How to teach transition words

Today we would like to discuss the topic of ‘How to Teach Transition words‘. This is especially relevant for us, as we’ve just released a new 10-part lesson plan category that you can find on our lesson library. Our linking words category is designed to help you teach transition words to your students. 

Teachers often bemoan the fact that students don’t use enough transition words. Yet, for students to learn to use these effectively, teacher themselves need to go beyond teaching transition words, coordinators and subordinators in isolation. They need a basic strategy to teach transition words. Our basic theory to teach transition words in an ESL context: students need to know two things about each transition words they learn. First, what are its grammatical properties and what function does it fulfil in a sentence? And secondly, which category of transition words do they belong to? 

For example, student generally grasp the coordinators such as and, but, so and yet with little assistance from a teacher. However, it really does pay to check that a student understands how the transition (or linking) words are used to express addition, cause, contrast, purpose, result, etc. While these categories may seem a little artificial at times… and indeed overlap into other categories, students certainly find such categorization helpful as they advance in proficiency.

As lesser known transition words are introduced, to express condition for example, students really can only learn to use these effectively if they are able to identify a dependent and independent clause, and if they know whether the linking word is an adverb, coordinator, subordinator… or something else.

teach-transition-words Slide08

Teachers who simply introduce a list of transition words without the background grammatical properties are missing the mark. To use transition words effectively, and more importantly, to use them in proficient writing, where they are considered vital, a teacher needs to concept check continuously to ensure the student can produce these words later, independently of the teacher.

If you’d like some help with your approach to teach transition words, be sure to check out our 10-part lesson plan series on our lesson library.

In what ways do you teach transition words, especially at Intermediate (B1) Level and above? Do you introduce these terms as required, or does your syllabus include a special section to teach them?


  • Gertrude says:

    February 4, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Our syllabus has a topic on linking words and their functions and these can be taught using both inductive or deductive methods.However,many students fail to use them properly especially in composition and even sometimes when just given a set of sentences to connect.I have always asked myself whether its the type of students in that particular class or maybe because our students mostly use English in class and not in their homes and play areas.Well,passion is to have a class that is good in using ESL

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      February 4, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks for stopping by.
      Linking and transition words are an area that needs ongoing teaching. There are simply so many transition words, and of course a large portion appear only in ‘careful’ speech or in writing. It is normal that students don’t produce them often as even among native speakers, I would suggest that such words are used less and less.
      Writing remains the exception, so naturally, linking words remains for student who do not produce much writing.
      Nevertheless, it can be an interesting area for student who love to read, as they tend to appreciate more the value of linking words.

  • Don Woods says:

    March 29, 2016 at 4:24 am

    This all sounds to me like lessons a teacher, particularly a pedantic teacher, would love and students would HATE. More rules, more rules, more rules. Transition teaching needs dramas, dialogues and conversation. Then they can translate those into their writing.

    • Kris Jagasia says:

      March 29, 2016 at 7:53 am

      Thanks Don. How do you go about teaching transition words to spark excitement in your students?

      • Pedro Julião do Nascimento says:

        March 30, 2016 at 9:50 am

        Hi, Kris.
        Well, as I am not a native speaker, my job is even harder. hehehe. Just kidding.
        What I do to teach my students transition words is:
        I find an article on the net, like the ones you and James have posted here and then I pinpoint the transition words. In addition, I either put them in a bok on top of the page and ask students to put them back in the article by filling up gaps, or I write another transition word next to the correct one, usually one that students might confuse in Portuguese. Then, I ask students to circle the correct option.
        Afterwards, I ask them to make up their own sentences using the transition word. However, the question here is, will students use these words later when they write their own text?
        My years of teaching tell me, “No, they won’t.”
        So, why bother teaching them anyway?
        Because they will read articles which contain transition words and they need to understand them. Transition words are like phrasal verbs for a non-native speaker, “We recognize them, but we find it difficult to use them.

        • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

          March 30, 2016 at 6:37 pm

          Hi Pedro,
          You make a very good point. There is passive vocabulary and there is active vocabulary. An understanding of linking words is vital to reach a high proficiency in English. If you do not understand the relationships between words and clauses in English, you are simply guessing. So you’re right, we should bother to teach this important area of the language!

  • Raquel Rice says:

    March 30, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    I don’t think that “pedantic” is the word I would use. I do however agree that too much definition is unnecessary. I have used in the past jigsaw sentences or fill in the gap activities to introduce them. Obviously, in a writing class I’d spend more time in the introduction of the topic and teacher practice. As a second language learner there’s this need to connect the meanings from your first language to the target language. Once that has happened, then it’s only matter of your interlanguage to do the rest. I think even native speakers struggle with these so, it’s ok to make mistakes here and there.

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      March 30, 2016 at 6:33 pm

      Hi Rachel,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree with you. The lessons we have posted on Linking Words are not supposed to be one-size-fits-all lessons, which will work for all teachers, all students, in all situations and at all times. Many students will of course need exposure to both form and functions multiple times, while others simply need a small introduction to form, followed up with task-based activities to promote fluency and naturalness.
      Terms like pedantic, too much, too little, etc., are all subjective and tell us only a person’s perspective on a subject. We all have our own way of teaching and students certainly have a preferred way to learn. It’s up to us to maximise our students’ proficiency by whatever means works for them. And I agree with your point on L1. Linking words pose different challenges to different language learners. While students whose L1 is a Romance language appear to grasp linking words easily, there are other languages that do not have separate linking words, and instead use affixes. For these students the form needs a little extra exposure!

  • Angeliki Angelopoulo says:

    April 3, 2016 at 11:13 am

    In my country’s syllabus, all these words and expressions are categorised according to their meaning and use and they are taught in a rather mechanical way. However, the students seem to have developed the ability to use the simpler of them. The higher the level, the more use of more complicated forms is observed. It’s the exam-oriented books and material that actually help students learn transition words.

    • James Heywood (Off2Class) says:

      April 3, 2016 at 6:28 pm

      Hi Angeliki,
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on transition words.

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