All connectives are not equal

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 but however 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, whenbecause and eventually suggested althoughon 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.

'Also' is used 30 times as often as 'Furthermore'

‘Also’ is used 30 times as often as ‘Furthermore’

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 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?

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13 thoughts on “All connectives are not equal

  1. suecowley 17 April 2015 at 11:55 am Reply

    Totally, totally agree with this. You cannot write well using a ‘paint by numbers’ approach – writing has to come out of self expression and simpler is often better (and typically harder to do). So much of what we’re being asked to do at schools seems designed to teach children how to write *badly* rather than well. Also, there is the danger that these approaches probably turn children off the idea of writing as a pleasurable activity.

    p.s. I don’t think I have ever used the word ‘furthermore’ in a book!

  2. cazzypot2013 17 April 2015 at 1:00 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. chrisanicholson 17 April 2015 at 1:41 pm Reply

    Absolutely agree with this. However (see what I did there!), many of the more sophisticated connectives are actually primarily useful in academic writing, rather than the more casual non-fiction or story writing that dominates many schools. A heavy focus on story-writing, with academic writing almost completely neglected, even in years 7 and 8, was certainly the experience of both of my daughters, in two different schools. Yet they were still expected to be able to write in an academic style by the time they reached GCSEs. I have had to teach academic writing to both of them myself, to varying degrees.

    To your reasons for why children struggle to use these connectives appropriately, I would add that many children rarely actually READ any examples of academic writing (the kind you used to see in textbooks before they became snippetised).

    • Michael Tidd 17 April 2015 at 1:50 pm Reply

      I appreciate your point entirely – but I would argue that the cause of the issue you cite is exactly this sort of teaching. Children being introduced to academic language at the age of 9 won’t help them to understand and use academic writing at 15. The problem is, having been bombarded with vocabulary for years, without clarity about purpose, that the average 15-year-old isn’t clear about when to use the various vocabulary they’ve been taught.
      The issue is not unique to connectives. Again, teaching Y7 I used to find that children struggled with more academic forms of writing (such as essays) because they had too often been taught to throw flowery descriptive language at everything that just wasn’t necessary or appropriate for essays.
      The problem is not leaving things too late, but rather in trying to do too much too soon, in my opinion.

  4. teachwell 17 April 2015 at 10:18 pm Reply

    I think what is really needed at primary level is more training of what is a good piece of writing at age appropriate level. I agree with you whole-heartedly that getting children to use higher level connectives is a bit pointless as they are rarely appropriate. Plus the books they read do not contain these (for good reasons!!) and so they are never reinforced except on a pyramid!! Also I feel that there are too many genres being taught at primary school and none of them get embedded. I have been teaching Year 5 and started off with instructions – despite being taught every year since Year 1 the children still don’t have the hang of this… shows that breadth should be achieved over the course of a key stage or throughout primary school rather than every single year.

  5. julietgreen 17 April 2015 at 10:30 pm Reply

    Does it point to a deeper problem in terms of artificial criteria supposedly representing progressive stages in development? These were everywhere in the old curriculum and to some extent in the new.

    • Michael Tidd 17 April 2015 at 10:59 pm Reply

      Unquestionably! And is hopefully something we can start to move away from as we try to embed more of a ‘mastery’ approach

    • ficklepickle 15 June 2015 at 9:18 pm Reply

      If I have a tick list of criteria for summative writing assessments, which I do, and one of the criteria reads something inane like “shows at least 5 examples of ambitious vocabulary”, which it does, I am doing the child, myself, the stats, the school, uncle tom cobbly and the man in the moon a disservice if I don’t insist on the children using flouncy words to express a moment, when simplicity is sometimes more effective.

      or “uses a wide variety of punctuation for effect” – another one guaranteed to get me to encourage children to include unnecessary rhetorical questions, or crow bar in parentheses so that they can score points, get a better score and make the stats look good.

      when my assessment gets moderated, as it does, colleagues seem to revert to the easy option of black and white “how many ticks is that worth” marking, assessing each element in isolation and not really trying to see the writing as a whole piece.

      I have children who write evocative, thought provoking, highly readable, intelligent and enjoyable work. but they don’t press all the right point scoring buttons.

      and this frustrates me.

      I’m in Scotland so the whole process seems to be even more self-inflicted.

  6. Jason Wade 18 April 2015 at 9:02 am Reply

    I completely agree with the sentiment of the blog post; we really do need to build a more subtle and nuanced understanding of connectives in our schools. The term ‘connective’ as a catch all term for a varied group of words (coordinating, subordinating and correlative conjunctions, relative pronouns and adverbs, conjunctive adverbs).

    Chilfren are often taught them as a homogenous mass and use them as one. They don’t understand that you simply can’t replace but (a coordinating conjunction) with however (a conjunctive adverb) when, using your example:

    I looked down at my feet however I couldn’t see my shoes beneath the mud.

    is grammatically incorrect and should be:

    I looked down at my feet. However, I couldn’t see my shoes beneath the mud.

    (I know many grammarians who would think that incorrect too – I’m not one of them)

    or even…

    I looked down at my feet; however, I couldn’t see my shoes beneath the mud.

    And children are taught that starting with coordinating conjunctions is wrong, when good writers use it all of the time. I think in many instances the sentence below might be the best way of connecting the two clauses:

    I looked down at my feet. But I couldn’t see my shoes beneath the mud.

    Children need to understand several things if they are to successfully conenct their ideas smoothly, with increasing variety and subtlety.

    1. How the different types funtion (some come between the clauses that they, some can come before both clauses that they join, other link back to previous clauses)

    2. How they affect the tone of writing (some are showier and more formal – it’s these that should be used with more care)

    3. The subtle difference in meaning (don’t get me started on children using yet for but completely inappropriately)

    But I do think that much of this can be taught (the last one is tricker – the subtle differences between but and yet, nevertheless and however, although and even though, etc.) at KS2.

    It does, however, require good subject knowledge and an understanding from the teaching profession that ‘fancier’, ‘longer’ and ‘more’ doesn’t equal ‘better’ when it comes to writing.

    (Don’t get me started on having children shoe horning adjectives and adverbs ito every space in their writing in a futile and misguided attempt to ‘uplevel’ their writing.

    • Jason Wade 18 April 2015 at 9:04 am Reply

      And that teaches me not to proofread what I write.

      The second senrtence should, of course, read:

      The term ‘connective’ as a catch all term for a varied group of words (coordinating, subordinating and correlative conjunctions, relative pronouns and adverbs, conjunctive adverbs) is crude, unhelpful and too often leads to their misuse.

  7. splozza11 19 April 2015 at 10:48 am Reply

    Reblogged this on splozza11.

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