And, but, when, although and because are some of the most common conjunctions. We hear and read them all the time, yet many students don’t use conjunctions in their writing, sticking instead to only the simplest of sentence forms and producing essays full of short, vapid, disconnected thoughts.
Conjunctions join words or groups of words to express more complex thoughts. Without conjunctions, writers can only create very simple sentences.
Adults may be surprised to learn that many students need to be taught what each conjunction means and how to use it.
But conjunctions are harder than they look. Different conjunctions set up different logical sentence structures, and kids don’t always figure this out on their own.
When students understand conjunctions and can use them appropriately, they not only write more interesting sentences, they also think more logically and have an easier time understanding what they read.
When I asked some of my students to write a sentence including the word “and,” they often wrote “sentences” like this:
Lisa went swimming, and her father drove the car too fast.
This doesn’t work, because a valid sentence contains one complete thought, not two unrelated thoughts. Kids may not realize that they can’t use and like glue to stick any two random simple sentences together!
Lisa went swimming in the polluted lake and came down with a serious illness.
This is a valid sentence because it contains one thought; the words after and provide further information that extends the thought.
Whereas and is used to elaborate on a thought, the conjunction but requires writers to build a sentence in which the two parts contrast while still being related. But is harder for students to master than is and.
Lisa went swimming in the polluted lake, but she came down with a serious illness.
This doesn’t make sense because but sets the reader up for a discordance of some kind, but there’s no mismatch between swimming in polluted water and getting sick.
Lisa went swimming in the polluted lake, but she didn’t come down with a serious illness.
Although Lisa went swimming in the polluted lake, she didn’t come down with a serious illness.
Lisa went swimming in the polluted lake, yet she didn’t come down with a serious illness.
These sentences work because but, although and yet are all contrast words, and there is a contrast between Lisa’s risky behavior and the fact that she didn’t get sick.
Picky stuff, right? To build anything but the simplest sentence, writers need to be very thoughtful about their logic, which is why so many students stick to writing those vague, telegram-like sentences.
Happily, I’ve found that students’ sentences improve quickly when I give students specific lessons and practice with conjunctions.
You can read all about the connection between writing, reading comprehension and logic in this inspiring article from The Atlantic Monthly, The Writing Revolution.
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Photo by RobertG NL