Well-intentioned teachers sometimes create more problems than they solve. Teachers often fail to teach developing writers how to use effective writing transitions within or between paragraphs in argumentative, informational/explanatory, or narrative writing (Common Core Writing Standards 1, 2, and 3). Three key instructional practices can lead to counter-productive learning.
How to Teach Writing Transitions
First, many teachers assume that their students understand the meanings of transitional words and phrases. These teachers simply post a Transitions Poster on the classroom wall and assume that their students will grab which ones they need for each writing exercise. Both are faulty assumptions. To use transitions effectively, developing writers must know both the denotative and connotative meanings of commonly used transitions. Using the wrong or imprecise transition create confusion for readers. Developing writers also need to learn which transitions work in each writing context. One helpful solution to this problem is to teach transitions in categories of meaning. Download this helpful Writing Transitions page for instruction and reference.
Another reason some teachers fail to get their students to use effective writing transitions is because teachers tend to focus on teaching writing structure over content. Requiring students to “write a five-paragraph essay with transitions between each sentence and paragraph” will force most students into incoherent writing. Requiring students to use an arbitrary number or placement of transitions within and between paragraphs will result in padded and chunky writing. Some teachers even award points for each transition–not the best motivator for concise and coherent writing. Instead of pitting structure versus content, my advice is to teach flexible writing. Begin students with a structure to paragraphing and multi-paragraph writing, but model, permit, and encourage deviation from the basic structure to fit the needs of the content. Content should always dictate structure.
Finally, teachers sometimes fail to teach their students the two secrets of effective transitions. The first writing rule for argumentative, informational/explanatory, or narrative writing is to “Always continue a new paragraph where the previous one ended.” This continuity helps the readers understand the progression of the writing and is oftentimes a better writing technique than “add-on” transition words and phrases. The second writing rule is to “use repetition, paraphrase, and reference.” Repeating key words or phrases found in preceding sentences or paragraphs unifies the writing and is considerate to the readers. Paraphrasing previous ideas helps the readers see the idea from another point of view and avoids the over-use of irritating repetitions. Reference to previous writing with relative pronouns and adverbs, demonstrative pronouns and adjectives, and well-connected pronouns and antecedents improves writing coherence. However, make sure to teach students not to use references to the writing itself. For example, “In the last paragraph…; This essay was about… That sentence proves that…”
Using effective writing transitions can significantly improve writing coherence and help the reader understand the writing as a unified whole. However, teachers need to emphasize the precise meanings of “add-on” transition words and phrases, avoid over-emphasis of structure over writing content, and teach the value of repetitions, paraphrases, and references.
The author’s Teaching Essay Strategies, includes 42 essay strategy worksheets corresponding to teach the Common Core State Writing Standards, an e-comment bank of 438 prescriptive writing responses with an link to insert into Microsoft Word® for easy e-grading, 8 on-demand writing fluencies, 8 writing process essays (4 argumentative and 4 informative/explanatory), 64 sentence revision and 64 rhetorical stance “openers,” remedial writing lessons, writing posters, and editing resources to differentiate essay writing instruction in this comprehensive writing curriculum.