Sentence Stems: Can They Improve Your English Learners’ Discussion and Writing?

In this article, you’ll find:

  • Practical tips on using sentence stems with your K-12 English learners 
  • Free resources to help you get started (scroll down to download).

What are sentence stems and why use them?


Sentence stems are often confused with sentence frames. Valentina Gonzalez gives an excellent explanation of the difference between the two in her article Sentence Stems or Sentence Frames

Basically…

  • Sentence frames are like fill-in-the-blanks.
  • Sentence stems are like cliff hangers.

Here is a sentence frame:

  • I like to ________ on the weekends.

Here is a sentence stem:

  • I like to…

These are pretty basic, but you get the idea. The higher the grade level, the more academic the language you’ll be using in your frames and stems.

So…

Why would we use sentence stems or frames?


For English learners, sentence frames and stems can help students “punch above their weight.”

Stems and frames are simply a way of giving students the ability to express themselves in language they would otherwise be incapable of using on their own. 

English learners in countries like the United States very often lack the English proficiency to access grade level content.

Yet…

…we can’t, for instance, put a fifth grader in second grade simply because she or he doesn’t have the language proficiency for the fifth grade. 

That would condemn the student to never catching up to their grade level. 

Putting aside the fact that law requires all students to be given access to grade level content, holding a student back to such a degree would practically destroy their chances at future success. 

If we want our English learners to have a shot, we need to close the gap between their proficiency level and their grade level.

That is where language supports like sentence stems or frames come in.

They help boost up our English learners so that they can manage, at least in part, to access the same content as their peers.

How can we use sentence stems and frames to improve our English learners’ discussion and writing skills?


Yep. Language supports like sentence stems and frames are important.

So how do we use them?

There are, of course, many effective ways to implement these with your students. 

Here is a basic outline…

Here is a basic outline of a lesson plan I would recommend to help your students improve both their discussion and writing skills. (You can download this lesson plan at the end of this article.)

Before Class:


  1. Come up with 2-3 discussion questions using target grade-level academic language. (See examples below.)
  2. Come up with sentence stems students can use to answer each of the discussion questions. (See examples below.)
  3. If you have newcomers at an entering English language proficiency level, come up with sentence frames for one of the discussion questions as well.

During Class:


  1. In class, let students choose which question they would like to discuss.
  2. As a class, model discussion with that question and the corresponding sentence stems. You can assign actions to go with each sentence as with TPR. 
  3. Practice responding to the question a few times as a class until all the students are familiar with how to respond.
  4. Let students pair up and take turns asking and responding to the question. Online, they can break off into virtual rooms.
  5. Then let students find a new partner and choose whether they’d like to repeat the same discussion question or attempt a new one. (Remember. You have more than one prepared even though you’ve only practiced one together as a class.)
  6. After discussing the question(s) with a few different partners, students can choose a question they’d like to respond to in writing. 
  7. Later, you can have students get with partners again, read each other’s responses and provide feedback.

 

This structure has a number of benefits.


  1. Students get the opportunity to gain some fluency with the structures as a class before attempting the discussion with a partner.
  2. Students get plenty of opportunities to decide what they want to say orally before they need to read or write about the discussion topic.
  3. If students are lower-level or particularly nervous, they can stick with the question they have practiced a bunch. If students get tired of that question or feel it’s too easy for them, they can choose to challenge themselves with the other questions.
  4. This method helps students access grade level academic language in both speaking and writing. 

You can download a copy of this lesson plan below.

Example Questions and Stems


Here are some example discussion questions and corresponding stems/frames that come from the Kid-Inspired ESL Curriculum.

The discussion questions are based around a story where some children build a time machine and travel back to the time of the dinosaurs and World War II.

You can download the discussion lesson with these questions below.


1. Question: Compare and contrast a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a Triceratops.

Sentence Stems/Frames: _______ and _______ were both ______ that lived millions of years ago. They both… They were different in that one…, while the other…



2. Question: Make a claim about whether war is necessary or not and support your claim with reasons.

Sentence Stems/Frames: War is/isn’t necessary for three reasons. First…  Second…  third…  War is…



3. Question: If you had a time machine, where would you go and why?

Sentence Stems/Frames: If I had a time machine, I would… When I got there, I would…  Also, I would…  It would be…


Download the Sentence Stem Resources Discussed in This Article


You can download the resources discussed in this article below.

Sentence Stem Lesson Plan for English Learners

Sentence Stem Lesson Plan

You can download the lesson plan described above by clicking the button below.

ESL Discussion Teaching Resource with Sentence Stems

Discussion Lesson

You can download the Intermediate 2 Unit 7 discussion lesson from inside the ESL Curriculum Membership below. From Low-Intermediate 2 and up, there is a discussion lesson like this for each unit which lets you create a regular routine of discussing and writing with your ELs.

Let me know what you would add or change in the comments below.

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