By Max Ginsberg, a Minnesota Teacher
Can a single idea bring about lasting change in an entire school?
That was the question I pondered as one of the instructors of the West Metro Leadership Academy asked what kind of change project we were going to bring back to our schools. Initially, I was skeptical, but a year later, I marvel at the transformation that occurred and the momentum it created.
The guiding question that led my change initiative was “How do teachers deliberately build academic language instruction into their students’ daily interactions?” As I wondered how many teachers at my elementary school viewed themselves as language teachers, I decided on a course of action. I would bring a concrete strategy directly to teachers to help them teach language. The strategy I chose was to use sentence frames in order to help teachers select academic vocabulary from their lessons and get students using that vocabulary in classroom interactions and writing.
Sentence frames (also called starters or stems) are parts of sentences provided to students that help them learn and use specific grammatical structures and academic vocabulary that may be higher level than they are able to produce on their own. For example, “I infer ______ because _____.” or “The factors that are most important are ____ because ______.” In the book, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, researchers and educators Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford (2011) suggest the use of sentence frames to “get students thinking and talking academically”. Other educators and researchers echo the need for additional instruction in academic language. Susana Dutro and Kate Kinsella (2010) emphasize the need for explicit language instruction by concluding
“the intentional teaching of language structures…enables students to internalize the patterns needed to express concepts, ideas and thinking”.
Jeff Zwiers, Susan O’Hara, and Robert Pritchard (2014) suggest the use of sentence frames as one way to provide language instruction to students “in easily accessible ways,” and they argue that paying careful attention to language instruction is beneficial to more than just English learners (ELs). They suggest explicitly teaching language through sentence frames and other means to all “academic English learners.”
In their 2014 book titled, Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms: Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy, they define “academic English learners” as all students who have “struggled with the ways in which school asks them to read, write, speak, listen to, or converse in academic English.” Sentence frames provide an avenue for all kinds of students to access language that may have previously been beyond their reach.
My elementary school is a kindergarten through sixth-grade building with just over 10% of the student population comprised of English learners. However, many of the approximately 650 students speak or hear more than one language in their homes. It was this fact that led a colleague to suggest I encourage teachers to use sentence frames because the benefit of increased language instruction will not only be seen among English learners but by many of the multilingual students in their classrooms.
Armed with the tangible strategy of sentence frames to share with my colleagues, I put a plan into action. I started with my fellow teacher of English learners who happily agreed to promote the idea. Next, I informed administrators of the plan to bring sentence frames to teachers in an effort to promote academic language development, but I specifically asked that they not mandate or directly ask teachers to work with sentence frames. If meaningful change was going to occur, it was going to have to be from the ground up, not the top down. My principal happily agreed and was especially thrilled with what she jokingly referred to as “free professional development” for the staff.
After meeting with administration, my colleague and I moved on to the teachers we work with directly. The EL teacher’s role in our school varies, but we have a direct impact in the majority of classrooms. We co-teach the entire class in fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade, teach lessons with just English learners in first, second and third, and pull-out kindergarteners. Regardless of the instructional setup, we regularly meet with a teacher from each grade level during a typical school week. These meetings occur before school, after school, during prep, lunchtime, or any other time we can carve out of the busy school day.
In previous years, our weekly meetings with teachers consisted of the classroom teacher telling the EL teacher the weekly plan and the EL teacher determining how to best supplement the lesson with language instruction for the EL students. Last year, this configuration drastically changed. Our weekly meetings, which were once a one-way line of communication, transformed into the EL teacher and the mainstream teacher collaborating around and identifying key vocabulary from the week’s lessons and co-creating sentence frames for both teachers to display and use throughout their lessons.
Grade-level meetings also changed. Specifically, the third grade team was looking for ways to help meet the needs of struggling students, or who educator Sharroky Hollie (2011) would classify as “underserved” students. Many of the students identified by the team happened to be ELs and academic English learners, so we suggested focusing on building academic vocabulary and discourse through the use of sentence frames. In subsequent meetings, we worked together to develop lessons in language arts and mathematics that intertwined language and content instruction through the use of academic vocabulary, images and sentence frames.
In addition to individual teachers and grade level teams, a school-wide change also occurred through the work of the Academic Language Team. I gauged interest through an all staff email and asked if anyone would be interested in sharing ideas for teaching academic language in the classroom. Immediately, a handful of colleagues showed interest, but I also had to make a few direct solicitations. In the end, the first meeting consisted of a representative from almost every grade level as well as a music and special education teacher. At the conclusion of our meeting, I asked everyone what he or she thought of the name “Academic Language Team” and the team was born. Despite being tricked into membership, all of the team members eagerly and happily continued to meet throughout the school year.
One of the main functions of the Academic Language Team was to use and promote sentence frames in their own classrooms. Through a series of meetings, the group shared experiences with sentence frames and developed an Innovation Configuration Map to help guide and create fidelity around the usage of sentence frames in our school.
Anecdotally and statistically, the focus on sentence frames has been positive. Teachers and students alike have praised the use of sentence frames, and, in particular, student writing has improved.
A number of teachers enthusiastically embraced sentence frames in their classrooms. One teacher stopped me in the library to share that “sentence frames have opened [his] eyes.” This teacher went on to say how beneficial the frames had been not only for his English learners, but for his entire class. He explained that he was getting more on-topic talk and more clearly articulated answers from his students.
Another teacher responded to a survey about sentence frames by writing that sentence frames have
“provided students who are nervous to speak more confidence in participating in the classroom and [have] also generated more academic language use in the classroom.”
Another teacher replied,
“sentence frames help kids organize what they want to say, and give them a “school language” way to say it.”
Other teachers emphasized how sentence frames provide structure for speaking and writing. One teacher wrote,
“it gives [the students] a start to organize the way they are thinking and organize it in a way that others can then understand.”
Every teacher involved with the Academic Language Team or in a co-teaching situation praised the use of sentence frames and the renewed focus on language instruction.
Students also spoke highly of sentence frames. One sixth-grade English learner responded to a survey that sentence frames helped her
“speak the right way so people can understand.”
Another English learner replied that sentence frames
“help me learn more transition words and when to use them.”
In addition to the English learners, many academic English learners and other mainstream classroom students responded positively as well. One fifth-grade student wrote,
“It gives me a clear example of what to use and write so they make it much easier to put information into a paragraph form.”
Another student wrote
“sentence frames are important in writing because they help add a level of sophistication to our persuasive writing.”
One student wrote how sentence frames are becoming automatic in her speech. She wrote,
“I think sentence frames are helpful and useful because along with using them in our writing, I started using them when I’m not at school.”
Finally, a particularly quiet student concisely summarized how sentence frames have helped him. He wrote,
“It helps me put my thoughts on the paper.”
Writing is typically the last modality of English to fully develop for an English learner, and this was the case with a fifth grade student who I had worked with for a number of years. While this student’s classroom performance began to improve this past year, his writing still lacked coherence and organization. When asked to read a passage and provide a brief summary at the beginning of last year, this is what he produced:
A couple of months later, the same student was asked to read a different passage and provide a summary once again. However, before writing, the class performed an activity where they used sentence frames to articulate the main idea and the supporting details of their passage to a partner. The sentence frames for the activity and the student’s summary are shown below:
As you can see, this student made significant progress last year. While his growth cannot solely be attributed to sentence frames, they undoubtedly helped this student to articulate his thoughts. Moreover, he showed great improvement in all areas of school and passed all portions of his annual English learner exam and no longer requires EL services.
“Sentences Frames are Not a Panacea”
Despite the positive results of using and highlighting sentence frames in the classroom, they are not a panacea. In fact, Zwiers, O’Hara and Pritchard (2014) caution against overusing frames. They say
“we shouldn’t sentence-stem-ify every single response by students”.
Rather, they recommend
“we need to find the delicate balance between providing models of language for students to practice and overdoing them so much that it bogs down real communication and engagement” .
The trio also suggests that finding the right mix of language and content instruction is crucial in creating student engagement and learning opportunities.
“In most cases, upping the amount (and quality) of language development in a lesson or activity will actually increase the engagement because it reinforces the clarity of complex concepts. But overstuffing a lesson with vocabulary activities, sentence frames for every answer and other language activities will tend to reduce the amount of engaging, enduring, and meaningful learning”.
In earlier research, Zwiers and Crawford (2011) also note the pros and cons of sentence frames.
“…[F]rames can be awkward during a conversation when students keep looking up at the wall or down at their notes to read them.” However, “when students hear [sentence frames] and practice them enough in various mini-lessons and activities, they will use them more and more naturally”.
In other words, sentence frames are a useful tool for building academic language but, like anything else, can be overdone to the point of losing student engagement.
Engaging and meaningful academic discourse can be created in many ways. The method I chose was to use sentence frames to bring more language instruction to the mainstream classroom. While there are a number of ways to make language instruction more explicit, sentence frames provided a concrete strategy to share with teachers. Sentence frames provided the “in” for the EL teacher in weekly meetings and allowed those meetings to become more collaborative and, more importantly, created more learning opportunities for our students.
As we move into the second year of implementation, I will continue to promote sentence frames, but the focus will turn to using the language scaffolds to create authentic interaction activities. We have come a long way in a single year and the future remains wide open with possibility. And to think, it all started with a single idea.
Dutro, S. & Kinsella, K. (2010). English Language Development: Issues and Implementation at Grades 6-12. Chapter 3 in Improving Education for English Learners: Research-Based Approaches. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.
Hollie, S. (2014). Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning: Classroom Practices for Student Success. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education.
Zwiers, J. & Crawford, M. (2011) Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Zwiers, J., O’Hara, S. & Pritchard, R. (2014). Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms: Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Max Ginsberg (@maxginsberg) teaches English learners at Prairie View Elementary in Eden Prairie. He has taught preschool, elementary and high school students in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Taiwan. He received his M.Ed. in English as a Second Language from the University of Minnesota after receiving a bachelor’s degree in History and Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Recently he participated in the West Metro Leadership Academy where he implemented a school-wide change project to bring academic language to the forefront of classroom instruction.