All words are powerful, but some words have superpowers. Consider words and phrases that indicate relationships between ideas, like also, however, as a result, in addition, for example, and in contrast. These are signal words, and they are sentence superheroes.
The ability to identify and understand the meaning of signal words is like having X-ray vision while reading. With a solid foundation of signal-word knowledge, students can build a framework for new ideas and information by reflecting on what they just read and anticipating what might come next.
1. Traffic Ahead!
Review the concept of a signal word: a word or phrase that gives an idea about what we might expect to come next, just like road signs or traffic signals that let drivers know what's coming up. Then, discuss the purpose of each type of signal word using the chart below for reference. Finally, write signal words on sticky notes and give one to each student. Have students arrange themselves in groups based on the purpose of their assigned words.
Getting students up and moving has been shown to strengthen learning, improve memory, and boost motivation. In addition, the collaborative aspect of this activity will pay off when students peer-edit their writing.
2. Construction Zone
Provide partial sentences and have students underline the signal word. Then, have them complete the sentence by adding information based on the meaning of the signal word (e.g., I thought I was late for school, but ____ ). Students can share their sentences and discuss the type of signal word. This activity encourages students to think creatively about the meaning of each signal word. Although it is primarily a writing task, sentence completion engages thought processes similar to those used when making sentence-level predictions based on context clues while reading.
3. Speed Limit
Explain to students that when they are reading, they should slow down when they see signal words and think about what is coming next. The same advice applies when students are writing, but be careful—not all signal words are equal, even those in the same category. Some words and phrases cannot be substituted directly for others in a sentence. To reinforce this idea, display the sentence Emma loves strawberry ice cream; however, she dislikes vanilla. Then, present another signal word from the same category, such as although. Have students rewrite the original sentence using the new signal word.
Encourage students to record examples of signal words in texts and in their own writing. These sentences can be used in activities such as this one to give students a sense of agency in building comprehension skills.
4. One Way
Display sentences, or pairs of sentences, that include signal words. Include examples that make sense (Robert loves to ski. Moreover, he enjoys snowboarding during cold weather) and examples that do not (Angela is a great friend to Helen. In contrast, she is a lovely peer to Greg). Students should decide whether the signal words make sense and explain why they do or do not fit. If the signal word does not fit, they should replace it with a new word.
By exposing students to non-examples of signal word usage, this activity clarifies the specific meaning of each category.
5. Scenic Route
Display an interesting photograph for students, along with one sentence about the photograph. Then, provide a specific signal word for students to use to write a second, related sentence about the photograph. Students can share their sentences in a class "signal word museum."
Many students benefit from having a visual prompt—a photograph or an object, for instance— to reinforce abstract concepts such as time, comparison, and contrast. The sentences generated in this activity can also be used as story-starters.
Convinced yet that signal words really are sentence superheroes? Writers use these words and phrases to tell readers how ideas are organized and what is important to know—but signal words aren't limited to classroom texts. In fact, you can model the use of signal words when giving directions to students, talking about content-area concepts, and guiding class discussions. The more your students are exposed to signal words in writing and in everyday speech, the more they will begin to recognize them and use them on their own.