The Sentence Frame Solution
Getting started is often the most difficult part of writing. That's true for native English speakers and English learners alike. But as is often true, what is effective instructional practice for ELs makes for effective practice for our native English speakers also. With that in mind, one solution to the writing dilemma is using sentence frames.
Sentence frames allow writers to concentrate on the most important part of writing (the sharing and communication of ideas) rather than worrying about the syntax (structure) and grammar of the sentence. For example, if you're writing a compare and contrast paper, an appropriate sentence frame might be, "(This) and (that) are alike because _________________." This allows ELs and other students to really concentrate on what they're trying to express about the comparison rather than stressing about the structure they need to express this idea. Sentence frames can be as complex or as simple as your students need.
Story starters can often be confused with sentence frames because we think we are giving students a jump-start from which they can continue. This can be a distraction for ELs in two ways: vocabulary and background knowledge. Do your ELs REALLY understand all the vocabulary used in the story starter? Let's examine a starter sentence (story starter) that was given to me by another teacher. "I walked through the red double doors of the circus and saw clowns, elephants, lion tamers, acrobats, and magicians." Depending on the language level of the EL, that's a pretty complex sentence. There's a compound predicate and a list of multisyllabic words in a series. Also, do your students have the background knowledge of what a circus is? It's easy to think our students have had the same experiences we have had, but it would be impossible to write about something we haven't experienced or about which we do not have background knowledge. Do they know what double doors are? Do they know what an acrobat is?
Additionally, a starter sentence is very different from a sentence frame in its purpose and function. Notice that after a story starter, you're still "stuck" with beginning a new sentence. That's where the anxiety starts. If you begin each sentence for your students, they are free to continue it in their own style and with their own vocabulary. For example, it would be easy to stop your sentence after the word "saw" and then they can share what they saw.
So what exactly is a sentence frame's purpose? I liken the comparison to another "frame" with which we're familiar: the picture frame! What is a picture frame, and what is its purpose? It holds the most important part of the object: the photo. Frames can be beautiful, meaningful additions to our photographs, but the TRUE reason that we select the frames is that they complement our personal style and our photographs in a way that makes sense and makes for a beautiful presentation. Much like these photo frames, sentence frames hold the most important part of our writing: the content. They provide structure and support for our writing, but they do not constitute the content/message itself.
So how can you start using sentence frames in your class? Think about the most basic structures that are used to express various kinds of writing we encounter every day. Here's a short list to get you started...
(Person) was ________ when suddenly ___________.
Cause & Effect
(This) and (that) are alike because _____________.
One way (this) and (that) are different is that ___________, but ___________.
Before I begin, I ____________.
The second thing I do is ___________.
Finally, I can ____________.