Transitioning to Better Transitions

Welcome to 2022! It may be your first day back with students. You may, like me, have been granted one last day to try to squeeze in a little more relaxation before heading back to school on January 5th. In any case – we are all about to make a big transition. Transitions can be difficult – in life and in writing. 

Transitions, like everything else in writing, can be taught formulaically or thoughtfully. Too often, I fear, we tend toward the former instead of the latter. How many of us have handed out helpful lists of transition words saying, “ Here! Use these!” and figured we’d given students everything they needed to transition beautifully from one idea to the next. Full disclosure: I have used such lists. Or I’d just let my students fend for themselves, which led to many My-first-reason-is-my second-reason-is-my-third-reason-is essays. Of course, part of the problem with those essays was their overall formulaic nature – they were able to label their three reasons because there were always three reasons.

Of course, some of you may be thinking – “Give me one good reason why I should do more than hand out transition word lists? They work fine for me, and they’re easy!” Well, I have some reasons, which I shall refrain from numbering (even though it’s awfully tempting to do so.) 

Consequently, students often shoehorn transition words into their essays without really understanding what they mean or what their purpose is. See the “consequently” that starts of the previous sentence? It doesn’t fit, does it? I often see students grab transition-words off of lists and throw them into their essays willy-nilly in just that way. When writing is about compliance and not actual thought, that is what tends to happen. The teacher said to use transition words or phrases? Well, I’ll stick in peripherally or to be sure! They eat that stuff up! 

Transitions should show how two adjacent ideas relate to each other and seamlessly guide the reader from one idea to the next. Published authors do use transition words in their non-fiction, but there is more to a transition than just throwing in a word or phrase. A quality transition usually consist of an entire sentence that links the ideas of the two paragraphs together. The best name I’ve heard for such sentences is “bridge sentences.” 

Bridge sentences are a big picture element of writing – they help form the structure of an essay – but they are also a close up element – you can point to them on the page, and they help guide the reader along. As such, they are very important.

I understood bridge sentences. For years, though, I had trouble getting students to recognize them, note them, and use them in their own writing. Most essays we read in class have a few transitions, but you’d have to read a bunch of essays just for the transitions to get some real cognitive practice with noting and analyzing them. To really get the idea of bridge sentences, it’s important to look at lots of real-world examples in quick succession. But where to find a lot of graceful transitions in one place? 

On December 29th, 2019, I found my answer while sitting on the couch eating fresh-baked cinnamon rolls and watching CBS Sunday Morning with my wife. The program usually ends each year with a role-call of many of the famous and notable people who have died during the previous calendar year. The segment usually lasts for over 20 minutes, commercial-free. And in between many of these profiles of the recently-deceased is a wonderful transition! Many, many transitions in close succession! Here is the link to the 2019 edition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwMs3JaqHQs

It is worth noting that the 2020 edition is very, very much worth watching, but not for this specific instructional purpose. The 2020 version addressed important issues, but was so thematically organized, there simply weren’t as many transitions. I can recommend the 2021 video, which is more typical and less overwhelmed by a single theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3h8GaRfCGRo

I know the subject matter might be considered a bit morbid, but it is the only place I have found such a bonanza of transitions. I went back to school in January of 2020 (just weeks before the pandemic hit) and shared the video with my students. I told them to take notes on at least 5 interesting transitions as the video played. I sometimes had to pause the video and even play certain segments over again. We usually made it through only ten or twelve minutes before we’d seen enough. 

Transitions notes, which I modeled, looked something like this:

-Introduction to Carol Channing – Starting goodbyes with hello

-Carol Channing to Jerry Herman – She was timeless, so was he; she starred in Dolly; he wrote the songs

-Jerry Herman to Harold Prince – JH was a Broadway person; HP was Broadway’s biggest light

After watching the video and taking notes, we discussed the transitions they had noted. We talked about how the transitions worked: some showed similarity; some contrast; some connections between two people. We also noted that the writers at CBS didn’t go through the list of people chronologically; instead, they arranged them so that many people from similar fields (Broadway people/sports people/politicians) were often together. If you organize your material well, then transitions are easier to write. But even when they transitioned from one type of person to another, they often found a way to link them. We also critiqued the transitions: some worked better than others, and in some cases, they didn’t try as hard as they could to make the connection. 

After watching the videos and discussing them, I asked students to go back into an older essay and try to write bridge sentences to connect ideas better. With so many examples buzzing in their heads, they finally got the idea. The bridge sentences they wrote are far better than their attempts to merely plug generic transition words into the essay in order to please me. I have also experimented with showing the video after students have finished a rough draft of an essay and then asking them to use create bridge sentences as a revision technique. 

Watching the video – or even part of it – also makes students more attuned to the transitions in the mentor texts we read. 

In conclusion, a bridge sentence is nearly always better than a transition word. Wait – let’s try that again. 

Death is the biggest transition of all, and even though it may seem a bit morbid, sharing the “hail and farewell” video is the best way I’ve found to show that a bridge sentence is nearly always better than a transition word. 

Image via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.

How do you get students to write graceful transitions? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics

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2 Comments

  1. Even at the high school level, bridge sentences are really hard for students to write and integrate effectively (I blame the emphasis on the five paragraph themes from when they were younger). Thank you for this great resource and the useful strategies and supports.

  2. Thanks for sharing this idea and resource links. I teach 7th grade. Help with “bridge sentences” is needed!

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