Contention and Topic Sentences
We are well into the second half of Semester 1 and for Year 12 students, the Mt Everest that is the final English examination is approximately 6 months away. Though most students are at this stage comfortable with the text response aspect of English, many tend to struggle with the notion of “answering the prompt”.
When working to correct this issue, it is important to understand the VCAA English Study Design brief for text response which outlines its examination criteria as being:
- detailed knowledge and understanding of the selected text, demonstrated appropriately in response to the task
- development in the writing of a coherent and effective structure in response to the task
- control in the use of expressive and effective language appropriate to the task.
The importance of answering the prompt is stressed in each of the 3 listed points in the rubric which share the common theme of following the assigned task. In order to construct an essay which successfully answers the prompt, one must be conscious of the relationship between the prompt assigned, their stated contention and the topic sentences they provide.
Prompts for Section A are divided into one of five categories:
- theme based: recurring ideas throughout the text
- character based: specific characters and their behaviour, attitude, or development
- literary technique based: writer’s language and how specific devices demonstrate ideas
- author’s view based: author’s personal thoughts and opinions on an idea
- reader’s view based: reader’s responses to the text
The first thing one should do when presented with a prompt is analyse it by identifying the keywords of the prompt and clarifying all the key terms. Once this has been done, it is time to formulate a contention.
A contention is simply your view of the prompt. This is where you challenge the statement presented to you and construct a viewpoint outlining the degree to which you are in agreement or disagreement with the prompt or if you are sitting on the fence. It is vital to do this not by blatantly rewording the prompt to display your stance, instead you must observe the prompt and construct an assessment of the prompt by drawing from the text to confirm your contention. It is through your contention that your points of discussion detailed in your topic sentences are formed.
Points to remember:
- do not explicitly say “I agree” or “I disagree”
- rather demonstrate how you feel (and thus how you are going to write) by using the text to highlight your opinion of the prompt
- use your contention as “umbrella” from which your body paragraph ideas fall under
The next step in developing your essay response is to settle on what points to make in your body paragraphsand write topic sentences. Topic sentences outline the content you will be presenting to your teacher or examiner in the particular body paragraph. A good topic sentence should detail an idea that can be drawn from your contention. A habit some students carry into Year 12 from earlier years of essay writing is to write body paragraphs solely on characters and in turn writing a topic sentence stating which character they will write about in that paragraph. Rather than doing this, focus on the context, themes, symbols and conventions particular character(s) feature in throughout the text.
Points to remember:
- ensure your topic sentence clearly indicates what you will discuss in your paragraph
- check to make sure your topic sentence is an idea that stems from your contention
- avoid character based topic sentences and focus on the themes these characters are utilised to explore
The key to adhering to the prompt presented to you is forming a relationship between the material given to you, your adopted contention and the topic sentences which headline your evidence and justification. Think of the prompt as the avenue through which to form your overall stance. Your contention is the basis of the entirety of your essay. Your topic sentences are opening statements written with the purpose of helping you develop a discussion that follows your contention that is in relation to the prompt. When your text response has evidence of this not only will you present an essay that closely addresses the prompt, but your work will reflect your thoughts, in a manner which efficiently enables you to show off your skills.