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Expanding Vocabulary and Use of Transitions in Students’ Writing

Expanding Vocabulary and Use of Transitions in Students’ Writing 

In January of 2020 this tweet from staff developer, Hareem Atif-Khan at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project generated over 1,000 likes:

“Tired of run-on sentences that over use the words ‘and’, ‘so’, ‘but’, & ‘then’?”

The colorful post-it notes first attracted me to open the tweet along with my curiosity to learn how to create semantic webs around each of these repeat offenders for students—and to teach writers how to use more sophisticated transitions in their place.

Fast forward to June of 2020, and I got to spend a full week learning virtually with Hareem at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Institute.  On one of our days together, she taught our cohort in depth how to use semantic webs with students. 

Networks of Words Grounded in Ideas

Previously, I would teach vocabulary words by giving students a list of words at the beginning of the week. Students were instructed to look up the definition of each word, record it, and write it in a sentence. I always hoped that this new bank of vocabulary words would be stored long enough in students’ long-term memories so that when it came to writing workshop, students would use the new vocabulary in context. 

This approach was not very successful, especially for my English Language Learners. Students were not using the words I thought they had acquired in this activity.  I started to notice that vocabulary words taught in isolation will remain isolated if they are not taught meaningfully.  The work of Elfrieda (Freddy) Hiebert, professor and founder of, explains further that “lists do not help our kids retain or expand their word knowledge.  Students need networks of words that are grounded in ideas.” You can watch her speak more on this on her website and here.  Freddy’s organization has created a core vocabulary project that is downloadable and free. This project includes 2500 word families that account for 90% of all words used by K-12 students.

From Theory to Practice

Recently I tried this new semantic web strategy in my colleague Ms. Kelly Martinez’s 4th-grade class, where I have been coaching and co-teaching with her.  We implemented this strategy as students were beginning to make revisions to their realistic fiction stories. We asked students to both draft and revise their writings utilizing google docs.   Kelly and I quickly noticed that many students had a strong sense of story structure and were trying hard to apply different elements of their craft. We also took note that students needed support using more transition words to enhance their writing.

After co-teaching the mini-lesson with Ms. Martinez on Zoom, I pulled a small group of students inside a breakout room. Here is how this small group lesson unfolded.

  1. I told students why I had gathered them by saying, “I called you here today because I think we can add some transition words into your writing that could take it to the next level.”
  2. Next, I shared my screen where part of the mentor text “The New Kid” by Dori Hillestad Butler was displayed in Jamboard. I asked students to read it to themselves, give me a thumbs up, and circle any transition words they can find.

3.  Afterward, I asked students to share what does that word show in the story. Luke shared with the group, “It shows that something happened later.”

4.  Soon after, I slid the page over where the word “Later” was written in the middle. I had students talk to each other about what other words we could use to signify a change in time that means the same as “Later.” As students talked to each other, I recorded them on sticky notes.

5.  Lastly, I had students find a scene in their narratives where they could apply this semantic web to their original pieces. Abigail decided to change her font color and embed some different transition words in her story.

Closing Thoughts

There will continue to be days where we feel we have not done enough for our students. For me, I really miss the face-to-face interactions with students, the camaraderie of in-person coaching, and engaging students close-up on their writing.  As I grow more in applying practices that are grounded in research and delivered with love and care, it is heartening to see that we can always make a difference in the development of our students’ writing.