Are Language Frames Good for English Learners?

The question seems sort of silly, right?

Language frames, also called sentence frames, are commonly recommended and widely used as a way of providing support for English learners in oral discussions and writing. Examples include:

I agree with ______________ but would also add _____________________.

The reason I think ___________________ is because __________________.

While there are obvious benefits to scaffolding students’ language and use of complete sentences, frames should be used strategically to be effective. Sentence frames are intended to support students in producing language that they wouldn’t be able to produce on their own. The frame provides a model of language that is just beyond their current level of proficiency (a la i + 1). The following are some suggestions for using sentence frames effectively:

  • Differentiate frames to match students’ proficiency levels. Although ostensibly frames are designed to help students use appropriate academic language, they are restricting students’ expression and growth when the frames are too simple or too difficult. A frame such as, I think ______ because________, is not advancing proficiency when all students are required to use the frame during a lesson, even those at advanced levels of English proficiency, as well as English-speaking students. With minimal tweaking, teachers can provide a more simplified frame for beginning speakers and more complex sentence structures and vocabulary for more advanced speakers. Some students may not require a frame at all and should have the option of expressing themselves as they like.

 In math, for example, beginning speakers benefit from a frame such as,

The strategy I used was _____________ (counting-on, double facts, doubles plus one),

which provides sentence structure and also gives words from which to choose. Teachers might offer more advanced speakers an open-ended frame that requires them to explain the procedure on their own or make connections such as,

I solved my problem by__________. Or, Your strategy reminds me of____________.

 These frames allow students to extend their expression and use the ideas of others by linking them to solutions and strategies.

 Differentiating frames by proficiency level isn’t hard or time-consuming for teachers to do, and the effort is well worth it. Practice with the right frame may advance students’ English acquisition by allowing them to use language that is appropriate for their level.

Avoid artificial use of frames. In some classes, teachers insist that each and every student repeat a frame when answering questions or giving their ideas/opinions rather than letting students express themselves naturally. It defeats the purpose of encouraging language growth when students are required to robotically repeat the same frame. That’s not the way authentic discussion occurs. What is intended as a beneficial support ends up being a case of students simply parroting sentences. One teacher told me that she doesn’t let her advanced speakers and English-fluent students use the frames she provides for others because she found that using frames stunted the students’ expression and their flow of ideas.

  • Overuse can diminish effectiveness. The intent of frames is to provide students with support so that they can express their ideas more coherently, using correct sentence structure and vocabulary. The idea is that, after repeated use, students internalize the vocabulary and sentence structures and it becomes part of their linguistic repertoire. However, when frames are used excessively their effectiveness is diminished. Instead of being a strategic tool to add to students’ English toolkit, frames become something that students pay little attention to and simply mimic. What is overuse? Well, one example would be asking 15 primary students sitting in a circle to say one at a time,

          “Good morning__________. How are you?” The child replies,

          “I’m _________. (uses a word from a list of adjectives) And you?”

          “I’m _________. Thanks for asking.”

Having a routine using this sequence is more effective when the teacher selects a few different students each morning to practice aloud and model for the class a polite greeting using complete sentences. Or, working in partners, the class chorally practices the sequence. But, fifteen separate versions is overkill – and it takes up too much instructional time.

Language frames are valuable tools and they support English learners in expressing their ideas orally and in writing. However, they must be used strategically and for a specific purpose. Caution: Avoid sentence frame overkill as well as a one size fits all approach.


2 thoughts on “Are Language Frames Good for English Learners?

  1. Hi, Prof. Echevarria.

    Thank you for this post! It’s a great reminder that with all teaching practices, we need to differentiate for the beginning, developing, and bridging speakers. I will make the modifications to my Bathroom Brief posters.

    The purpose of these posters is to give content teachers a quick scaffold to help their ELLs. I didn’t want to overload them with too many concepts or it would overwhelm the teachers from taking action.


    On a side note, THANK YOU for all your work with the SIOP model. We’ve stopped out pull-out model and moved into the sheltered immersion model. You’ve made a significant contribution to the field, in my career, and for my students.

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