Category Archives: Transitions

What parents want writing teachers / tutors to teach

When parents ask for writing help for their children, what kind of help do they want?Child writing

  • Grammar?
  • Vocabulary?
  • Sentence structures?
  • Organizing?
  • Transitions?
  • Introductions and hooks?
  • Conclusions?
  • Spelling?
  • Cursive handwriting?
  • Details?
  • Revising?
  • Particular types of writing (paragraphs? essays? book reports? short answer responses? long answer responses? summaries?)
  • Narrative elements (character development? plot? setting? foreshadowing?  point of view? conflict? dialog? voice? suspense?)
  • Verb tenses?
  • Paraphrasing?
  • Clarity?
  • Dialog?
  • Figures of speech?

Most parents have no idea so many elements combine to create good writing.  When they see a list like this, they are taken aback.

That is why it is important for parents and teachers to agree on what students should learn at various ages.  If a parent thinks the student should be perfecting grammar, but the teacher instead focuses on organization of information, the parent will not be happy.  Or if a parent thinks a student should be using a great piece of rhetoric as a model, but the teacher wants the student to develop his own way of expression, again the parent will be dissatisfied.

Only when a parent is aware of all that a student is expected to learn can the parent and teacher have a meaningful conversation about how to improve a student’s writing.

“Then” is not a conjunction. And usually “then” is not needed.

“Then” is an adverb and cannot be used as a conjunction, even though many of my students think it can.

Wrong:  I went swimming, then I took a shower.

Right:  I went swimming, and then I took a shower.

One way to show that “then” is not a conjunction is to move it around in the sentence.  “I went swimming, I took a shower then.”  “I went swimming, I then took a shower.”  You can see that these would-be compound sentences are actually run-ons even with the word “then” in the sentence.  They need a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or a subordinate conjunction such as “before.”

Many students use “then” as the first word of a sentence to show a time sequence or a transition from one idea to the next.  Students might need to do this as they write down events in chronological order.  But often they overuse the word “then,” with some students starting almost every sentence with that word.  An easy way to deal with this problem is to let the student write “then” all she wants in her first draft.  During revision, have her circle every “then” and cross out all but one. Let her choose which one stays.

Some grammar books indicate that “then” should be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence, or when it interrupts a thought.  A comma indicates a pause in thinking or in speaking, and since we Americans don’t usually pause after the word “then,” it is rarely necessary.

“Then” is one of many overused words by students, along with “so,” “just,” “like” and “and.”  Usually when students are made aware that they are overusing a word, they self-edit, but sometimes it takes several revisions to prove that they overuse certain words.

Also, “then” and “than” are not synonyms.  “Then,” like “when,” indicated time.  “Than” indicated comparisons.


“Ten things good writers do”

Good advice is good advice.  And so I am repeating “Ten things good writers do…” from a blog by Dr. Timothy Shanahan, a literacy expert, whose weekly blog can be accessed at  The words in boldface are Dr. Shanahan’s ideas.

student thinking about what to writeGood writers make a good first impression. They rewrite their introductions and first pages many times because they know if those words don’t grab a reader, the reader will put down that piece of writing and move on. But you don’t have to be a professional writer to hook a reader in the first sentence or two.  Read this sentence by a fifth grader:

In 34 more days, I, Robert Sir Awesome the Third, am going to turn eleven.  Bha ha ha!

Or notice these introductory sentences by another fifth grader:

In a famous World Series, a slugger walked up to bat.  With the count 2-2, the slugger pointed two fingers to the bleachers in left-center field.  What happened next became a legend when the slugger walloped a moonshot into left-center field.  Home Run! 

Perplexed student writingGood writers make their endings strong, too. Good writers know how to make a reader smile or nod with satisfaction at the end of a piece of writing.

Notice how this fifth grader ends a narrative about the ordinary day he expected.

I was wrong in the morning thinking it was an ordinary day; it turned out to be a great day.

Or notice this ending paragraph by a fourth grader.

Together, my camera, my computer and I can make a movie.  You can too!  If you aren’t perfect, keep trying.  Don’t give up.  I wasn’t perfect either when I started.

boy on stool writingGood writers organize their articles and stories so that readers can follow along without getting lost or confused. Good writers use topic sentences that tell the reader what to expect. They use transition words like “first,” “next,” and “finally.” Or they use chronological order, including time words such as “in the morning,” and “later that same day.”  Notice how this first grader began a fairy tale using transitions.

Once upon a time Little Red Riding Hood was carrying a basket of blueberry muffins and walked into the woods to her grandmother’s house.  And then she spotted a wolf.

child writing in sleeping bag

Good writers rewrite.  In fact, they expect to rewrite, knowing that good writing becomes that way by improving verbs, by streamlining ideas, and by varying sentence beginnings, lengths and types.  See how this third grader revised part of an essay on sperm whales by adding more details.

Sperm whales, who dive up to two miles, are the deepest diving warm-blooded mammals on the planet.  They have the biggest brains of any animal, living and extinct.  Ridges and a triangular hump replace a dorsal fin on one third of their backs.  Two thirds of their colossal bodies look like a rectangle and one third of the body is the head.

boy writing on a window benchGood writers don’t just tell something, they show it. In informational essays, good writers give examples to show what they mean. In narratives, good writers show a character acting, such as his hand wiping away a tear, or his foot tapping, so that the reader can judge for herself if a character is sad or excited. Here is how a kindergartener showed a character.

Linus is squatting down to feel the snow. . . .Then he found sticky snow to make his snow ball out of. . . .While he was working he stuck his tongue out.

girl with pony tail on floor writingGood writers use sentences that are varied and interesting. They vary the verbs in sentences, begin sentences with different words and different parts of speech and write some long sentences and some short sentences.  Notice how this sixth grader starts an essay with a 20-word sentence followed by a six-word sentence.  He starts with a prepositional phrase but the next sentence begins with an adverb.

During Winter Break, my sister and I always vote to visit cool areas where we can ski, such as Colorado.  However, my dad rejects the idea.

girl writing and thinkingGood writers write for the ear, not the eye. Good writers read their writing aloud and listen for ideas that are not clear. If characters are speaking, good writers make characters dialog sound different from one another. Since most people don’t talk in complete sentences, good writers have their characters speak naturally, even if that breaks rules of grammar.  Notice how a second grader uses dialog to explain what a book is about.

One hot summer day Nate the great was in his garden weeding when Oliver the pest came over.  “I have lost a weed,” said Oliver.  “No problem,” said Nate the Great.  “You may have all of my weeds.”

Child writingGood writers elaborate; they try to share a lot of information and detail. Good writers provide lots of detail—numbers, dates, seasons, days of the week, proper nouns, dialog, sensory information, and examples. Good writers put themselves in the shoes of the reader and provide the information that a reader needs even if the writer already understands it. See how that same second grader uses detail.

A long time ago a family lived in a tiny house on a farm in Texas with a very wide field with wheat and corn.  On the farm they raised animals too.  For example, they raised cows, sheep, chickens, a pig and a dog.

3rd grader writing an essay.Good writers get their facts right, even when they are writing fiction. In passages about science or social studies, good writers use the proper vocabulary. They check their facts online or by talking to experts.  They go over their writing to be sure names are consistent and numbers are accurate.  Read how a first grader uses scientific facts which she researched.

The Indian or Asian Elephant is one of the important animals in Asia, living in India, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  The elephant has brown or gray wrinkled skin.  Ivory tusks grow on elephants.  They help dig roots and are used against predators.

Student writing and thinkingGood writers should know when to quit. Good writing is concise writing. The writer needs to trust that the reader will understand the first time if the writing is clear enough, so repetition isn’t necessary. And that’s why I am going to stop now.  –Mrs. K

Does every sentence need a transition? No!

Is anything wrong with this paragraph?

Paragraph using obvious transition words.

Every sentence in the above paragraph begins with a transition word.  This is how many students are being taught to write, as if the reader cannot follow the sequence without reminder words at the beginning of each sentence.  In the above case, the words are obtrusive, calling attention to themselves, but they could be more glaring if the student had used “Secondly,” “Moreover,” “Furthermore,” “Additionally,” and “In conclusion.”

In student text books, transition words are listed by type:  chronological (first, next, then, later, finally), comparison (and, also, similarly, like, additionally), contrasting (however, but, rather, in contrast, although), and showing cause and effect (as a result, therefore, consequently).  Students are taught to use one of these transition words at the beginning of almost every sentence.  They are led to think they must use a single word or phrase that is not organic to the writing or they don’t have transitions.  Their writing becomes bloated with these needless, distracting words.

Is there a better way?  Yes!

Look back at my last paragraph which begins with “In student text books.”  Can you find a transition?  In the second sentence there is one transition word, the word “transitions” itself.  The first sentence mentions transition words, so when the second sentence repeats the word “transition,” that is a subtle yet useful connection to the information in the previous sentence.  The third sentence uses the word “transitions” again, as well as the word “they” to refer back to students in the previous sentence.  In the final sentence, “distracting words” refers back to “transitions.”  So as you can see, there are several transitions, but none calls attention to itself.  Rather, each does what transitions are supposed to do: subtly organize ideas to keep the reader following clearly.

How can students improve their use of transitions?

  • Teach the student not to start every sentence with an obvious transition word.  If the student must use transition words that are not organic to the writing, tell her to tuck them into sentences rather than highlighting them at the beginning of sentences.
  • If students frequently use beginning sentence transitions, ask the students to cut out half of them; then ask them to cut out half of the rest.
  • Ask students to eliminate most multisyllabic transitions.  “And,” “but,” “so,” and “since” do the job just as well as “additionally,” “however,” “therefore,” and “because” without drawing attention to themselves.  In general, the more syllables a transition has, the more obtrusive it is.
  • Most of the time, the student should repeat words, or use pronouns to refer back to words or ideas already mentioned.  Those repeated words or pronouns become organic transitions.

Compare the paragraph about rocks at the beginning of this blog with the same paragraph using more subtle transitions:

Repeating words and using pronouns as transitions.

Click on the graphic to see a comparison of the two paragraphs.

In our next blog, we will talk about using the prewriting organizer to write the first draft.