I have been racking my brain for a strategy that will illustrate why transitions go at the beginning of a paragraph instead of the end of the previous one. Students make this mistake frequently, and it makes each paragraph seem unsatisfying when the ending is marked not with a concluding sentence but with what feels like the beginning of a new topic.

And then M&Ms gave me an epiphany.

So here you go, free for anyone to use, as long as you give me credit for the idea:

How to Teach Transition Sentences with M&Ms

  • Required: a fun-size package of M&Ms for each student
  • Optional: colored chalk
  • Length of lesson: 5 minutes
  1. Ask students to group their M&Ms in rainbow order. (Make sure they have distinct groups, not just a line.)
  2. While they’re doing that, use the colored chalk to draw groups of circles on the board, also in rainbow order.
I know I’m not the only one to find this image extremely gratifying. Source: lifehack.org
  1. Ask, “Okay, now, how many of you included an M&M of the next color in each group to make the transition smoother?” At this point I draw an orange circle with the red ones, a yellow one with the orange ones, and so on.
  2. When none of them have done this, ask, “Why not?”
  3. They’ll say something like, “It doesn’t belong,” and if you keep pushing them, someone will say, “They’re already in rainbow order, so you can tell what’s coming next just by glancing.”
  4. AHA. Point out that putting a transition sentence in a previous paragraph is like putting an orange M&M in with the red ones. It doesn’t belong, and besides, it’s unnecessary because you can tell what’s coming. In the case of writing, it’s obvious from the format that the paragraph is ending and a new one is starting. A transition sentence, by its very nature, doesn’t wrap up a topic but starts a new one, so it is as out of place as a green M&M with the yellows. Furthermore, just as the colors of the M&Ms themselves make the transitions smooth from one to the next, so the content and organization of your paragraphs should, too. If that’s the case, the transition sentence is always at home at the beginning of a paragraph, where it blends seamlessly with the next topic, instead of being tacked on to the previous paragraph as an outlier.
  5. Let students eat the M&Ms. Follow up with typical transition sentence activities, such as keyword outlines or whatever else you typically use.
  6. Enjoy feeling like a hero, not only for conveying this idea in such a short amount of time but also for having given your students M&Ms.

I didn’t reveal that this activity related to transition sentences in any way until I got to step 6, and I think that worked out well. Your mileage may vary. This was the first thing I did in class one day, so it also worked to get students engaged from the outset.

Does anybody else have fun tricks for teaching transitions?

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