Teaching transitions in writing

Don’t teach just transition words… teach transition ideas as well.

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I taught this book for eight years in my middle school ELA classes. It’s such a ride! Plus, when you read it as a writer, you notice key skills the author James Swanson utilized heavily when he wrote this little gem.

For me, teaching transitions is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in writing and one of the most needed. When you teach transitions, you are helping students learn how to write smoothly, to make their ideas flow from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next.

In short, we’re talking about the concept of cohesion in writing. As you know, cohesion happens when an idea is carried through from the introductory paragraph(s) to the supporting sections of the text and finally, to the summary or conclusion. There are two ways to accomplish cohesion: transition words and ideas as transitions.

Transition words

I’ve done what many other teachers have done. We post anchor charts around our classrooms that divide transition words into groups based on their intended jobs within a piece of writing. It’s a fairly cut-and-dry skill to teach. Here are three examples of many:

  • Transitions that show sequence: first, second, third, etc.
  • Transitions that show cause and effect: as a result, consequently, etc.
  • Transitions that compare and contrast: on the other hand, in contrast, etc.

Yes, anchor charts do an adequate job of supplying these phrases for students as they write. In addition, I’ve also distributed handouts that list these same groups of words. And that’s all fine and good. Most students understand how transition words can help their writing flow smoothly so the reader can easily follow their ideas.

Transition ideas

But there’s another kind of transition—transition ideas—that are just as important, if not more important, than all those transition words. It’s also more difficult to teach because there aren’t a lot of examples out there and you can’t point to a list of words and phrases for students to use. That’s why I was excited when I found several examples of transition ideas in a text that I routinely taught, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson.

Transition ideas rely on words used in the text by the author to connect the scenes in a story, the claim in an argument from one paragraph to the next, or important big ideas in an informative article.

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Chasing Lincoln’s Killer contains several examples of transition ideas. And since it’s often easier for me to show this than it is to explain it, take a look at the photos below.

The first photo below is from Chapter IV in the book. I’ve underlined in red the transition ideas… places where the writer wanted to move the story from one scene to another on the night of April 14, 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated. To continue his story from one location to another Swanson utilized key words to carry the reader from the home of Secretary of State William Seward to the scene of the Lincoln shooting, Ford’s Theater.

As you can see, Swanson intentionally repeated key words and phrases–“drenched in blood”– to help his reader make the leap in the story with him.

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Here’s another example. Swanson’s narrative needed to transfer from the farm and home of Dr. Mudd back to Ford’s Theater. Swanson showed the Mudds sleeping and transitioned that idea to President Lincoln, who was also “sleeping” after being shot by the assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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Below is yet another example where Swanson carries the reader, at the conclusion of Chapter VII, into the action of Chapter VIII. He uses transition ideas to switch the reader from the lowland river areas where Booth and conspirator David Herold prepared for camping to Washington, D.C., where Mary Surratt, another conspirator, also was wrapping up the busy day.

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And below you can see how Swanson began Chapter VIII in a way that echoed the action at the end of Chapter VII.

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If you’d like even more explanation of transition ideas, show your middle school and high school students this video by Shmoop. It’s quirky and a little weird, but that’s Shmoop.  It gets the point across well, I think.

Transition words and transition ideas are super important. They help students write smoothly and cohesively. Both are the key to writing pieces that absorb the reader, causing them to focus intently on the message of the writing. Use these passages from Chasing Lincoln’s Killer and this Shmoop video the next time you prepare a mini-lesson on transitions.


Thanks for reading again this week! How do you teach transitions? Leave a comment to share your ideas and follow my blog for weekly posts about teaching ELA.

Don’t “dis” formulaic writing prompts

Use structure to develop ideas and writer’s voice

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I’m pretty proud of the student’s written response in the photo above. It’s written by a seventh-grader who, while being a strong writer, struggles with turning in work, whether assigned as homework or completed during class.

He is not doing well in my class “grade-wise”; however, this paragraph shows the higher level of thinking he is able to record in writing.  (Yes, there are problems with this response, such as misspelled words and run-ons, but this student’s idea development is strong and that’s more important to me. We can always fix the editing later.)

Some of the paragraph may be hard to discern, so I’ve transcribed it below without corrections:

“In the book, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, we learn/learned more than most people would normally know. Most people just know Lincoln was shot watching a play but there is more. I learned for the first time their was a twelve-day manhunt. Acorrding to the novel James Swanson authorther of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, “There was a plan.” In other words, Booth had it all figured out. Close to the end after Booth was shot, and paralized he asked someone to hold up his hands whe they did he spoke useless, useless. I think when Booth says this he is saying that all his efforts, his plans, and evan his completed task was useless cause he felled to live on, he felled to tell his story, he felled to fight on for the south.”

This paragraph was written in response to the prompt below. Here’s what I love about this response:

  • it builds up to and introduces the evidence in a satisfying way
  • it interprets the evidence with two sentences, including that final golden one
  • it uses repetition effectively (and I made sure to tell him that when I spoke with him about it)
  • the writer put his own “spin” on the material… it feels original and fresh

Here’s that prompt:

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I realize that there are quite a few “requirements” in this prompt. Sometimes I feel that I’m overly prescriptive with my prompts.

And then I receive a response back like this that reminds me that many kids thrive with the guidelines. They’re able to combine the guidelines with their own ideas and voice to create accurate, effective communication that also possesses a distinct style.


Thanks for reading! I use similar prompts like this throughout the year. Sometimes I’ll add other items for kids to use such as sentences that begin “For example, …”. What do your writing prompts look like? Feel free to leave a comment!

When students don’t “follow along” in the book

“Following along” may not work for every student

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Yeah, there are a few misspelled words. Oh, well. He was paying attention and that’s a big deal. 

I’ve been reading Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson to my seventh-graders and we just finished it on Friday.

About every two chapters or so, they’ve written a response to a question I’ve posed to help them comprehend the text as well as think critically about some of the questions and topics it raises.

Because our students have plenty of independent reading time in their Humanities class, I have chosen to read-aloud this book. I also think it’s important to model reading, so from cover to cover, the students follow along while I read. Well, nearly all of them.

About a week ago, I noticed that whenever I glanced up from reading to check the class, one boy who sits at the back of the room was quietly looking back at me as I read.  Apparently, he was listening. He was also making connections. The next day his father gave him permission to bring some actual Confederate States of America bills to school. Arranging the money on my desk for the photo below, there was no doubt that he had been paying attention even though he wasn’t “following along.”

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This is the Confederate money a student brought. He wasn’t following along in the traditional sense, but he was paying attention!

Another student—I’ll call him Joe– was drawing on a sheet of copy paper as I read during the course of three or four class periods. Early on, I asked him to follow along once or twice, and finally decided that I wouldn’t ask again, especially when I looked at the drawing that Joe dropped into the seventh-grade basket at the end of class each day.

He was working on a portrait of John Wilkes Booth from a photo in the book. He surrounded the portrait with words posed as questions. It was interesting and thought-provoking and showed that he was indeed paying attention during the reading. He may not have been  “following along,” but he was definitely engaged.

So just because a student isn’t following along, don’t assume they aren’t paying attention and learning. In fact, Joe and his drawing has caused me to consider how other kids may better show their understanding (and misunderstanding, too–let’s be real) through drawing or sketching. Recording their thoughts and thinking must not always equate to producing a written response, after all. 


Thanks for reading! Our next step in the unit is to watch a movie called The Conspirator, which focuses on the trial of Booth’s conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the assassination was purportedly planned. The end result?  An essay that argues Surratt’s innocence or guilt. Follow my blog for more posts about middle school ELA.