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In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Writing Frames Are the Recipes of Writing’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 05, 2018 13 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

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?

In Part One, Beth Rimer, Linda Denstaedt, Gretchen Bernabei, Nancy Boyles, Mary Shea, Nancy Roberts, and Eileen Depka contributed 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.

Today, Patty McGee, Jules Csillag, Sara Holbrook, Michael Salinger, and Kathy Glass share their ideas.

Response From Patty McGee

Patty McGee is the author of Feedback That Moves Writers Forward (Corwin Literacy) and a literacy consultant with Gravity Goldberg LLC. Patty brings a vision for creating learning environments where teachers and students discover their true potential and power. It is in the moments when teachers are working collaboratively with students that Patty sees great growth, change, and success:

There is a difference between structure and formula. Structure is the architecture of a writing piece, built with the overall message in mind. Formula is a predetermined framework that a writer must plug words into. Structure (not formula), one of the few qualities of powerful writing, is used in service of the overall meaning. How can a writer use structure over formula? Choice is the answer.

Many student-writers are used to having a structure handed to them and begin to believe that writing is about inserting words into a formula. When a writer realizes there are a variety of structures out there that they can choose from, and consider the overall intention or message of their piece and choose a structure to suit it, formulaic writing is realized ineffective.

Take, for example, the many structures a writer may use to create a narrative piece. Formerly, many believed that there was a “story mountain” structure to all narratives. But when we look at the many structures Kurt Vonnegut has identified, play around with the structures to see which enhances the overall meaning of the piece, the writer chooses structure that benefits the writing.

Feedback That Moves Writers Forward, Patty McGee 2017

When writers play around with the structures above while considering the message they are looking to communicate, a structure becomes part of the power of the writing. Choice is key!

Response From Jules Csillag

Jules Csillag (@julesteaches) is a licensed speech-language pathologist, consultant, writer, and adjunct professor who works in New York City. She is the author of Differentiated Reading Instruction: Strategies and Technology Tools to Help All Students Improve (Routledge, 2016):

When I first started cooking, I used recipes and meticulously measured every teaspoon, tablespoon, and 1/4 cup. I made sure I always had thyme if a recipe called for thyme and cardamom if the recipe called for cardamom. As I got more adept at cooking (or maybe just less adept at shopping for specific ingredients), I would occasionally use a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon and swap cinnamon and nutmeg for cardamom. All that to say, that gradually, my cooking now includes fewer recipes and more chopped-like improvisations.

Writing frames are the recipes of writing. When students are starting out, there can be many reasons that their writing doesn’t come easily: Sometimes, staring at a blank page is daunting. Sometimes, they aren’t sure exactly what is expected of them. Sometimes, writing tasks are reading reflections, and students may not have understood what they had read. Writing frames provide a structured support to let students know how to begin, what to focus on, and what a response can look like.

Writing frames need not be limiting, however. They can stimulate thinking with a well-chosen conjunction. For example, words like “first,” “next,” “then,” and “last,” signal to students that they need to write a sequence of events. Compare and contrast tend to be more challenging for students (Peterson-Karlan, 2011), so writing frames here can include words like “although,” “but,” “unlike,” or “however” to signal to students that they will need to write two opposing viewpoints. Including these kinds of keywords also positively influences students’ ability to write more complex sentences, which is of the seven recommendations for effective writing instruction put forth by Dr. Steve Graham (2008).

Writing structure is even more freeing than writing frames, and an essential part of writing instruction. Most articles follow the same structure, most narratives follow the same structure, etc. This does not mean that every article “reads” the same, but similar conventions tend to be followed. Writing structure does not create formulaic writing, unless you think every novel you’ve ever read is the same and thereby formulaic. Teaching writing structure makes writing more approachable for students and makes them more strategic writers, which is another recommendation for effective writing (Graham, 2008). Moreover, teaching writing structure supports students’ writing fluency (Abdel-Latif, M.M.M, 2012), quality of writing (Graham & Perin, 2007), and even reading comprehension (Graham & Hebert, 2010).

All in all, it is our responsibility as educators to give students the recipes for various types of writing, so that they can eventually use their ingredients more independently.

Response From Sara Holbrook & Michael Salinger

Sara Holbrook is a novelist, poet, and educator with a multitude of books for both teachers and students under her belt, including The Enemy: Detroit, 1954, which won the 2018 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. She works with Michael Salinger to help K-12 students across the states and around the world develop writing, public speaking, and comprehension strategies.

MIchael Salinger is a poet, performer, and advocate of poetry and performance in education. With Sara Holbrook, he co-founded and directs Outspoken Literacy Consulting, an organization that runs programs to help K-12 students develop writing, public speaking, and comprehension strategies:

Great question! We help students structure their pre-writes in order to enable purposeful and creative expression in their actual writing. By using a structured pre-write -- a framework -- students are engaged in writing, re-reading, researching, and collaborating in order to express their understanding of content-area knowledge, literary elements, and personal reflections.

According to Stephanie Harvey, “We must support students with round-the-clock opportunities to practice what they are trying to become -- confident, capable readers and writers. Why? Because the best way to learn to read and write is to read and write -- a lot, every day, voluminously.”

Enthusiastic agreement on the necessity of voluminous writing is what brought the three of us together on our newest collaboration, From Striving to Thriving Writers: Strategies that Jump-Start Writing (Scholastic, 2018). In this book, we offer a wide variety of frameworks to guide student-directed learning, engaging students in writing by providing them with both choice and predefined linguistic and content-area objectives. We offer three key strategies that engage students in writing about their learning with purpose.

The purpose of writing with purpose:

Set clear objectives at the beginning of the writing lesson, such as: Today we will practice using similes in order to write about electricity (or a social studies, math or language arts topic). Students immediately recognize the purpose of the writing lesson. They engage in harnessing the power of the literary element because it is not being taught in isolation. Instead, it’s immediately applied to their content-area learning. Our goal is not writing for publication as much as writing to express understanding. Kids get it.

Provide guidance for organization and structure before writing. We offer students graphic organizers (GO sheets) to guide their research and collaboration. Discussion promotes learning (Boulder, 2009). Directing this discussion is imperative in order to achieve the objectives of the lesson. A GO sheet gives students independence, guidance, and a reason to talk about their learning. The subsequent writing then becomes an artifact of this collaboration. Note: A GO sheet is NOT a worksheet. It is a reference to sit beside students as they create text. A worksheet is completed once all the blanks are filled in, over and done. A GO sheet is a starting place.

We also co-construct to model the writing process. Not just the first version, but we also work together to modify the text into a second and maybe even a third version. Students go into their writing process with an “I can do that” attitude. After all, they already have done it with the class.

Title each initial piece of writing Version 1. We want to build in the expectation that this is an evolving document. The concept of going from a first draft to a polished text is too big of a leap for striving writers, especially. We use the word “draft” as a verb. In creating a Version 1, we forgive ourselves for mistakes and free ourselves to take risks. Nothing makes us happier than to hear paired writers exclaim, “Oh, just write it down. It’s only Version 1.” Students are so enthusiastic about this, sometimes they get competitive: “What version are you on? I’m on Version 7.” We applaud that!

As writers ourselves, we greet every piece of writing with the expectation that this thing is going to evolve, never quite sure exactly where the process will take us. Like video games and computer programs, writing “levels up.” As students play with words and write with purpose, they instinctively see the advantages of adding, subtracting, and substituting words, while employing various sentence structures to communicate their message precisely and concisely.

Su, T. (Ed.). (2009, January 1). CU-Boulder Researchers Show Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on ‘Clicker’Questions. Colorado University Boulder Today. Retrieved from https://www.colorado.edu/today/2009/01/01/cu-boulder-researchersshow-why-peer-discussion-improvesstudent-performance-clicker

Harvey, S., et al. (2018). From Striving to Thriving Writers, Strategies the Jump-start Writing. Scholastic.

Response From Kathy Glass

Kathy Glass, a former teacher, is a national presenter and hands-on trainer for K-12 audiences in areas affecting curriculum and instruction. She is the author of many books including her most recent one written with Robert Marzano, The New Art and Science of Teaching Writing (Solution Tree, ASCD, 2018). Invested in increasing educators’ capacity, she assists them in honing their craft so they translate what she teaches to effective classroom practice. Website: www.kathyglassconsulting.com; email: kathy@kathyglassconsulting.com; twitter: @kathytglass:

Ideas for Using Sentence Frames in Writing

Teachers often use sentence frames within instruction to support oral and written language skills. During discussion about a text, posing a frame can prompt students to gain deeper meaning, respond to each other respectfully, and foster elaboration, for example: “In hearing ___’s comments, I learned more about. ... Or: ____ shares a good point; however, another way to look at it might be. ... Or: I agree with ___ because. ...”

In writing, sentence frames assist students by scaffolding targeted skills. They serve as a useful tool for some students, such as struggling learners, younger writers, or English-language learners. Frames can also benefit all writers when learning how to incorporate elements into their work that represent new learning in a certain grade level, for example, weaving counterarguments into an argumentation essay or using transitional phrases to seamlessly connect ideas. With the former example, secondary students acknowledge an opposing viewpoint and address it formally to further their own argument. As a starting point, teachers can present this sentence frame to orient students to this characteristic element: “____ believes ____; however, the weakness in that is. ...” Then they introduce a variety of alternatives so students can expand their repertoire of ways to incorporate counterarguments, such as using Counterargument Sentence Frames available in this link. By providing options, students can choose the frame that best fits their topic and sources, plus it shows that writing does not need to be formulaic. To prepare elementary students for an argumentation, teachers can access the sentence starters in this link to frame opinion papers.

Aside from using sentence frames to target an element of a genre when teaching writing, teachers can also incorporate frames by using a pattern book as a model for students to demonstrate understanding of content. As featured in The New Art and Science of Teaching Writing (Glass, Marzano, 2018), Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book (1977) can serve as an example of this strategy. In her book, Brown writes about several topics with key details about each one in poem format, such as this stanza that is written in her style.

The important thing about a leaf

Is that it is green.

It blows in the wind, and is shiny,

With a smooth glossy texture.

But the important thing about a leaf

Is that it is green.

Teachers can create frames using her pattern, as shown below, and repeat the middle sentence as needed to capture key details. When using this template, teachers need to emphasize that lines one and three consist of one-word responses, but the middle line or lines include phrases that explain what makes the topic distinctive.

The important thing about a ______ is that it is _______.

It _________ and __________,

But the important thing about a ______ is that it is ________.

Although sentence frames provide a structure for students when learning to improve their oral language and writing, the goal is to eventually remove this support so that students can generate conversation and writing on their own in response to a prompt or task. It might not be until later in their school years, but teachers need to be cognizant that removing this scaffolding will help students become more independent and proficient in the long run.

Thanks to Patty, Jules, Sara, MIchael, and Kathy for their contributions.

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