The importance of buts

Even if your students are bright and read a lot, it’s a good idea to verbalize once or twice a year the changes that transition words signal.

Transitional words and expressions are not glue dots between sentences.Street sign indicates side street angles off to right

They are more like road signs showing how what’s ahead is different from what went before.

If your students don’t recognize the difference in meaning between

and ….. but

in the same vein….. on the other hand

however ….. similarly

they will have difficulty reading or writing nonfiction material.

About every other decade, English textbooks put on a drive to teach the meanings of different transitional expressions. When they slack off, students’ reading comprehension slides.

A whole cohort of graduates can get through school without learning that different transitions have different uses. I once ran across a very bright master’s degree candidate who couldn’t understand an assignment because she didn’t realize that the word but indicated that the words on either side of it had contrasting meanings.
Street sign show road curves left before straightening out
Sure, students should be able to figure out that the words on either side of but express contrasting ideas, but they may notice that fact if their attention is elsewhere. Students don’t have to be concentrating on extra-curricular activities to miss something in class. They could even be thinking hard about something the teacher said earlier.

To be sure students know the meanings of different types of transitional expressions,  teachers must teach that material.

I don’t mean teachers should present a lesson on transitions.

I mean teachers should point out at least monthly  in students’ reading or while you are modeling writing that a particular transition word is used because it conveys a particular meaning.  That won’t take more than 30 seconds, and it’s more like reach most students than devoting one class period in a scholastic career to transitions.

I also don’t mean that only English teachers should do this.  Pointing out the importance of transition words is the job of all teachers — from the art teacher to the zoology teacher —who expect students to read nonfiction in their classes.

Photo credits: “Road Splits” and “Road Curves” by Linda Aragoni ©2012

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