If you're wondering how to use sentence frames with your high school students, I've got great news: there are multiple ways you can incorporate sentence frames, and they are incredibly effective. Sentence frames are a key component to scaffolding writing instruction, and one of the best tools I've found to guide students in the process of crafting their work.
What Are Sentence Frames?
First, what are sentence frames? Essentially they are “templates of language” or “ready made chunks of language” that allow students to create a well-written sentence because the right amount of scaffolding has been provided (Carrier 2005). I’ve found many academic articles on the use of sentence frames with English language learners, but I don't think they should be limited to ELL classrooms. I have found them highly effective with my native speaking English students from 9th grade all the way to 12th grade AP.
One of my favorite ways to use sentence frames is in grammar instruction, which I'll go into more detail about in a minute. But if you want to go ahead and jump right in, grab this free unit on parts of speech, which has some fantastic mentor sentences and uses sentence frames to guide students toward powerful writing.
Using sentence frames allows students to truly understand what you are talking about when it comes to writing. Instead of telling them the concepts of what they should put in a thesis statement, you SHOW them a partially-completed thesis statement and give them a chance to complete it. They feel like they have done the writing (which they have), and they feel like they are able to nail it because they have just the right amount of structure. Over time, they'll start to internalize these frames and write their own strong sentences.
How To Use Sentence Frames
So what exactly am I talking about, and how do you get started using these? Let me give you five ideas.
1.) Use sentence frames when teaching the concept of topic sentences.
Although most 9th and 10th graders have some grasp of the need for a topic sentence in their paragraphs, they usually need help writing a strong topic sentence. Students might not know how to connect the topic sentence to the thesis statement, they might not realize they are offering a plot summary and not actual analysis, or they might not know how to make it “sound good.” All of these problems can be addressed when you use sentence frames.
By showing students examples of a few strong topic sentences and then giving them a sentence frame, they can fill in the blanks with their own topic and analysis. This is scaffolding in its truest form because it breaks down a big concept into smaller pieces which leads to mastery.
For instance, if you are starting the year by teaching The Odyssey and you want your students to write a paragraph about ways in which Odysseus reveals his strengths, try giving them a sentence frame like:
Odysseus reveals his ______________________ (mental or physical) strength by _________________ and _____________________.
Although this structure is great for 9th graders, I have used it all the way up to 12th grade. Here’s a sentence frame I gave to a class of seniors earlier this year when we studied Tortilla Curtain:
Using a sentence frame still requires students to work. It should take a while for a student to think about their topic and what analysis they’d like to say about it, but the beauty of the sentence frame is that it gives students a way to be successful. If they can complete this sentence frame they will quite likely have written a strong topic sentence.
2.) Use sentence frames when teaching thesis statements.
If you can use a sentence frame for a topic sentence you can use it for a thesis statement. Whether you are teaching research essays, analytical essays, or a position piece, a sentence frame should be your right hand man when it comes to making your expectations clear. I have found the sentence frame especially effective when guiding students to move beyond the 3-prong thesis to more fluent and complex thesis statements. For instance, instead of having students use a 3-prong thesis statement to discuss Romeo’s strengths and weaknesses, I would use something like this:
3.) Use sentence frames for grammar instruction.
I first saw the beauty of sentence frames when I began teaching grammar with mentor sentences, which you can read more about here. Sentence frames are perfect for showing students how they can begin writing like the greats. Give students a sentence from a published work, and then give them a sentence frame that is set up in the same structure as the mentor sentence. This allows students to focus on a single grammatical concept while structuring the sentence in a way that they likely would not do on their own.
Here’s an example of an eerie mentor sentence from Alexandre Dumas' The Man In The Iron Mask that showcases vivid verbs followed by the sentence frame which guides students toward using their own vivid verbs.
You can actually get this whole lesson on vivid verbs free here.
This is a no-prep lesson that has all the scaffolding built in for you, including mentor sentences, sentence frames, and writing prompts!
4.) Use sentence frames for discussion.
Sentence frames or sentence stems are amazing if you want to amp up the quality of your class discussions. Move students from the “I agree” or “I disagree” framework into more advanced responses and openers. This can be a great way to start class to just flesh out any confusion, or use them in a 45 minute Socratic seminar. Here are a few you can try on for size:
I appreciate how _______ (student’s name) noticed ___________; I hadn’t thought about that, but I also wonder ____________________.
I thought _______ was one of the most confusing parts of the chapter, and I wonder if anyone else could shed light on what they thought the significance was there.
I’ve noticed a motif of __________________ in the book and I wonder what the significance might be.
5.) Use sentence frames for end-of-the-semester evaluations.
If you’re not already asking your students to evaluate your class and your teaching at the end of the semester or school year, please do. It can be incredibly encouraging. You might feel like students don’t notice or don't care how hard you’re working, but usually, they do. This gives them a chance to tell you. Of course it can also allow them to bring up anything they think should be different about your class, and that is great! I mean we can’t really preach a growth mindset and not work on growth ourselves, right?
Here are a few sentence frames you can use on your end-of-semester evaluations:
Once I started using sentence frames in one area of instruction, I began to see how they could be applied to SO MANY areas of instruction. Have you given your students sentence frames or sentence stems? If so, how did it go? I’d love to hear from you!
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Carrier, K. A. (2005). Supporting Science Learning Through Science Literacy Objectives for English Language Learners. Science Activities, 42(2), 5-11. doi:10.3200/SATS.42.2.5-11
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