Transition Words for Better Writing

Improve learners' writing, comprehension, and analytical thinking by teaching the use of transition words.

By Erin Bailey


pile of magnet words

In my seventh and eighth grade language arts classes, I diagrammed sentences until my sentence maps ran off the page and my hand cramped. Although tedious, those exercises showed me how the pieces of a sentence fit together. It created order out of the chaos of jumbled nouns, verbs, pronouns, modifiers, and adverbs – a place for everything and everything in its place.

Transition to Writing with Fluid, Complex Thoughts

For many children, that is exactly what writing is – chaos. For them, it is a snarl of words on the page with little direction or cohesion. As a result, when they write, their ideas have little direction or cohesion. Research has shown that good writing instruction supports reading comprehension because the ability to write more complex sentences improves the ability to comprehend complex sentences. Likewise, when a student is able to express him or herself on the page, it signals strong analytical thinking. My math pupils hate it when I ask them to explain their solution in a sentence. “Can’t I just show you?” Yes, they could. However, formulating a written response activates another side of the brain and requires them to dissect a process that many have simply memorized.

Transition words make writing coherent and cohesive. The ability to make transitions, not only between paragraphs but also between sentences and even ideas, creates fluidity. The youngest of writers learn how to write more complex sentences using the words and, but, nor, or, for, because, yet, and so. These are the foundation for linking one idea to the next, which is exactly what transitions are supposed to do.

Transition by Using a Mentor Text

Pointing out transition words when reading texts will draw students’ attention to their prevalence and provides examples of how each can be used. Mentor texts are very useful in teaching the importance of making connections between topics. Try The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg or How Oliver Olsen Changed the World by Claudia Mills to illustrate the concept of linking ideas. Tweak the text by taking out the transition words and ask learners to read it. Once children have identified that something is wrong, work together as a class to put them back.

Transition beyond First, Next, and Last

After children have graduated from time order words (first, next, then, finally), introduce for instance, another example, and specifically. These words require the addition of details that go beyond adjectives of size and color. They also compel the writer to find links between topics and ideas.

To provide the practice necessary to master the use of transitions, require your students to answer open-ended questions in math, science, and history. As the pressure to perform well on standardized tests continues to climb, more advanced writing skills in all subject areas are needed. An upper-level skill is the ability to signal a shift in thought mid-sentence using dependent clauses. After a prompt, provide a starter such as although or despite. In the example below, the underlined words are given to the students and must be used to construct a response:

  • Describe the properties of energy.
  • Although all energy comes from the sun, it can take many different forms.”
  • Despite energy’s ability to change forms, it cannot be created or destroyed.”
  • If energy is transformed, there is a decrease in one form of energy but an increase in another form of energy.”

Making smooth transitions between ideas is what separates good writing from mediocre writing. It takes some pupils many years to master it, but the payoff is well worth the time. For help in guiding your writers with transition words, check out these lessons from Lesson Planet.

More Resources:

Writing Transitions 2

This effective worksheet has learners practice linking ideas between sentences with transitions. One sentence is given and they must write a companion sentence.  It is designed for sixth to ninth grades.

Topic Sentences and Transitions

I like this lesson for secondary writers because it uses student-produced essays for examples. The teacher cuts apart the paragraphs from several essays and asks pupils to reassemble them. The idea is that an essay with good transitions between paragraphs will be easier to piece back together.

Writing: Transitions

Pupils read a short nonfiction article and underline the transition words. Then they identify the ideas that the transitions link. It is appropriate for sixth to ninth grades.

Transitions and Essays

This is a simpler worksheet for fourth and fifth graders. Two sentences are provided and learners choose a transition from a word bank that effectively ties them together.