Scaffolding Writing Instruction: Why I Use Sentence Frames

When it comes to teaching, one of the most beneficial things I try to do for all of my students in every lesson is provide layers of differentiation and scaffolding so that I reach as many kids as I can. When it comes to teaching writing, one way I scaffold instruction comes in the form of sentence frames. But first, an anecdote.

I’ll never forget my first teaching job. It was a long-term substitute position teaching ninth grade English to students who were severely behind grade-level. I was still in my pre-service teaching days, and I was completely unprepared. The first couple of weeks were awful. My classroom management skills were abysmal, the kids were not cooperating, and I was beginning to second-guess my career choice as an educator. Yes, it was THAT bad.
It wasn’t until one day when I had, at the time what I perceived to be, a crazy idea. I was going to get those kids to work whether they wanted to or not….and like I said, my classroom management wasn’t something to brag about. After reading a short passage with the students, I wanted them to write a brief paragraph responding to the text. I was desperate. All earlier attempts of assigning a writing prompt in the class failed. And it failed because of me. These students were not at the level, both language wise and ability wise, for what I was assigning earlier. However, at the time, I didn't realize this.
Scaffolding writing instruction in the secondary ELA classroom. So, in response to this situation, I wrote a fill-in-the-blank paragraph on the board before class started. After reading the selection, I slowly read the fill-in-the-blank paragraph aloud to the kids and modeled different types of responses that were appropriate for the blanks. Then I asked my students to copy the example from the board onto their papers and fill in the blanks with their thoughts.
And let me tell you something: it worked!

Not only did it work, but the students ALL sat quietly and wrote their responses. They were working. They were engaged. They were demonstrating their understanding, and they were trying their best. Afterward, I had them take turns reading their responses aloud in the classroom. Again, I had 100% participation.
However, this strategy only worked because I experienced a complete failure before this victory. I wasn’t meeting my students’ needs, and I wasn’t giving them appropriately differentiated material that matched their ability levels. I just expected these ninth graders to be able to sit in their seats and write because after all, that is what I was able to do when I was in the ninth grade. That failure is one-hundred percent on me, and I own it. I was expecting work that did not match their capabilities. And, as a direct result of that, I created an environment in which the students didn’t feel comfortable. They weren’t comfortable with the work, nor were they comfortable with me. And that was a big problem!
This was one of the most significant learning experiences of my teaching career. And I am very thankful that it’s a lesson I learned early on. We can’t just teach and expect grade-level, common core work from high school students if they aren’t there. There are so many outside factors that we must take into consideration when it comes to students’ learning equations, and as teachers, we have to acknowledge and accept that sometimes things are out of both our hands and our students’ hands. So, this is where sentence frames come into play.
A student won’t know how to properly craft an argumentative claim about a piece of nonfiction text if he or she doesn’t understand how the parts of speech work together. Students can’t learn, and study, and work on mastering nouns and verbs and prepositions if outside forces, forces in which they have absolutely no control of, are working against them. There are students who are hungry, anxious, homeless, victims of neglect and abuse, responsible for the care of their siblings, and doubting their existence. We owe it to our all of our students to understand this.

We have to go back to the basics and build our middle school and high school students up, even if that means teaching concepts and skills at the beginning of the year that are five grade-levels below what we teach. By teaching to our students’ needs rather than to what the grade-level standards dictate, we can then begin to move toward grade-level skills as the year progresses. Afterall, we can't teach the quadratic equation to kids who don't understand simple multiplication.
One of the biggest reasons why I use sentence frames in my classroom is because they help every student. Sentence frames are not just for our EL and below-grade-level students; they benefit every single learner in the classroom. And yes, I even use them with my college-bound juniors and seniors because sentence frames model concise writing and help reinforce academic writing.
As educators, we are more well-read than our students. We’ve read works by many different authors of varying abilities and have seen how authors craft their stories and arguments. Our students, not so much. It is our job to teach them how to engage with, understand, and respond to a text.

Some teachers may shy away from providing students with sentence frames because they may believe that in doing so, the work is becoming “too easy” or “too watered down.” However, if it is what our students need, shouldn’t we be doing it? Giving our students structure and sentence frames isn’t diluting the work. It’s not watering it down, and it certainly isn’t making it too easy. It is teaching them how to respond. A sentence frame provides our students with the structure they need to help them get their thoughts from their brain onto their paper. Sentence frames don’t tell students what or how to think, they show them how to structure their ideas logically.
As time goes on and students utilize sentence frames in class, you’ll begin to notice that students stop using the frames verbatim and start adding their own style to the frame. This is progress. As even more time goes on, you’ll notice that some of your students won’t use the frames you provided them with, but that they were able to write loosely within the structure entirely on their own. This is learning!
As a result of this learning experience, I created my differentiated writing responses for literature. For each writing topic, I created two handouts -each with a different level of differentiation. The level with less scaffolding guides students through the response and helps students organize their thoughts. The handout with more scaffolding provides a series of sentence frames to help students learn how to write academically about the literature they read. These organizers were game-changers in my classroom. Not only did I create generic scaffolded writing prompts for every piece of literature, but I also created some for specific works of literature: Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, and Lord of the Flies.

I believe so much in sentence frames and providing students with differentiated writing scaffolds that I am sharing this differentiated writing task with you. Click HERE to download a sample writing assignment that you can use in your classroom with any piece of fiction. This is a direct excerpt from my Differentiated Writing Tasks for Any Text resource, and I know it will help all of your writers, not just the struggling ones.
Here are some of my favorite sentence frames to use in the classroom. These can be used menu style where students create their paragraphs by selecting which frames to use, or you can use them for specific responses.

Sentence Frames to Talk about a Text:
According to _________, one reason why _____________.
Furthermore, __________ argues that ___________ because ___________.
As stated in the text, _________________.

Sentence Frames to Talk about Literature:
In the short story, the author describes ____________.
After ____________, the main character then _______________ which ____________.
The theme of the story is fully developed when __________________.

Sentence Frames to Agree with Evidence:
Confirming with ______________, further evidence shows ________________.
Similar to _____________, __________ also suggests _______________.
Likewise, ____________ also states ______________.

Sentence Frames to Argue or Disagree:
Even though __________________, there is evidence to believe that _____________.
While __________ states that ____________, contradicting evidence from __________ proves that _______________.
Despite ____________, _____________ argues that ________________.

Additional Resources for Scaffolding Writing
Sentence Fluency by Stacey Lloyd
Narrative Writing by Addie Williams
Literary Quote Analysis by Nouvelle ELA


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