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Intermediate Reading Course. Section 3: Interpreting the Message

Function of Sentences and Paragraphs when Reading

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Everything experienced writers add to the text has a purpose which, ultimately, is to communicate ideas to the reader as clearly as possible. As the reader, you must interpret what you read in the text to understand what the writer wants to communicate.

Functions of sentences and paragraphs

Instructions: In this lesson, you will read short paragraphs which could be part of a longer passage. You will then learn the function or functions of each sentence or the whole paragraph.

Paragraph 1

In early spring, a farmer was plowing in his field when he hit a large rock. He investigated it and found a small human skull. As it turns out he had found a 10,000-year-old burial ground.According to University of Mencino archaeologist Tim Ecks, finding an ancient burial ground is rare in this region. “The time we ran across such an old burial ground found in this area was in 1970. Most were in much worse shape than this one, though. Thankfully, the farmer did not disturb it. This is the only untouched burial ground we have been able to study.”

Function: Introducing

The function of the story about the farmer finding the burial ground is to introduce the passage to the reader. It also creates a mental picture and gets the reader interested in reading more. The paragraph is not really about farmer; it is about the archaeological find.

Function: Expert Testimonial

The second part of the paragraph starts with “according to University of Mencino archaeologist Tim Mencino” followed by a direct quote of what he said about the burial ground. Its function is to provide an expert testimonial.

Writers can explain the information they learned but, by using testimonials by experts, including direct quotes, they lend the text credibility.

Paragraph 2

Archaeologists first needed to determine whether the find was simply a grave or a “burial ground.” In archaeology, a burial ground is a site where human or animal remains have been buried in a deliberate and organized manner. After a month of digging and mapping, it was determined that the site was indeed an ancient burial ground. The site contained the remains of an infant girl buried with stone tools, ivory artifacts, and clay pots. The site was covered by a layer of polished rocks and red soil.

Function: Defining

The function of the second sentence in this paragraph is to define a term (”burial ground”) precisely. Writers often include definitions of terms so that the reader learns or understands how a term is used in the passage.

Function: Describing

The function of the last two sentences is to describe something (the burial ground) to the reader.

Notice that the writer first defined “burial ground;” then the writer described it to indicate that the site was indeed a burial ground. You can say that the entire paragraph defines what a burial ground is and what it looks like to an archaeologist.

Paragraph 3

In a 2019 paper, a group of archaeologists reported on a similar burial ground approximately 100 miles from this site. They determined it to be by the Clovis, a prehistoric people living in North America between an estimated 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. Although the 2019 find was in much worse shape, there are striking similarities between the sites.

Function: Citing and Reporting

The function of this whole paragraph is to cite a study (”In a 2019 paper”) and to report on what researchers found.

Function: Providing Factual Evidence

This paragraph also has the function of providing factual evidence.

Why Cite, Report, and Provide Facts?

Writers mention published studies and provide factual evidence to lend credibility to their text. They show that the information is not simply their opinion or speculation. They actually researched the topic.

Other Functions

The examples above show only a few functions of sentences and paragraphs. Writers also add information to compare ideas, provide examples and illustrations, explain cause-effect relationships, and so on.

Remember that writers often use transition words to signal the function of information. For example, when they start a sentence with “in contrast,” they are signaling that the function of the sentence is to contrast ideas; when they use a transition such as “… is caused by…,” they are signaling that the function of the sentence is to show a cause-effect relationship.

As you saw in the above examples, writers also add whole ideas (for example, a citation or a quote by an expert). These do not have transition words, but they each have a clear function, too.

Remember that paragraphs have functions, too. The function of a paragraph starting with “in conclusion,” for example, is clearly to provide a conclusion.

Important Takeaway

Always keep in mind that good writers add sentences, phrases, and transitions to the text for a reason. As you read a paragraph, figure out the function of each of these elements so that you can understand the text more deeply.

Related Lessons

Review transition words and expressions.

This writing lesson on transitions has more in-depth information on the topic (opens in a new tab).

Up Next: Critical Thinking in Reading

Go to the next section in the course to learn about critical thinking in reading.

Congratulations! You’ve completed the "Interpreting the Message" section of the course!

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