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.