Using sentence frames, sentence starters and signal words to improve language
By Erick Herrmann

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For students to be college- and career-ready, they must gain academic language proficiency. Academic language is much more than just the vocabulary of the subject area being taught. It includes understanding and being able to produce complex sentences utilizing the key vocabulary of the subject area as well as functional words and phrases that show comparison, sequencing, description, cause and effect, and more.


Do you use sentence frames, sentence starters and signal words in your classroom?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

To help students at all language proficiency levels incorporate higher levels of academic language into their speech and writing, teachers can incorporate the use of sentence frames, sentence starters and signal words with students at a variety of proficiency levels.

Sentence frames provide a frame of a complete sentence for students, while sentence starters are — as the name implies — a starter for students who must complete the sentence. Signal words are those words and phrases that clue in the reader or listener to the purpose of the message. Each of these ideas will be explored in more detail in sections that follow.

Language Functions

To begin the discussion on sentence frames, starters and signal words, it is helpful to explore the notion of language functions and their related forms. Language functions are the purposes for which we use language. These include giving and understanding directions, sharing our needs and likes, asking and answering questions, describing the world around us, and more. Each language function has related forms, or of varying complexity. These forms are the structure of language and include the complexity of the sentences as well as specific signal words that indicate the language function.

Some language functions appear more frequently in the study of academic subjects, including compare and contrast, sequencing, and asking questions. Students are often asked to compare characters in a story or important events in history, summarize a list of events and more. Sentence frames, starters and signal words can help them to be more successful in learning both content and academic language.

Sentence Frames

Sentence frames provide an opportunity for students to use key vocabulary while providing a structure that may be higher than what they could produce on their own. For example, if students are to compare two ocean creatures, they might say something like "Whales have lungs, but fish have gills." In the preceding sentence, the simple frame is "______ have ________, but _______ have _______. Note the sentence can be filled in with any content; this differs from closed sentences that often have only a few possibilities.

To increase the complexity of the sentence, we can change the frame to incorporate a different structure and higher-level academic terms. Note how the following examples increase the level of language used:
  • ___________ have ___________, however ____________ have _______________.
  • Whereas __________have ___________, _________have ______________.
  • Despite the fact that _____________ have _____________, _________ have ____________.
To develop sentence frames, think through the variety of ways you could respond to a prompt, explain a concept, etc. Texts can provide you with ideas of complex or compound sentences as well; remove the key vocabulary and look for the structure of the sentences. These can be dissected and shared with students.

Consider posting sentence frames around the room, and encourage, or even require, students to use them in their oral or written responses.

Sentence Starters

Similar to sentence frames, sentence starters provide a partial frame for students to begin their sentence or idea. However, sentence starters only begin the idea, and students must complete the idea from there. For example, students sequencing a series of events might use the following sentence starters in their oral or written summaries:
  • The first thing that happened was ...
  • After that ...
  • The following important event was ...
  • Earlier in the story ...
  • Immediately following that ...
Note the sentence starters include a variety of academic terms, some at higher levels than others. As the teacher, it is important to know the language proficiency level or each of your students. To help students move to higher levels of academic language proficiency, challenge them with sentence starters that are just above their current language level.

Signal Words

Signal words are the academic terms that signal to the reader or speaker the purpose of the writing or utterance. Signal words include transition words such as however, therefore and despite, and words and phrases specific to particular language functions. These words, often abstract in nature, can and should be taught to students in context. Similarly to sentence frames and starters, students can be encouraged or required to build these words into their oral and written responses.

Sample signal words and phrases:
  • Cause and effect: If ... then, for this reason, so, because, one reason for, thus, consequently, accordingly
  • Description and elaboration: Includes, belongs, is called, explain, for example, in other words, described, such as
Just as with sentence frames and starters, signal words can be posted around the room to promote a print-rich environment, so students are immersed in academic language. The signal word posters can be referred to as students read and discuss the topic at hand. They are also a useful reference and reminder to all in the class to ramp up the level of language used in the classroom.

Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Educating English Learners. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.