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Educ Med Super 2003;17(3)


Facultad de Estomatología del Instituto Superior de Ciencias Médicas de La Habana

Using transitions, an experience

Lic. Raiza Texidor Pellón1 y Lic. Ana M. Almeida Uriarte2

Summary

This paper presents the experiences of the authors in the use of transitional words or phrases in English which significantly help develop writing and speaking with fluency and coherence since the very beginning of the language learning. The activity was carried out with first year medical students receiving General English. The paper gives the fundamentals of the activity, procedures and techniques, the role of the teacher and the student, examples of exercises, and suggestions for developing it effectively.

Subject headings: LEARNING; TACHING; STUDENTS, MEDICAL; VOCABULARY.

"In order to be able to use English in extended discourse, students must be able to do more than correctly form isolated sentences. They need to know how to connect sentences to form a text" (Mckay 1987). To achieve this goal, it is necessary to make the students write and speak with a certain degree of coherence and clarity as soon as they have acquired some tools to communicate in the English language. The purpose of this article is to provide some ideas and suggestions with which the students can improve their writing skill. It is based on the experience obtained in a group of medical students learning General English in Cuba.

Transitions, an essential element in this experience

There are a number of techniques for having coherence in English. The one you select will depend on what is appropriate or convenient to your writing. The use of transition words and phrases aroused our interest: First, because they show the logical relationship between sentences and ideas; second, they add prestige to any piece of writing.

The writing of beginners is usually carried out by using isolated sentences or simply a group of sentences joined by a period or, in the best cases, by the coordinating conjunctions and and but. Furthermore, intermediate level students are required to write paragraphs and compositions with some degrees of coherence; however, most of them have great difficulties in this point. They are used to speaking or writing single sentences. We thought that the teaching of some transitions to beginners could help them write better paragraphs. And it worked! Of course, at this level, we should not teach the students to use all the connectors because, as Wingard (1981:162) points out, there are many rules related to connectors that they "tend to be ignored by the student if he is taught such items in an ungraded way..."

The first thing we did was to present several examples of the transitions we agreed to teach relying on the knowledge the students have in the use of these words and expressions in their native language (Spanish), and the ones we considered useful and easier at this level. We grouped them as follows:


USE CONNECTORS

For contrast: However, but.
For cause: For this reason, because.
For effect: Therefore, so.
For certainty: Obviously, of course.
For meaningful order: First, then, after that, before, finally.
For example: For example, for instance.
For concession: Although.
For conclusion: In general, in conclusion.

The above chart is open - ended to give the students opportunity to go on increasing it at the time they learn more about the language.

The technique we followed was, first, to familiarize the students with the connectors by using different, clear, graded, and controlled exercises such as fill in the blanks, combine sentences, add transitions, rewrite paragraphs (Appendix 1). Once they were able to work with them, they were encouraged to use them in writing paragraphs of their own.

Group work and writing

Group work provides an environment of criticism, learning, and lively exchange. That is why we have selected this technique to develop some of the writing activities of each of the units from the official textbook.

The group is divided into three or four teams of four or six students, depending on the size of the class. One of the students in each team is appointed leader. This leader organizes the activity and acts as a link between the group and the teacher. Each team chooses by consensus the topic they are interested to write about. When they finish writing they are asked to exchange their papers within their respective team for revision.

For revision, the students use a Peer Evaluation Form suggested by Spencer and Arbon (1997) in Foundations of Writing in which the authors present a list of aspects to check the writing of a classmate from a paragraph, to an essay, to a research paper. This form has been adapted for our purpose. It provides the students a checklist that they must take into consideration while checking their fellow students' papers. Then, they go over the writing and give their opinion about the following items by writing an S (satisfactory) or a U (unsatisfactory) in front of each of them.


Composition checklist

Name of evaluator: __________________________________________
Name of writer: _____________________________________________
_____ Content.
_____ Use of transitions.
_____ Use of grammar and vocabulary.
_____ Use of punctuation and spelling.
Politely suggest any comment to improve this composition.
Peer Evaluation Form. Adapted from Spencer and Arbon, 1997.

Once this step is completed, we can go over the next one in which the students are asked to report to the whole class about the writing of his or her classmate. If the item is reported as satisfactory, the teacher may ask for the reasons, and if it is reported as unsatisfactory, the teacher should ask for suggestions to improve it.

This way of revision is very useful because the students are ready to discuss the content and, according to their level, some grammar mistakes as well as punctuation and spelling, mainly those related to the use of the transitions. In addition, they have the opportunity to use the four basic language abilities in a natural classroom environment: They write their own compositions, read their classmates', listen to other students' opinions and give theirs orally. In Teaching Writing Skills, Byrne (1981:69) points out that "...one language activity can lead to the next so as to form a natural sequence of learning situations, each one of which brings a different but appropriate skill into play."

It has also given us good results to show the best paragraphs or compositions of each team in the classroom bulletin board. This motivates the students very much and gives them a sense of proud.

The teacher's role

While the students are writing their own paragraphs, the teacher walks around the classroom helping and monitoring. If the teacher feels that more practice is needed, note should be taken during the development of the activity to be seen later, during a feedback stage.

Although feedback among the students helps a great deal, from the teacher is always vital and valuable. The latter is given individually in each draft. General mistakes are dealt with in plenary. Feedback comprises not only the use of transitions but also grammar, punctuation, and content.

In the beginning, students are so enthusiastic with the activity that they tend to overdo the use of transitions. The teacher must be aware of this to tell the students that these kinds of words and phrases are helpful if they are used when they are really indispensable and suitable.

Conclusion

Our intention has been to share these ideas about writing that has proved to be of great help in improving the writing skill of our students besides giving them opportunities to integrate skills. We have described the different steps we have followed to achieve the desired results.

By simply using a group of transitions, the students have been able to write more natural and coherent texts at a level in which writing with simple independent sentences separated by a period seemed to be the most that could be done.

Appendix 1

Examples of exercises used to familiarize the student with the connectors.

1. Look at the following sentences carefully and try to infer the meaning and use of the words in italics.

a) The Royal Hotel is very expensive; however, its rooms are very uncomfortable.
b) Mary did not study very hard. So, she failed her English test.
c) Peter arrived late to class because his mother is sick.

2. Combine these sentences using a logical connector from the list. Choose the best one!
Although - however - and - obviously

a) Brenda is a very pretty girl. She is not a model.
b) Richard was tired. He went to bed early.
c) She has no job. She spends a lot of money.

3. Combine the following sentences by using any connector you consider appropriate.

a) Mary has a fever. She went to work.
b) These exercises are difficult. I tried to do them anyway.
c) I got up at 6 a.m. I had breakfast. I went out to school.

Can you write a few of your own?

Note: This is only a sample of the exercises we have been using. You can use others according to the level of the students and your creativity.

Resumen

Se presentan las experiencias de las autoras en el uso de determinadas palabras o frases en inglés que ayudan significativamente a mejorar la escritura y el habla, con mayor fluidez y coherencia desde el comienzo del aprendizaje del idioma. La actividad se realizó con grupos de estudiantes de medicina de primer año que reciben inglés general. El trabajo muestra una fundamentación de la actividad, técnicas y procedimientos, el papel del profesor y el estudiante, ejemplos de ejercicios y sugerencias para su efectivo desarrollo.

DeCS: APRENDIZAJE; ENSEÑANZA; ESTUDIANTES DE MEDICINA; VOCABULARIO.

Consulted Bibliography

Recibido: 10 de junio de 2003. Aprobado: 18 de julio de 2003
Lic.Raiza Texidor Pellón. Facultad de Estomatología del Instituto Superior de Ciencias Médicas.Ciudad de La Habana.

1 Profesora Auxiliar. Jefa del Departamento de Inglés . Facultad de Estomatología.
2 Profesora Asistente. Facultad de Ciencias Médicas "Dr. Salvador Allende".

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