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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Writing Frames Help Students Organize Their Thinking’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 06, 2018 14 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

In Part Two, Patty McGee, Jules Csillag, Sara Holbrook, Michael Salinger and Kathy Glass shared their ideas.

Matthew Perini, David Campos, Kathleen Fad, Diane Mora, and Jocelyn A. Chadwick finish up the series today.

Response From Matthew Perini

Matthew Perini is senior director of content development for Silver Strong & Associates and Thoughtful Education Press. Matthew serves as both a contributing author and series editor for Thoughtful Education Press’award-winning Tools for Today’s Educators line of books:

Recently, my middle-school-aged daughter was sitting at the kitchen table, shoulders hunched, scowling at a laptop screen in the way that only a middle schooler can.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

She was uncharacteristically quick to respond. “If I have to write one more five-paragraph essay, I swear I’m going to puke.”

I smiled. A mistake, giving her license to continue.

“And not just a little bit. I mean everywhere. I’m going to puke all over every last---"

“OK. OK. I get it.”

And I did get it. Because if you take away the drama and the dubious threat of weaponizing nausea, you’re left with this: A young writer, one who typically loves to express herself through writing, was being turned off completely by the notorious five-paragraph essay--a genre of writing that exists exactly nowhere except in middle and high school classrooms.

Of course, knowing how to write good essays is important. While there certainly ought to be plenty of opportunities for students to express their feelings and experiment freely with ideas, not all student writing can be creative writing. We also need to teach students how to master particular essay types that are especially important to their future success.

It is in this context that the five-paragraph essay has become so prevalent: It is safe, dependable, and almost always works. But by insisting on one, single, unalterable format, it dries writing up, makes it seem as exciting as filling out a medical form.

So what can we do? Here are three quick suggestions for helping students write clearly and cohesively without inducing boredom . . . or puking at the kitchen table.

Structures aren’t strictures

Beverly Derewianka (2015) is a leading proponent of directly teaching students about text structure by modeling various text types (e.g., an explanation), working collaboratively with students to co-construct an example of the text- ype under investigation, and challenging students to draft their own representative texts. Such an approach is fully aligned with today’s college- and career-readiness standards, which highlight the importance of three text types in particular: argument, informational/explanatory, and narrative. The goal in teaching students these structures is not so that they can force all their ideas into five neatly packaged paragraphs; the goal is to help students communicate more powerfully.

Once students understand structure, they have much greater control over ideas and over the writing they produce. Importantly, they also gain some freedom not offered by the five-paragraph format. For example, if students understand the structure of an argument (claim, reasons/evidence, rebuttal to counterclaims, conclusion), you might challenge them to shake their writing up by opening not with their claim, but with a common counterclaim--and then using the rest of the essay to rebut it.

Get students interested

Use hooks and thought-provoking questions to increase interest. For example, if students are studying the American Revolution, consider building an explanatory writing task around a provocative question like “How did a ragtag militia of untrained colonists defeat the most powerful army in the world?” For argument-writing tasks, let students’ “inner lawyers” out by encouraging them to take positions on topics and issues that interest them. A student who can present a convincing argument that rap is a superior form of artistic expression to rock-and-roll is a student who can present a convincing argument, period. And don’t run from controversy. It’s a great motivator for writers.

Use tools

Tools are classroom-ready instructional techniques that a teacher can apply tomorrow to address a particular challenge. Tools make learning engaging, so that teaching students about text structures doesn’t need to be a slog. Some great tools to actively engage students in learning about text structures are found in Tools for Conquering the Common Core (Silver & Boutz, 2015). (Don’t let the name scare you if you’re not a common-core user--the book is about developing literacy skills.) Two tools of particular note are Map It Out, which invites students to visualize and “map out” common text structures, and Search Party, which challenges students to find structural elements within different text types by searching through representative examples.


Derewianka, B. (2015). The contribution of genre theory to literacy education in Australia. In J. Turbill, G. Barton, & C. Brock (Eds.), Teaching writing in today’s classrooms: Looking back to look forward (pp. 69-86). Norwood, Australia: Australian Literary Educators’ Association.

Silver, H.F. & Boutz, A.L. (2015). Tools for conquering the common core. Franklin Lakes, N.J.: Silver Strong & Associates.

Response From David Campos & Kathleen Fad

David Campos, Ph.D., is a professor of education at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in special education, multicultural education, and instructional design and delivery. He has written books on LGBT youth, childhood health and wellness, and the schooling of Latinos. He has co-authored two books with Kathleen Fad: Tools for Teaching Writing (ASCD 2014) and Practical Ideas That Really Work for English Language Learners (Pro-Ed).

Kathleen Fad, Ph.D., is an author and consultant whose professional experience has spanned over 30 years as a general education teacher, special education teacher, and university professor. Kathy’s specialty is designing practical, common-sense strategies that are research-based:

We approach the teaching of writing from our perspective as professionals who have supported students with disabilities and their teachers. As such, we consider writing frames great tools for students who have difficulty organizing information before they start writing. This accommodation works well because the end result is what teachers are looking for: an organized, meaningful, well-constructed composition.

Students who benefit the most from writing frames tend to find the blank sheet of paper in front of them overwhelming or they struggle to extend their writing beyond the basics. They simply don’t know where to start and they don’t have the tools to get started. Writing frames help students organize their thinking, plan their writing by responding to key questions about what they know or read, and break down writing into manageable steps.

We do not recommend that writing frames be used as an isolated activity or exercise. Students should have a purpose for their writing and the frame selected or designed should fit that purpose. As they learn the process for writing for specific purposes, they should be taught that the frames can be used to start their work and as a reference as they write. Gradually, the teacher can model how to write for a specific purpose without a frame.

Undoubtedly, there is the issue of students feeling like they have to respond to the frames in formulaic ways. In these instances, teachers should be honest with the students and inform them that if they are expected to succeed in higher education and/or be gainfully employed, they will sometimes be expected to write in formulaic ways, such as when tasked with writing a business letter, office memo, professional email, reports, or research papers. At the same time, teachers should stress that there can be just as many opportunities in school and work where they have the liberty to write in their own personal style, in prose, employing popular literary devices, and so forth. In other words, their writing won’t be as formulaic as the writing frames engender. Teachers should emphasize, however, that such writing still has to be focused, coherent, organized, have well-developed ideas, and so forth.

Response From Diane Mora

Diane Mora, M.A. Ed., has been teaching writing in ESL programs internationally and in the United States for 12 years. Currently, she is passionate about teaching writing and literacy skills to SLIFE students who are also ELs at East High School in Kansas City, Mo.:

Keep in mind that I teach high school SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education), so my response might not work for ESL teachers at all grade and proficiency levels.

I scaffold the formula, I don’t formulate the sentences. By this, I mean have a method of deconstructing a mentor text so that students discover how a particular writer develops his or her ideas, but I don’t pull sentences out of the mentor text, insert blanks, and insist that students simply write their own information in the blanks. I understand that might be necessary for a very short time with students who are less than a year into their language learning, but I teach Level 2 so I must move students past formulated sentences into self-expression.

One of the gifts of technology and writing is that there are so many more options for students to express themselves. They can simply write, they can add images, they can add video, they can add voice recordings, they can even still hand draw and photo it into a piece of writing. I accept all these forms because they are all relevant to how we, as a society, communicate. Obviously, there are times when I must insist on a written product because I also want my students to be successful on a test of their writing ability like EOCs and the SAT/ACT, but my first order of business is analyzing a mentor text then encouraging self-expression within the genre we are studying.

Response From Jocelyn A. Chadwick

Jocelyn A. Chadwick, Ph.D, is a former professor currently guest lecturing and teaching seminars at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, Common Core: Paradigmatic Shifts, and Using Literature in the Context of Literacy Instruction. Chadwick currently serves as the vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English and is an expert consultant for and contributor to NBC News Education:

The majority of our students write multiple times every single day. The Pew Research Center report, “Teens, Social Media and Technology 2018" (May 2018), reveals “95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online ‘almost constantly.’ ” These statistics cross cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, geographical lines--and all lines of difference as we in the United States define it. Welcome, Generation Z--the first global citizens, many of whom have never left the confines of home, community, city, state--our students.

Tweets, snapchats, blogs, Instagrams, YouTube, some consider as not real writing. These students’ prolific and conscious writing reveals a keenly different reality. So, if our students are writing constantly, writing without complaint, writing under their own impetus, writing essentially, it may initially appear without our guiding intervention, we now have two essential questions:

  1. Why are our students writing so prolifically outside of class?
  2. What can we learn and leverage from them?

This topic is near and dear to me because my co-author, John Grassie, and I have been conducting research for two years now on 1) how can we ELA teachers address comfortably our own idea and understanding of writing’s purpose within and for many contexts; 2) what can we observe and glean from our students in order to engage them so they are willingly, even eager, to engage with us? This adaptive instructional approach is not new, as Dewey, Freire, and James cited.

As a start, let’s begin thinking about our perspective on writing and of our students through a different lens--not discarding our expertise and what we bring to the table, but adjusting our lens. These tips illustrate how to begin privileging and engaging our students in re-envisioning writing.

Understanding writing’s ultimate aim: The aim of writing: to communicate. 3-5 paragraph formats bequeathed from Alexander Bain, (English Composition and Rhetoric, 1890), sought to codify writing into an easily replicable structure--a structured format that yet allowed malleability by the writer. This foundational format, however, eventually morphed into the static, often flat 3-5 paragraph essay: devoid of curiosity, devoid of exploration, devoid of discovery, devoid of dialectic.

Understanding the multiuses/tasks for writing: Part one has led, our students, and perhaps, some of us, too, into a kind of stasis where students today disassociate their own writing from what they understand to be school writing. Unfortunately, this delineation occurs in K-12, even in undergraduate school. At the end of the day, writing is writing: Its purpose, its function, its execution are not unique or discreet entities; rather, all the essential components of writing integrate and scaffold for multiple writing tasks.

Privileging our students: Our reading, experiencing, and validating the way our students write on a daily basis provides us a keenly important first step into privileging their voices, their identity, their perspectives. We dare no longer to dismiss how our students write solely because it does not look right.

How our students write and about what: The following two tweets are in The Atlantic, “The Righteous Anger of the Parkland Shooting’s Teen Survivors

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”

“Can the Left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda? My goodness. This isn’t about a gun it’s about another lunatic . . .”.

These tweets illustrate just how our students use writing not only to catch up, to chat, but also, to think, to inquire, to assert their perspective--their argumentative side. Are these not the critical reading, writing, thinking, listening, speaking, and research skills for which we aim?

The boot-camp basics of writing: My final essential tip is our sustained focus on the triumvirate of ALL writing: audience, occasion, purpose. The “parts” of writing, its aims are all grounded in and guided by these three building blocks. Our students through their own writing have mastered these building blocks instinctively to communicate to their audience(s).

Now, our challenge lies initially with understanding how to blend students’ instinctive knowledge and penchant for writing with our guided instruction to fortify them with the skills of writing for all occasions for a lifetime of purposes.

Thanks to Matthew, David, Kathleen, Jocelyn, and Diane for their contributions.

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