Why You Should Be Supporting Your English Language Learners with Sentence Frames

Why You Should Be Supporting Your English Language Learners with Sentence Frames

As educators know, communicating in the classroom promotes stickiness of concepts and academic vocabulary. Yet, in nearly every classroom, English language learners (ELLs) often struggle to communicate their feelings, ideas, and thoughts because they are not confident about how to phrase things. You may notice that your ELLs don’t raise their hands to answer questions in class or don’t provide input when working with a partner or a group. The struggle to communicate can stymie both content mastery and academic language acquisition in ELLs, widening the achievement gap between them and their native English-speaking peers.

Improving outcomes for ELLs continues to be an important topic in education and even more so as of late, as federal requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) require an English language proficiency (ELP) indicator in all state plans. One scaffold that teachers can use to help their ELLs communicate more clearly and confidently is using sentence frames.

A sentence frame is a structure with fill-in-the-blank words created for your students to use as a starter to answer questions. Sentence frames can be used for any subject, including math, science, history, and English. For example, an ELA sentence frame for retelling a story could look like: “I think that Bob ____________ his mom because____________.” A math sentence frame for studying decimals and describing how the number can be broken apart could look like: “There are ____________ ones and ____________ hundredths in 5.41.”  

Sentence frames are a great starting point for ELLs to begin forming answers on their own because they aren’t having to think about how to correctly phrase an answer and they can instead focus their cognitive effort on the academic content.

Here are some benefits of the use of sentence frames in the classroom:

  1. Sentence frames clarify the instructions.

 By providing the students with a structure for their response, they’ll already have an idea of what is being asked of them. Remember, ELLs may not understand every word of the instructions, so the sentence frame gives them a better idea of the response you are expecting.

    2. Students can focus on learning the content.

 Even when ELLs understand the instructions and the type of response they should give, they may still get stuck when it comes time to produce a response because they aren’t sure how to phrase it in English. With sentence frames, students can focus on the content because the correct sentence structure is already written for them.

   3. Students learn English sentence structure and grammar.

 In addition to being able to focus on the content, when using sentence frames, students will also pick up on correct English grammar and sentence structures to use in the future. ELLs can learn more easily by good modeling and repetition.

   4. Classroom conversation is enriched.

 Once students feel confident speaking up in class, they will start to do it all the time. Sentence frames are a helpful tool when you are looking to get discussions moving in the classroom because they give students a place to start conversation and share opinions.

 Creating Sentence Frames

To create a sentence frame, start with the end goal in mind. What are you wanting your students to get out of using them? Before creating your structures, decide what your focus will be. Do you want your ELLs to learn specific vocabulary or just learn how to structure an answer? Once all of that is decided, consider their language level and what type of sentence you should present them with. Next, go ahead and create the sentence structures, leaving blanks where you want the students to provide their thoughts. Use simple structures and words with beginning ELLs, and make the language more complicated as students become more advanced. Finally, creating a word bank can be especially helpful for students in the early stages of English-language acquisition.

For example, if I were a teacher currently focusing on vocabulary, I could create a few sentences with blanks where I want them to insert the words we are learning. Let’s say that my students are learning the words “adopt” and “absorb.” To use sentence frames, I would create some structures where my students can fill in the vocabulary words:

  • ____________ means to soak up something.
  • ____________ means to take in and take care of a person or animal.

As my students would begin learning the vocabulary, I could add new sentence frames to give students context or simplify a specific one into a general frame to be used across content areas.

  • You can use a paper towel to ____________ a ____________.
  • My family will ____________ a ____________.
  • ____________ means to ____________.


Looking for more strategies for working with English language learners? Check out our blog posts on preparing ELLs for high-stakes testing and supporting ELLs in a mainstream classroom.