Walk into any junior classroom, and you’re quite likely to find a list of connectives on display somewhere, extolling the virtues of using words like consequently and furthermore to improve children’s writing. Except they very often don’t.
The problem with lists of connectives (or linking phrases, or discourse markers, or whatever else you want to call them) is that we lump them all into a meaningless group of words – too often called ‘wow’ words – and simply imply that by using them writing will be better. We offer children language like moreover and hope that they’ll use it, but fail to give them an understanding of what the word means.
I ought to state that moreover is something of a bête noire for me. I spent years teaching in Year 7, reading work where moreover had simply been dropped in to replace Also. But it’s a far more nuanced word than that. In fact, as I soon discovered, the nuance is hard to clarify among well-educated adults, let alone with 11-year-olds.
We see this problem replicated time and again. Children as early as KS1 being taught to use however as a synonym for but is a classic example – and a key reason why teachers need to learn the difference between conjunctions and other connectives. While as teachers we might understand that synonyms have broadly similar meanings, children often interpret this (or are taught) that such words are interchangeable. It means we end up with writing that looks something like this:
I looked down at my feet
buthowever I couldn’t see my shoes beneath the mud.
A perfectly good sentence, ruined by crowbarring in a unnecessary (and incorrectly used) connective.
Of course, I understand why it came about: the APP criteria told us that higher level writers ought to be using more advanced connectives, and the lists were born. But the APP criteria (for all their many other flaws) also gave sensible examples of those connectives. It began with and, but & so for younger children, moving through if, when & because and eventually suggested although, on the other hand & meanwhile for writers working at level 5.
Notably, all but the last two of these are conjunctions, and I’d argue that our time would have been much better spent teaching children to write effective compound and complex sentences that automatically enabled them to vary their sentence structures with useful language. By lumping if into the same bracket as moreover we quickly open up the risk that children perceive the longer word as better. Frankly, I’d take a well-written complex sentence using if over a sentence starting moreover any day.
Equally worrying is the widespread use of pyramids. I blame the Big Writing nonsense for this idea that somehow words can be levelled. What’s more, when you look at such pyramids increasingly we see words have been shunted up a row, to imply that they should be introduced sooner, as if somehow by using these words sooner, writing will improve more quickly. But it doesn’t, because using some of those words and phrases effectively takes maturity and experience – not just being told to squeeze it in somewhere.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t use connectives (although I do argue that we should separate conjunctions out and use them more). But we need to be sensible about what we focus on. Introducing children to a broad vocabulary is good, but doing it through lists of words to use is madness. Especially when we risk encouraging children to use obscure vocabulary that muddies matters in place of simple vocabulary that clarifies connections.
A quick look at the Google Ngram view suggests that many of those words that we seem to value so highly – and are so often seen in Y6 writing – are actually relatively rarely used in real texts.
We need to shift our focus away from the simplicity of offering lists of connectives to be dropped into writing, and onto the more challenging – but also more beneficial – use of conjunctions to improve the variety of sentence structures and types. Some linking phrases (time connectives for narrative; oppositional narratives for discussion) have their place, but we ought not treat them like inevitable virtues in writing.
The use of connective lists was a support device for leaping through a hoop that no longer exists. The new curriculum should be an opportunity for us to move away from them towards something that really matters.
Shortly after posting this blog, the very wise Simon Knight offered the following comment via Twitter:
[tweet https://twitter.com/SimonKnight100/status/589017510529388544 hide_thread=true]
And of course, he’s absolutely right. If we focus on developing children’s use of oral language, using those key conjunctions and useful connective phrases that come more naturally in the spoken word, then the writing will follow much more confidently. And maybe that will help us to focus on the vocabulary that actually matters, too?