Sentence Frames and 
Sentence Starters

Student writing sentence

Sentence frames and sentence starters are "fill in the blank" phrases and sentences that provide the structures or patterns that students need to express themselves. This strategy is part of Colorin Colorado's ELL Strategy Library and can be used to support academic language development for all students.

Strategy Overview

How This Strategy Supports Language Development

Sentence frames and sentence starters are a helpful way to support students' academic language development both in their writing and speaking by prompting students to discuss content with more complex structures and thinking. Using these structures allows students to focus on the content concepts or skill without providing the answers. They also indirectly teach how content-specific language appears in context.

Sentence frames can be used for writing and in discussions. For example, the target concepts might include:

  • Mechanical: Punctuation, paragraphing, capitalization
  • Grammatical: Tenses, subject-verb agreement, articles, prepositions
  • Discourse: Agreement, disagreement, persuasion
  • Purpose: Comparing, drawing conclusions, citing evidence

Step-by-Step Instructions

Before presenting a sentence frame to students: 

  • Explain what the sentence frame is and how you'll be using it.
  • Show students if the sentence frames are posted in the classroom or in their materials for reference.

In order to create a sentence frame that fits the type of response you are looking for, follow these steps:

  1. Write or say a model response to your question or prompt. 
  2. Analyze the structure of the sentence(s) in that response. Look for sentence structures that meet the language function (argue, explain, inform, narrate, justify, describe, etc. of the prompt or question).
  3. Write one or more sentence frames to support students.

Lessons Learned

  1. Keep sentence frames open enough so that students have options for completing the frames.
  2. Provide frames with the most common structures or patterns for the language function in the prompt. For example, in order to compare two concepts, students will need words such as "both," "also," or "similarities."
  3. Give students a choice to use the frame or try their own way of expressing themselves.
  4. Listen to students during a discussion. If they need support using academic English or more complex sentence structures, offer a sentence frame on the board or a sticky note. 
  5. Reduce or eliminate the frames when students can speak and write precisely using content-specific language without them.

  6. Keep in mind that sentence frames can support students' discussion skills by providing phrases they can try when agreeing, disagreeing, or adding onto a classmate's comment. See more in Developing Students’ Discussion Skills.

Co-Teaching Considerations

Content or Grade-Level Teacher

  1. During a co-planning session or in shared lesson plans, write a model response to a question or prompt.
  2. Include key vocabulary and expected sentence structures for the grade level and prompt.

English Language Development Teacher

  1. Create leveled sentence frames based on the model response. 
  2. Write the frames on the board during the lesson to support students during discussions or written activities.
  3. Listen to students as they discuss and add or remove frames as needed.

How to Differentiate by Language Level

Differentiate for different language levels by creating some basic frames and other more complex sentence structures that structure output for specific language purposes.

Here are more specific examples:

PromptDifferentiated Frames
Describe the main character in the story.

Entering/Emerging: The character is ______.

Developing: I think the character is ______ because ______.

Expanding: I can infer the character is ______, since she ______.

Compare plant and animal cells.

Entering/Emerging: Plant and animal cells both have ______.

Developing: Like the plant cell, the animal cell also contains ______.

Expanding: Some similarities between the plant and animal cell include ______.

Explain how you solved the problem.

Entering/Emerging: First, I ______. Then, I ______. Finally, I ______.

Developing: I solved the problem by ______. After that, I ______. My last step was ______.

Expanding: My first step in solving the problem was to ______. Then I ______, in order to ______. To get the result I ______.

More Examples

Prompt with a thinking verbPossible sentence frames
Compare ___ and ___.

•There are several similarities between __ and ___ such as ___, ___, and __.

• ___ has ___, while ___ has__.

Describe a ___.

• ___ has ___, ___, and ___.

• ___is ___, ___, and ___.

• Some characteristics of __ are __.

Discuss ___.

• One perspective is from ___, who believes that___.

• Some believe ___, while others suggest ___.

Summarize the text, video, or concept.

• The main idea of ___ is ___

• Basically, this text/video/concept is about ___

Grade LevelExamples

The character is ______.

I like to eat ______.

My favorite ______ is ______.

Middle School

Like the plant cell, the animal cell also contains ______.

I solved the problem by ______. After that, I ______. My last step was ______.

I agree with _____ because ______.

High School

My first step in solving the problem was to ______.

Then I ______, in order to ______.

To get the result I ______.

Videos: Sentence Frames

In this video, Ms. Samantha Kirch demonstrates the ways she uses informal assessment to gauge student understanding, as well as the kinds of support offered to ELLs who need some extra practice with the concept of drawing conclusions. A related video features ESOL specialist Sheila Majdi explaining how to use sentence frames.