Building a Bigger and Better Vocabulary: Part Three

After a busy six weeks preparing our students for the August 28th SAT, we are proud to present the third in our three-part series of blog posts aimed at helping students develop their vocabularies. Whereas Part One and Part Two focused on learning new words for standardized exams, this final installation helps students better identify how they can learn words useful to academic writing like lab reports, essays, and more.

Crafting a thoughtful, persuasive essay requires more than a bright idea, or a useful insight. It requires clear language that succinctly describes ideas, highlights the relationship between an essay’s claims and its evidence, and engages the reader. That’s a tall order. Students who aim for clarity often find themselves writing repetitive, rote sentences that bore their readers. Students who write more ambitiously often end up composing unclear, winding sentences that obscure their otherwise valuable analysis.

Most students who struggle to achieve clear, varied sentences run into the same problems. First, they are unsure of how to craft relationships between one sentence and another, and between one paragraph and another. Second, they struggle to find new ways to describe “actions” within an essay. (Think, for an example, of an essay in which the phrase “Thoreau says” appears fifteen times in a three page paper.)

Another way of putting this problem: many students struggle to use transition words and action words to craft more effective writing.

What are transition words? Well, the basic answer is that they’re a collection of words that allow us to better highlight the relationships between individual sentences, and individual paragraphs. They help us make our writing clearer, but they also help us better hold our readers’ attention. Essays that effectively use transition words better replicate the experience of listening to another person talk, and they reduce the amount of work a reader needs to do to understand what we’re saying, meaning that they have more energy to devote towards dealing with our actual ideas.

Here are some examples of sentences that use transition words (which have been bolded for easy identification):

Buying fruit and vegetables from farmers markets has been shown to correlate with increased heart health, and longer life expectancy. Those aren’t the only benefits of buying locally grown produce, however. Many shoppers also enjoy the experience of building relationships with neighbors with whom they would not interact otherwise.

One of New York’s two Major League Soccer teams, The New York Red Bulls, have now lost three out of their four last matches. Nonetheless, their fans are still holding out hope for a late-season playoff push.

Students can expect to receive news about their scores via email in about two to three weeks. In the event that students want to contest their essay scores, they can reach out to administrators by email, or through a form on the company’s website. Additionally, a hotline will be set up sometime in the near future to take phone calls from students looking for clarification about their evaluations.

Notice that these words like “however,” “also,” “nonetheless,” and “additionally,” don’t simply clarify the relationship between sentences, and provide structure for the presentation of information. They also allow us to vary our sentence structures a bit, so that we are not simply writing out the same sentence with slightly different words over and over again.

The list of what one could call transition words is long, and includes conjunctions as well as adverbs. Thankfully, there are countless ways we can add these words to our essays, some of which we’ll cover in the next section of this post.

Like transition words, action words also help us vary our sentence structures, and clarify our writing. Specifically, action words pertain to descriptions of what texts, people, or data do in a given essay. A much broader and more nebulous category of words than transition words, we can see some action words at work below:

Twain doesn’t seek to prove that racism simply disappears if one decides not to partake in racist behavior. Rather, his novel Huck Finn demonstrates that racism is a structure of political, economic, and legal relationships that craft the world in which individual actors exist ineluctably. Even if Huck and Jim become friends outside of the racist schema of the world around them, that schema still influences the specific contours of their friendship.

The data does not support this conclusion, however. If we examine the findings, we can see that individuals participating in the study actually derived more pleasure from doing favors for their neighbors for free than they did when doing so for monetary compensation. We can infer, then, that economic incentives are not the only means by which we can encourage greater neighborly interaction in our towns and cities.

Eric Foner’s historical analyses depart from the oft encountered “great man” theory of history, in which historians treat political leaders, industrialists, and other powerful figures as catalysts of social, political, and economic change. Foner instead focuses on the relationship between technology, economic relations, and other material realities. In his work, “Great men” do not initiate the processes of history, but instead respond to them.

Though action words differ somewhat from discipline to discipline, the fundamental value of learning them remains the same. By mastering a long list of words we can use to describe different kinds of actions, we can add the variety and clarity necessary to make our writing truly standout.

But how exactly do we learn these different transition and action words?

All universities and colleges aim to help their students become the best writers they can be, definitionally. To achieve this mission, many of these institutions create websites that compilate useful handouts, articles, study guides, and sample essays to help their students better understand how to write effectively at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Luckily for us, these websites are often public! Though each school’s site differs, many offer a wide range of useful resources that help students better utilize transition words, action words, and more.

In fact, helping students refine and expand their essay-writing vocabularies is often only the start of the benefits these sites can provide. Students can use the other resources mentioned above to do everything from improving their outlining skills, to developing stronger theses and topic sentences.

Here are a few especially useful writing center sites to check out:

Harvard University

Amherst College

University of Wisconsin

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (this site is especially famous for its robust resources about MLA formatting)

UNC Chapel Hill

University of Michigan

There are also more informal — though perhaps equally useful — ways of mastering new transition and action words: Quizlet, YouTube, Khan Academy, and countless other online resources. Year after year, a new cohort of students faces the same challenges as the one that preceded them, as they learn how to become better writers and thinkers. Fortunately, the advent of sites like Quizlet allows students to better help one another navigate these challenges. Students can find all sorts of collections of transition words, action words, and other useful essay writing phrases with the click of a button. Countless teachers, tutors, and education companies, like Scribbr and CrashCourse, also post useful explainers on YouTube that explain how to incorporate these words and phrases into our papers and reports. You can also find more in-depth videos explaining how to approach outlines, revisions, and other essay related topics.

Being a writer is a lot like being a painter — we can’t expect to find success if we only use a few colors in all of our paintings. Expanding our vocabularies by focusing on transition words and actions words is a great first step we can take to make our writing the absolute best it can be.

As always, we are available by phone and email around the clock. Parents can also schedule a free 30-minute consultation to learn more about how Tutoring Service of New York helps students achieve their best. We look forward to hearing from you!

Founder of Tutoring Service of New York, a group of professional educators dedicated to helping students achieve their full potentials.