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Transitional Words and Phrases: Little Words, Big Meaning

The Common Core Standards, if you are into that kind of thing, make a pretty big deal about transitional phrases in writing. In fact, they are given the same hierarchical importance as writing techniques such as proving reasons in opinion writing and using dialogue and description in narrative. Wow. The Standards certainly don’t seem to imply that transitional words should be tacked on as an afterthought. And even if you aren’t into the Standards themselves, there is something to be said for emphasizing the kinds of words and phrases that may not deliver a whole lot of meaning on their own, but when used within a piece of writing, are meaning powerhouses.

Study how skilled writers use transitional words and phrases, and what you see might surprise you. Many of the most celebrated writers use humble transitional words (i.e. but, and, or) to offset elaborate and detailed phrases. Malcolm Gladwell is one such writer. Check out what he does in the following excerpt from his New Yorker article “Man and Superman:”

What we are watching when we watch élite sports, then, is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train, and there will be Eero Mäntyrantas, who carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors. Élite sports supply, as Epstein puts it, a “splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity.” The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. But it has also burdened high-level competition with a contradiction. We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals?

With the use of a single, simple word: then,  Gladwell is indicating that the information that is to follow is an explanation and elaboration of what has come before. The reader must take into account large portions of fairly complex text in order to understand the significance of that “then.” Later in the passage, Gladwell begins a sentence with “but,” a move that is more and more widely practiced and accepted. The “but” comes at a start of a short sentence sets up readers to hear one of Gladwell’s central ideas. Another sentence, two sentences later, beginning with “but” spells out the central idea.

And so, three little words, so much meaning.

There are many ways to teach kids to use transitional words well, one being to simply give them a list of possible transitions and ask them to use the list to add to their writing. The list might include examples such as:

Transitions that show an example is to come:

  • Thus, for example, for instance, namely, such as

Transitions that show contrast: 

  • But, yet, on the contrary, nevertheless, in spite of, in contrast, on the other hand, rather

Transitions that show adding on: 

  • And, in addition to, furthermore, moreover, than, too, also, likewise

This list doesn’t even touch on transitions that show the passage of time, those that show relative space, or those that show conclusion or importance. Perhaps an even better way, then, to teach students to use transitions well is to teach them to study how the best, most skilled writers actually use them. Less important is that students pepper their writing with a bunch of terms they don’t quite understand, and more important is that the addition of transition words is, for them, an opportunity to really think about how their own writing is structured.

Additionally, if you do give your students a list of possible transition words, consider teaching them to use the list as a way to write more. Certainly, they could study the list, and then study their writing, and think, where can I fit in these words? Or, they could study the list, and think, how could these words help me to add on? Perhaps there is a yet unstated counterargument that the phrase “on the other hand” might help them to conceptualize. Perhaps there is an unfinished conclusion that adding “in conclusion” might jar loose.

All that said (I thought I’d try one I don’t usually use), when first learning to add transitional words and phrases, many students use them awkwardly. And this isn’t a terrible thing. After all, approximation is the key to mastery. Don’t worry, then, if students’ writing sounds like: “Dogs are the best kind of animal. For example, dogs are really great.” That student has learned that the parts of his writing are connected, though he just may need a bit of help to figure out how they are connected.

Finally, I hope you share with us ways that you help your own students to use transition words to improve the quality of their writing.

Anna Gratz Cockerille View All

Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).

8 thoughts on “Transitional Words and Phrases: Little Words, Big Meaning Leave a comment

  1. I read this at the perfect moment, right as our first graders are writing reviews and are trying to connect their elaborating sentence to their opinions. They are trying to say more and these transition words / phrases are perfect little prompts to get them to push themselves to say more without saying and, and, and, and, and…. I feel a chart coming!

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  2. I’m looking for some mentor texts related to this topic, I teach high school intervention for DHH students and LD students. Some of my students read and write in the 2nd grade level. I read the above post, what can you tell me about Basic Writing Skills- is it helpful? I am always making making new mini-lessons to focus on a writing skill. Does anyone have other useful tools you reccommend? Thanks, Kelly Piehl

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  3. Once again, your post could not have come at a better time. My sixth graders and I are currently steeped in our study of ancient civilizations. As my students research, take notes, and write about their learning, I am planning mini lessons on infusing their writing with transitional phrases. As I scour my non-fiction library for examples of transitional phrases, I find myself excited to try these great ideas, then perhaps, my students will incorporate transitional phrases into their writing. Thank you!

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  4. This is such a powerful post. I remember making a big deal out of teaching transitional phrases during the drafting parts of an essay unit. I think it’s incumbent upon us to make sure kids aren’t seeing transitional words and phrases as an afterthought. Perhaps the key to doing this is to encourage kids to make these words and phrases part of their repertoire, by regularly using them in their notebook writing.

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  5. The use of mentor texts is so important! Recently, I’ve been working with third grade students on adding transition words to informational writing. The less experienced readers are using them awkwardly, as you predicted in your post. Studying how authors use transition words has helped immensely!

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  6. Anna,
    Your post really struck a cord with me. Here’s how it played out in a fifth grade classroom I worked in a while back….. Realizing the importance of my students using prepositional phrases, I reviewed their current writings for “evidence” of their use. To my surprise, not one single child had used a prepositional phrase in their writing. I believe your suggestions are dead on as to “how to teach” them. I taught the children what prepositions were and then they found examples of them in the books they were reading. I began teaching mini-lessons about using them in their writing and asking them to “give it a go”. Soon prepositional phrases began appearing in their writing. Intentionality of teaching is always the key, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing this important post.
    Rhonda

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  7. I loved this post! Thank you so much for writing about these little words that carry so much meaning. I agree that students can go through periods of struggle with transitional words. They may use them incorrectly, they may pepper them around their writing, and they may use too many or too little of them. I loved how you discussed the importance of continually circling back to model how to use transitional words correctly. Not just one single minilesson, but multiple. It’s also a really fun minilesson (from Judith Hochman’s Basic Writing Skills program) to have students practice using different transitional words on the same sentence: The Nile River was important but…, The Nile River was important so… The Nile River was important whenever… The same can be done for the beginning of a sample sentence: Although chocolate milk has sugar… In addition, chocolate milk has sugar… Another key point is that chocolate milk has sugar…

    Thank you so much for the post! So refreshing to think about the little things words that are so important- especially nearing the midpoint in the school year.

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