentence i.e. conversation and culture.

My Chinese classmates mostly agreed that a ‘thinking pause’ is common, and it is respectful to include one even if you do not intend to think during it.

  • Links to personal experience/context and adds evaluation (reflective comments are common in certain discipline such as education)

In English, it is more common to have no gap or only a slight gap between turns (Sacks et al. 1974).

  • It introduces another source and adds to the topic of conversational style and culture.

Heldner and Edlund (2010) build on Sacks et al.’s and other more recent work explaining that for this absence of gap to happen, “speakers have to project not only what the current speaker will say, but also the exact point in time when she or he will finish” (557).

  • It introduces a third source and connects it to previous source. Synthesizing is a way of being critical.

Clearly, this aspect of conversation is incredibly difficult for non-native speakers, particularly when pausing in their own language is common so teachers need to expect gaps between turns and to allow students planning time.

  • This concludes the paragraph by expressing the student’s opinion and links to the essay topic and thesis statement:


…and discuss the possible implications of this for intercultural (mis)communication and/or for language teaching. (from essay question)

English language teachers need to not expect students to reply immediately in class and explicitly teach them what is normal in spoken interactions in English. (from thesis statement)