Transitions and Structure (Martin)

Resource Author:

Will Martin


Allyson La Borde

Resource Description:

Software / Hardware

Second half of exercise requires a computer for each student, with a recent version of Microsoft Word.

Assignment Description

Rationale and Goal

Inexperienced writers often write essays that lack transitions between paragraphs, or between ideas in the essay. This exercise is intended to draw their attention to such transitions. The goal, of course, is to improve the students' writing. By making them aware of transitions, we encourage the students to begin using them in their own papers.


The basic approach consists of two steps:

  1. Rearrange the paragraphs of an essay in a random order;
  2. Ask the students to reconstruct the original order of the essay based on the ideas and transitional phrases.

Exercise 1: Ferris Bueller

It's best to start with an essay which has a definite structure and prominent use of transitions, to give them a clear example to work with before turning to their own papers. The attached Ferris Bueller Activity (in both RTF and PDF file formats) works well. The files contain a six-paragraph review of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" written by Roger Ebert. The paragraphs have been randomized, and each one labelled with a letter (A, B, C, D, E, F). The original order is: F C B A E D.

Distribute copies of this as a handout and give the students a few minutes to read through it. Then you can discuss their conclusions. What order was it originally written in? Based on my experience in class and Allyson La Borde's comments, the students are usually able to correctly determine the original order of the body paragraphs, but often reverse the positions of the introduction and conclusion.

I've also noticed that students tend to assume that since the essay is a movie review, it has to begin with the opening credits and go through the movie's events in a linear order. They are sometimes flustered to discover that the review was not written this way; the director's name does not appear till the last paragraph. You can use this to point out that there is no One True Order which is the only way to write. Ebert could have written in a linear fashion, but didn't. So why'd he choose this particular way? What other ways might he have chosen? This can lead to useful discussion of other potential structures he might have used (beginning with the ending, beginning with the largest climax, beginning with audience reaction, etc).

Exercise 2: Students' Essays

Having run through the Ferris Bueller exercise, the next step is to turn to the students' own essays, rearrange the paragraphs in those, and then have them swap essays. This can be done by having each author cut up a printout of the essay, and then hand it to another student; however, in the CWRL we can automate that part of the process using a Word macro. I've written such a macro. It's a modified copy of a similar macro produced by one "mindmetoo" posted in a forum (see: Mind Me Too's original script, used by permission). The source code for my modified macro is attached (see the attached file When I used this macro in my class, the most difficult part of the process was getting it installed on each computer. So I've produced automated installers for both PC and Mac labs in the CWRL. They may well work in other labs also, but the cautious instructor should test them well in advance to be sure.

Installing the RearrangeParagraphs Macro in a PC Lab

  1. Before Class:
    1. Download
    2. Extract Rearranger_Installer.exe from the zip file (in Windows XP, just double click the ZIP file and then drag the EXE file out of it to a handy location).
    3. Put a copy of Rearranger_Installer.exe into your teacher folder where students can get to it easily.
  2. In Class: Each student needs to
    1. Quit Word if it is open.
    2. Open the teacher folder.
    3. Download a copy of Rearranger_Installer.exe (drag to desktop).
    4. Double-click Rearranger_Installer.exe
    5. Click "Next," then click "Install," then click "Finish."

Installing the RearrangeParagraphs Macro in a MAC Lab

  1. Before Class:
    1. Download Rearranger.dmg.
    2. Put a copy of Rearranger.dmg into your teacher folder where students can get to it easily.
  2. In Class: Each student needs to
    1. Quit Word if it is open.
    2. Open the teacher folder.
    3. Download a copy of Rearranger.dmg (drag to desktop).
    4. Double-click Rearranger.dmg. The computer will mount the disk image.
    5. Double-click the newly mounted disk image (disk labelled "Rearranger") to open it.
    6. Double-click "Rearranger Installer."
    7. Close the disk image window.

NOTE: running these automatic installers will reset any changes to the Microsoft Word settings. If you need your students to set any preferences in MS Word (eg: typing in their own name in the User Information) then have them do it after you've installed Rearranger.

Running the RearrangeParagraphs Macro

Each student needs to:

  1. Download a copy of their own paper to the desktop.
  2. Open the essay in Word.
  3. Select all the paragraphs in the essay (excluding heading and bibliography).
  4. Select Tools -> Macro -> Macros (or, in Windows, press ALT + F8).
  5. Find "RearrangeParagraphs" in the list of macros and double-click it (or select it and click Run). The macro will create a new document and paste the selected paragraphs into it in a random order.
  6. Close the original essay window.

If you attempt to run the macro without selecting anything, it'll tell you that you need to select something, and then it'll exit. If you attempt to run it with only one paragraph selected, it'll tell you to select more than one paragraph before running it, and then it'll exit. When you have multiple paragraphs selected, it'll copy all of them, rearrange them, open a new document, and paste them in the rearranged order.

A current limitation of this script is that it does not preserve formatting (double-spacing, bold/italic/underline, etc).

At this point, the rest of the exercise is straightforward: have each student move to a new computer and attempt to reconstruct the essay's original order. The last step would be to return to their own original computer and see how their partner did at reconstructing the essay.

Transitions are a fairly advanced topic; as a result, it's probably best to leave this lesson till near the end of the term. Also, it's a fairly complex lesson, so keep an eye on the time. If you spend too much time on one stage, then you may end up rushing through the others.


I'd like to thank Allyson La Borde for providing both the basic idea of rearranging paragraphs, and the original Ferris Bueller activity. The script for the RearrangeParagraphs macro is also heavily indebted to the work of the pseudonymous "mindmetoo." All I did was take these different parts and put them together for use in a computerized classroom. Thanks to both of them for their contributions.