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Signal Phrases: Enhancing Clarity and Coherence

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Supported with input from
Natalie Wexler
Updated on
Modified on September 28, 2023
Quick Takeaway
Signal phrases serve as meaningful transitions between an author’s ideas and a source’s words, enhancing clarity and coherence. They come in three types: Attribution (crediting authors), transition (linking ideas), and explanation (clarifying concepts). These phrases are essential in education for boosting comprehension, critical thinking, and correct citation practices. They also uphold academic integrity.

Maintaining clarity and coherence is crucial when it comes to effective writing. Signal phrases play a critical role in achieving these objectives by guiding readers through the text and connecting ideas seamlessly. By using signal phrases in their writing and understanding their significance, students develop essential skills and contribute to a culture of academic excellence and integrity.

Teaching students to write credible and informative content can be challenging but with a focus on signal phrases, effective writing can be developed. 

Signal phrases enhance the quality of written content by providing smooth transitions from a writer's words to a source's words. They create a boundary between the writer's words and credit the original source.

Let's explore the significance of signal phrases, how to use them, and why.

What Are Signal Phrases?

Signal phrases are introduction phrases in writing that indicate the first time a quotation, paraphrase, or summary of another author’s work is mentioned. Signal phrases ensure ideas flow smoothly and contribute to the overall clarity and coherence of the text.

When incorporating external sources into students’ writing, they should use signal phrases to attribute the ideas or information to the original authors. By integrating signal phrases, writers demonstrate engagement with existing literature and show respect for the contributions of other scholars when summarizing someone else’s work to enhance their own.

The Importance of Signal Phrases in Writing

Signal phrases in academic writing allow writers to give credit where credit is due. By incorporating them, writers credit existing literature to its source and in turn, maintain academic integrity. If writers do not give recognition to the direct source, it would be considered plagiarism. 

Signal phrases also act as signposts for readers, helping them navigate the text and understand the relationships between different ideas. Signal phrases indicate someone else is able to contribute to the same ideas, which can paraphrase the content being presented. This also adds variety and sophistication to a writing style, making it more engaging for the audience. Purdue University has a variety of online resources to check out. For in-person guidance, a writing center or workshop is an interactive way to work on signal phrases. 

Education writer and author Natalie Wexler states in a podcast for EDVIEW360, “It’s not that kids don't want to write. It’s that they haven’t been explicitly taught how to do it. And once you show them how to construct a sentence and how to put a paragraph together, what I’ve heard is that reluctant writers often become eager writers.”

Types of Signal Phrases

Understanding the types of signal phrases allows writers to choose the appropriate one based on their writing goals and context of their work. There are three types of signal phrases: Attribution signal phrases, transition signal phrases, and explanation signal phrases.

By delving into each type, writers can develop a deeper understanding of how to incorporate signal phrases seamlessly into their writing and create a well-structured and engaging piece of work. Writing format will also indicate which verb tenses you will use for your signal phrase verbs. When writing in MLA style, signal phrases should be in present perfect tense, while APA style should be in past tense.

Attribution signal phrases are used to attribute a particular idea or information to a specific author or source. They help establish the credibility of the source and provide clear attribution by “tagging” the author through the use of the signal phrase. 

Common examples of signal phrases are:

  • States
  • Claims
  • Disputes
  • Supports
  • Illustrates

Transition signal phrases help to smoothly transition between the writer’s ideas and the information from external sources. Transition signal phrases indicate there is a sequential order to the ideas or statements made. These words help the writer connect concepts, support arguments, and improve the overall flow of the writing.

Give these transition signal phrases a try:

  • Currently
  • Until now
  • Since
  • Yet
  • Eventually

Explanation signal phrases are used to introduce an explanation or clarification of a concept. They provide additional context and help readers understand complex ideas or terms.

Common explanation signal phrases are:

  • Such as
  • Specifically
  • Primarily
  • In fact
  • For instance

Benefits of Using Signal Phrases

Using signal phrases in writing offers several benefits that contribute to the overall quality, effectiveness, and conciseness of the text. Clearly, they differentiate between the writer’s ideas and information derived from other authors, which prevents confusion and ensures a clear understanding of the source of each idea. Using signal phrases to acknowledge the contributions of other scholars also helps writers demonstrate academic integrity and respect for intellectual property, as well as avoid risk of plagiarism. 

Signal phrases help writers assist readers in following the flow of the text and grasping connections between their own arguments and supporting evidence. They help the writer keep thoughts organized and sentences flow cohesively as opposed to having repeated citations throughout the text. Strategically incorporating different types of signal phrases allows writers to vary their language and sentence structure, making the text more engaging and impactful.

Advanced writers looking to defend a position or provide a counter argument can try these signal words:

  • Emphasizes
  • Analyzes
  • Endorses
  • Speculates
  • Recommends
  • Contends
  • Concedes
  • Refutes
  • Criticizes
  • Disagrees

As Wexler said in the podcast for EDVIEW360, “One problem is that writing’s really hard. So, if you ask kids to write at length, it just becomes harder. But often kids don’t just pick up the conventions and grammar, the syntax of written language just on their own, just from reading.”

The Role of Signal Phrases in Education

The role of signal phrases in education is crucial, because they serve multiple purposes in academic settings, such as enhancing students’ reading comprehension, promoting critical thinking, fostering academic integrity, and encouraging effective research and citation practices.

In-text citations of the writer’s reference should include the author’s name and publication date. Depending on the source material, the writer could also hyperlink it within the citation. Direct quotations require quotation marks, the page number, and often the title of the source. Citation styles vary in their requirements. APA style and MLA style are common types of styles, and both have a style guide for reference. Whether you write in APA or MLA citation styles, the most important thing is that you cite an outside source correctly.


Signal phrases are invaluable tools to enhance clarity and coherence in writing, as well as to give credit to outside sources to maintain academic integrity. Signal phrases are key elements of quality writing. 

If you’re looking to help your students find success in each phase of the writing process, Step Up to Writing® is a powerful writing program that is not only compatible with any core curriculum, but is also designed for all K–12 learners. Learn how to help students understand the importance of each step in the writing process with Step Up to Writing.

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