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Teaching Opinion

Response: Strategies for Using Writing ‘Frames’ and ‘Structures’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 03, 2018 20 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can we use “writing frames” and “writing structures” without students feeling like they always have to do formulaic writing?

Different contributors to this series view them differently, but I would describe “writing frames” as extended “fill-in-the-blank” scaffolds, while “writing structures” provide slightly less guidance. You can find numerous downloadable examples of both at The Best Scaffolded Writing Frames for Students (you might also be interested in past columns appearing here on Writing Instruction).

Whatever your definition of them might be, however, contributors to these two columns will explore the “dos and don’ts” of using writing frames and structures in the classroom.

Today, Beth Rimer, Linda Denstaedt, Gretchen Bernabei, Nancy Boyles, Mary Shea, Nancy Roberts, and Eileen Depka contribute their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Beth, Linda, and Gretchen on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Beth Rimer

Beth Rimer is the co-director of The Ohio Writing Project at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She began her career as a secondary English teacher and now works with K-12 teachers in staff development to support literacy instruction in all disciplines. She is on the Leadership Team of the College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP) with the National Writing Project (NWP):

The structure vs. voice debate has long been argued in English classrooms. On one side, teachers value the way structure provides a roadmap for students to move ahead. Guided outlines and formulas seem to help readers and writers make sense of the way ideas are organized and connected. For teachers, they provide a direct approach with clear rules and guidelines. But, the shortcomings are all too familiar. Students get stuck in the structure, rarely moving beyond the numbered paragraphs as they struggle to find ways to fit a complex idea into a one-size-fits-all frame. Too often, it’s the structures themselves, rather than the ideas and reasoning, that become the focus.

So, how do we leverage the power of structures and not fall into the trap of letting the frames eliminate student choice and voice? One answer is found in creating a bank of possible outlines.

Central to the answer are the companion ideas that structure is everywhere and structure is a choice student writers can make. All writing, from essays to PSA’s, from manga to fairytales, have form and rules. Structure is not the enemy of voice. Instead, it is one of the choices writers make when thinking about task, purpose and audience. This then means teachers can teach students how to make that choice by creating a bank of possible structures from which students can choose.

In this process, students deconstruct mentor texts from real-world texts to create a bank of possible outlines for their writing. Younger students might do this as a whole class, while older students can do this in small groups or independently. To create the bank of possibilities, students read mentor texts representative of the writing they are doing and deconstruct its structure. Students make notes in the margin, naming the moves the writer makes in each section of the piece. When read down the paper, these moves reflect a sketch, or the outline, of the essay.

These outlines might be as simple as this one from an elementary classroom:

  1. Introduce issue with fact
  2. First thoughts
  3. New learning
  4. Revised thoughts
  5. Conclusion

Or as complex as this example of an argument text:

  1. Opening with a story
  2. Setting the context
  3. Presenting the issue
  4. Identifying the Importance
  5. Naming the opposing position
  6. Presenting the claim
  7. Providing a reason plus support

With each model text, the class builds a new possible outline to hang in the room or collect in a notebook. Writers then have a bank of outlines that are authentic, follow a line of reasoning, and go beyond formula. Students choose one that best fits their idea and the construction of their own essays begins - construction with structure and choice.

This strategy works on many levels. Not only does it provide structures to govern writing, but it also supports students in making decisions about complex organization and recognizing that there are many ways to structure an essay. Even better, once an outline exists in the classroom, students can use it for any of their writing (including test writing) and the bank of possibilities becomes a choice writers can make without a formula.

For too long, two different kinds of writing existed in my own classroom - one with structure and one with choice. However, when students have a bank of possibilities, they can have both.

Response From Linda Denstaedt

Linda Denstaedt currently serves on the National Writing Project’s College, Career, and Community Writers Program Leadership Team. Linda, Laura Roop and Stephen Best co-authored Doing and Making Authentic Literacies published by National Council Teachers of English:

Ask first: What do “real” writers do? Real writers don’t craft based on a pre-determined number of sentences or paragraphs, restrict themselves to one point of view, separate argumentative from narrative or informative. And it is also true, formula writing exists in any genre. Filmmakers embrace the Cinderella story. Poets gain skills writing sestinas, villanelles, pantoums and other forms. Novelists know the power of opening and last lines, the hero’s journey, or phrases like “it was as if” that turn the narrative. But these formulas serve as launching points that inspire invention, creativity, and ownership.

In school writing, formulaic writing defines expectations making it easier to see what is there and what is missing. What if teachers invited students to become “real” writers in any genre? What if teachers started by changing test-prep school-argument into civically engaged argument”? Possibly both students and teachers could re-see scaffolds that look like formulas as launching points for student voices.


Invention comes when students use their knowledge of a genre to give voice to their ideas. For example, civically engaged argument calls students to enter a public conversation as a writer. They read to analyze the ideas of others and to learn moves used by these writers—the same moves they will make to inform and influence their readers. They read the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, NewsELA, or local newspaper to identify and admire the moves writers make. They create knowledge by listing and experimenting with “writing structures” with similar intentions: provide background, shock and hook a reader, illustrate multiple perspectives, authorize the credibility of evidence, respectfully counter positions of others engaged in the conversation. Invention appears on the page when writers translate their knowledge to choices and decisions while crafting arguments.


Creativity comes when students stop formulaic thinking. In civically engaged argument, they stop the simplistic formulas that look for two sides in the argument. Stop immediately forming a claim and finding evidence that agrees with it. Stop adding one opposing view to raise a grade. Instead dig into informational and argumentative texts from multiple perspectives and stakeholders. This is the time for scaffolds like “writing frames” to freewrite and make sense of the ideas and voices writers encounter. Phrases to support and push beyond first-thoughts. Phrases that prompt what Gerald Graff and Cathey Birkenstein call “metacommentary.” Phrases like, “Recent studies shed light ...” or “According to (an authority), these findings challenge the ideas of ...” or “But who cares? What is at stake? Who will be impacted?” or “My point was not ___ but ___.” Possibly these phrases appear in the students’ final arguments demonstrating early reliance on “writing frames.” If students only wrote one argument, it might stay in this highly scaffolded and suspiciously “formulaic” spot. Students might lose the power of frames that urged new thinking to emerge and developed their awareness of a reader. With repeated and conscious use, writers create new writing frames that emerge as they also create thinking habits.

Living this way, some students, teachers included, might pause before labeling “writing frames” and “writing structures” as formulaic writing. Instead they might see them as authentic tools offering choices and decisions; they might distinguish them from the rigid frameworks controlling numbers and orders.

Response From Gretchen Bernabei

Gretchen Bernabei has been teaching kids to write in middle school and high school classrooms for more than 30 years. She has published several books with Corwin including Text Structures from Nursery Rhymes and Text Structures from the Masters. She is the winner of NCTE’s James Moffett Award:

* Picture the flow. Whenever adults are speaking to a group, we plan out what points we are going to cover. If it’s a meeting, we call this an agenda. If it’s a speech, we make note cards or bullet points. We move from point to point as we talk, covering them all. These are the same as frames, or text structures.

And when we are writing, we lay out what points we want to cover so a reader can follow the writer’s train of thought. Laid out horizontally like a footpath, even young writers have an almost physical understanding of how to move through the steps. Consider the structure below and ask yourself how your thinking has changed during your life.

* Take out the drudgery. Could you read the structure above and write one sentence for each box? Anyone could. This yields what we call a “kernel essay,” or a skeleton essay. If students read their kernel essays to each other, they hear for themselves whether they have something worth developing with details. Thus in very few sentences, writers see that they are on the right track. If they don’t like the kernel essay, it’s easy to change. But if they do like it, they can add details to expand each sentence into at least one paragraph.

Many teachers begin the year with a narrative, so that’s a natural place to try out this practice.

* Give them the design control. Once students have written and shared several kernel essays, they’re ready to add additional structures to their repertoire. After a class discussion about some current event, ask them to write a kernel essay using this structure.

* Give them even more choices. We can keep feeding them fish, or we can teach them to do the fishing. Give them permission to choose a structure for any writing. Some structures work for narratives; some work better for information. And the designer can tweak away. Are they speaking as a character? As themselves? (Either!) Could they rearrange the boxes to rearrange the reader’s experience? (Interesting idea! Try it!) Could a persuasive piece be written as a narrative? (Of course. It worked for Aesop and Jesus.)

For example, which of the structures above would work as a book report? When students change the pronoun to mean a character instead of themselves, an essay about a book now has design elements that belong to the students! They choose the structure that will best serve them as they talk about the parts of the book that mattered most to them.

* Use student ideas. As soon as one student asks to change the words in the boxes, you’re off and running!

“Could I change some of the words in the boxes?”


“Could I just make my own structure?”

As soon as that happens, make sure to use the student’s name somewhere on the structure you add to your classroom collection, like this one.

*Stay balanced. Teacher-assigned writing is a necessity for developing writers, but daily writing should be balanced. Let them also write for themselves sometimes. without any organization. Stream-of-consciousness writing is healthy, fills up a journal with thoughts, wishes, and rants, and provides a great balance. (It’s also an effective/sneaky place to teach grammar unobtrusively.)

Writing will never be simple, but writing instruction can be. Simplifying students’ processes can result in rich, authentic writing that the students design, for any purpose, on any occasion.

Response From Nancy Boyles

Nancy Boyles, Ed.D. is professor emerita at Southern Connecticut State University and the author of 10 books related to reading comprehension. She is the author of Reading, Writing, and Rigor: Helping Students Achieve Greater Depth of Knowledge in Literacy (ASCD 2018) and That’s a Great Answer: Teaching Literature Response Strategies to Elementary, ELL, and Struggling Readers (Maupin House, Second edition) which features answer frames for 50 standards-based comprehension tasks:

  • Some teachers hold that providing students with answer frames to guide their writing does more to inhibit good writing than enhance it. I disagree. Used appropriately, answer frames can guide both students and teachers.

    Suppose the question for written response posed to a group of fifth graders was this: After reading the poem “Harriet Tubman” by Eloise Greenfield, draw a conclusion about what motivated Harriet to risk her life to help slaves gain their freedom. Using textual evidence, show how the author developed this idea throughout the poem. Extend your answer by explaining why these details are important.

  • If students didn’t understand the question or the poem, that’s a reading issue; an answer frame will not solve a reading comprehension or academic vocabulary problem. But there are lots of students who understand what they read, but who are nonetheless completely befuddled when it’s time to put their thinking into writing. This is where an answer frame can be oh-so-helpful. Here is the frame I would give students who needed support with their answer to this question:

    My conclusion is _________________________________________

    The author developed this idea in the text through these details:








    These details show that _____________________________________



    Recognize how this frame can help students:

    • It is an at-a-glance view of what the job entails. Students quickly see there are three parts to this response: statement of the inference or conclusion, details that support the conclusion, and an extension or explanation showing why the details are significant. This structures the response for students who aren’t sure how to organize their thoughts. Moreover, the lines give students a sense of which components of the response should be short (the inference and the extension), and which should be more elaborated (the supporting details).

    • It offers syntactic guidance for students who need support with sentence construction. English learners and students with low language skills sometimes stare blankly at a question because they don’t know how to start their answer, or transition to the next part: How can I say this so it makes sense? An answer frame models this language for students.

    • Recognize how this frame can help teachers:

      • It makes assessment easier. Because the frame is segmented into three parts, teachers know exactly where to look for each component. Without the guidance from a frame, students’ lack of organization can make it difficult for teachers to pull out the critical pieces of information for valid evaluation.

      • It clarifies next instructional steps. Too often, students receive a composite score for a written answer: Full credit, partial credit, or no credit. This does little to guide either teachers or students. Instead, evaluate each part of the response separately: How accurate is the inference? How thorough is the elaboration? How insightful is the extension? Now, it’s easy to differentiate instruction to meet specific learning needs.

      • Recognize the limitations of answer frames as well as their potential benefits. Answer frames should be used with just the right students, at just the right time. Frames provide very explicit guidance—which some students simply don’t need. Even more important, students who do benefit from answer frames should be weaned from them as soon as possible. At the point of need (typically when a skill is new), frames can be a lifeline. But indefinite use of these scaffolds will lead to dependence, not independence.

      • Answer frames are well suited to analytic writing, but they are less effective for narrative. Analytic writing follows a logical sequence which makes frames perfect for writing about reading. Narrative writing, however, is more about weaving structural elements together in unique, often surprising ways. A frame will stifle that creativity.

    • The best thing about answer frames? They’re easy to design. Think about the parts you would include to answer a particular question. Convert these components to sentence starters. Then add the approximate number of lines needed for each part. Done!

Response From Mary Shea & Nancy Roberts

Mary Shea is professor emerita at SUNY Buffalo State and Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. She teaches courses in the graduate literacy MS programs. Previously, she worked for many years in western New York schools as a classroom teacher, literacy specialist, and language arts coordinator.

Nancy Roberts is a high-school literacy specialist in the Lockport City School District in New York and works with grades 9-12 in various content areas, weaving literacy skills and strategies into all curricular areas. Shea and Roberts are co-authors of Using FIVES for Writing:

Writing as composition is a process of communicating ideas, feelings, information, opinions, and more. Just as rules of civility for behavior, speeches, and conversations guide oral expressions in a society, genre structures for written expressions provide a model for organization and inclusion of content to ensure an author’s intent has been well met. Writing structures such as those for narratives, poetry and exposition are expected by readers.

For students, “writing frames” and “writing structures” are not meant to restrict; rather, they establish format that facilitates communication and comprehension. In fact, creativity within formats enhances the message delivered as well as listener/readers’ willingness to attend, consider, and be persuaded or informed. Right from the start, English/language arts instruction should teach from a stance of authenticity. That involves teaching language processes as they are expected to be used in the world and provide instruction, modeling, and guided practice that enhances meaningful ELA development.

I (Nancy Roberts) had a new student, Bobby, who struggled terribly with writing and reading. While he was very personable and had a good vocabulary, his teacher came to me with real concerns that he was not able to read or write anywhere near grade level. He soon joined one of my RTI Tier 2 groups along with four other students. His peers demonstrated/modeled decoding and the FIVES comprehension strategies. Soon realizing his struggle, his group members eagerly took it upon themselves to teach him the ABBBC strategy for writing. The next day, Bobby had written his first structured paragraph (about Friday lunch choices!) and was asking if he could write about his favorite football team the Philadelphia Eagles using ABBBC. He did this and was very proud to read it aloud just prior to their Super Bowl win. Bobby did not see the ABBBC writing structure as formulaic or restrictive. Rather, it allowed him to clearly express his ideas and thoughts.

Writing (and genre) structures are simply tools of the writing craft—one of many. The right tool for the intended outcome used interactively and efficiently with other tools increases the quality of the composition and comprehension by readers. Effective ELA teachers provide students with all the tools they need and the knowledge of when and how to use them as successful language learners and users in school and in the world.

Response From Eileen Depka

Eileen Depka, PhD is an educational consultant and an author of several books, the most recent being Raising the Rigor. Eileen has taught in both private and public school systems and has supervised and coordinated curriculum, instruction, assessment, special education, educational technology, and continuous improvement efforts. Her goal is to work with teachers and administrators to collectively increase expertise and add to strategy banks used in educational settings in an effort to positively impact student achievement:

Instead of frames, let’s concentrate on the language of the standards. The standards provide guidelines on that which is important to quality writing. The structure of the writing is tied to the purpose and audience, not a formula. For example, one of the Common Core standards for English Language Arts in grades 9-10 provides this guidance. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

  1. Introduce a topic; organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
  2. Develop the topic thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.
  3. Use appropriate and varied transitions and syntax to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships among complex ideas and concepts.
  4. Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic.
  5. Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.
  6. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented (e.g., articulating implications or the significance of the topic).

This guidance is not formulaic, yet by following these points, students are able to concentrate on that which is crucial to their ability to create a well-written work with flexibility in design and structure.

Thanks to Beth, Linda, Gretchen, Nancy Mary, Nancy and Eileen for their contributions.

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