Monday, January 28, 2013

Trouble with Transition Words

As I've been working with my students on creating main ideas and building paragraphs, one nagging problem has come up again and again: the use of transition words in writing.

In some ways, using transition words is like summarizing. It's easy to tell kids how to do it. Curriculum guides seem to assume that just teaching the rules will lead to proficiency. But those of us in the classroom know just how deep the chasm between knowing and doing can be.

Is using transition words as important a skill as summarizing? Maybe not. But I'm beginning to believe that transitions deserve much more time in the curriculum. As I look at writing units ahead, I'm planning to take a more detailed, nuanced approach to teaching transition words. Here are some steps that I'm taking.

Knowing that transition words are important
On the first day back from break, I taught what I thought was a solid lesson about using transition words. We read a paragraph, found the main ideas, and highlighted the transition words. "Transition words connect ideas," I told students. Then, just before recess, I did some quick-check closure. I pulled popsicle sticks and asked some closure questions--"Why are transition words important? What are some examples of the transition words that we found in the paragraphs?"

The sound of the crickets chirping was deafening. Like some kind of blobbish jello, the word "transition" had slid right past my students' ears and brains. They couldn't tell me what transitions were, nor how the words are important.

Was the lesson so horrible? An experience that I had that very night shed some light on the issue. In my spare time, I've been trying to learn German--mostly because there are lots of available online resources from Deutsche Welle, and because I want to feel what it's like to learn to read academic language in another language. As I tried to read a very simple paragraph, I noticed that I was sliding right over the transition words. In my attempt to build meaning, I focused mostly on the verbs and nouns.

This is probably what happens to many students, especially those who do not have much experience with academic language. They are so caught up in the search for meaning with the content words that the function words kind of slide right by. (Just like my lesson!)

I couldn't fix this in one day of instruction. But I could make sure that they caught hold of the word "transition" and recognized it as something important--even if they didn't have a firm grasp of what it meant. The next day, I started the lesson by saying that everyone would need to be able to tell me what a transition is by the end of the class. The promise of some additional preferred activity time upped the stakes! This time, my goal was more achievable--I just wanted them to know that transitions exist. We met this goal.

Adding transition words
The next step was to  teach transition words--by their absence. I gave students paragraphs that I developed from the blue whale details we had looked at before. I left blanks for the transitions, and gave students a word bank of transitions. It's nothing really new or earth-shattering, but it helped me to see how students were thinking. Many of them were happy to use "in fact" twice in the first paragraph--which led us to a discussion of variety.

 The use of transitions like "even though" is extremely difficult for fourth grade writers. Think about how much meaning is conveyed in these two little words. Now think about how hard it would be to write without access to this construction. Transitions like "even though", "however", and "despite" are essential to conveying and understanding complex ideas. This is why I've come to believe that transitions are so vital for learning. Not only are they important for good writing, but they are also important for understanding complex ideas.

Transition Explosion
Once students became more aware of transitions, I started noticing them everywhere. And they aren't always being used appropriately. But I think this is an essential phase of student development. They know that something needs to connect two ideas, but they aren't sure of which word to use. I'm much happier at this stage than the previous stage. With my early adopters (you know, the kids who really take in lessons and move quickly to the action phase!), I'm seeing the phrase "As you can see..." pop up again and again in reading responses, and "despite" showing up in science class.

Right now our work with transitions is mostly focused on the typical statement and support paragraphs. As we move into other text structures, it will be interesting to see if students can generalize what they have learned, or if we'll need to go through every step in the process again.

One thing is certain--transitions are far from simple for intermediate learners!


  1. I am just beginning to introduce transition words to my third graders. I am glad I read your blog first. Did you write the worksheet yourself? Do you mind if I copy it to use with my third graders?

  2. Feel free to email me if you'd like a copy of the transitions page above.

  3. what is actually the factors making students to do errors in using transition words?