Sentence Frames in Inquiry

I’ve been asking students to use more sentence frames to structure writing in inquiry. I’m trying to strike a balance between giving them freedom to write in ways that allow them to express themselves while also giving them structure to work within.

For example, a few weeks ago, students had to make two diagrams–one depicting how light from a stoplight would enter a pinhole camera with a small hole and large hole. I asked students to use the following sentence frame to describe each feature of their diagrams.

In the _________ part of my diagram, I am showing how __________. This is important to show, because __________________.

Then to compare and contrast their diagrams, I asked them to write.

In my first diagram with the small hole, you can see how __________. The reason I think this happens is because,_______________________________.

In my second diagram with the large hole, you can see how __________. The reason I think this happens is because _______________________.

One reason I have found this useful is because it helps students to think about their diagrams in an dialogic way. You try to craft your diagrams to actually show things you care about, but you also let the diagrams speak to you to tell you things you might not have known. Another reason I have found this useful is that it makes it easier for students to read each other’s work, because it’s in an easily comparable format. Third, it significantly reduces the number of assignment that are way off the mark.

In a recent assignment further exploring blurriness, I gave student freedom to begin their writing assignment, but the assignment had to end with and lead up to the following sentence frame:

To me, a clear image is made when ______________________________, and blurriness happens when ___________________________________. Based on my ideas, in order for a lens to change a blurry image into a clear image, a lens would somehow have to ________________________________. I’m notsure if this is right, but it might make sense because ___________________.

In this sentence frame, I’m trying to get them to think about implications of theory. We have five different theories of why a large hole causes blurriness, some that seem quite different and some quite similar. The theories are

(1) A big hole is like a lot of small holes. Since a small hole places a clear image, multiple small holes would make multiple clear images that are juxtaposed. Those images being in slightly differently locations makes it like you are seeing in “double vision”.

(2) A big hole allows light to expand and spread out more. When light expands and spreads out, it loses it’s clarity and the intensity of light weakens.

(3) A big hole allows in too much stray white light. This stray light “whitewashes” the image making it fade, which is why it looks blurry.

(4) A big hole causes light from one point on an object to land in a “blobspot” rather than a precise location. Large “blobspots” make for a bad image in the same way an old TV with large pixels.

(5) Same general idea as #4, except blurriness is caused by overlapping “blobspots”. It’s the overlapping of of blobspots that makes it look like a blob rather than an image.

On the assignment, students were supposed to elaborate on and diagram their favorite theory (or combination), but I wanted them to start thinking about implications. If blurry is “too much light”, what might a lens have to do to make in unblurry. If blurry is “too big of blogspots”, what would a lens have to do to make it unblurry” Etc. In getting them to think about implications of their theories for lenses, I’m hoping to prepare them for transfer as move to talking more about the eye. 




10 thoughts on “Sentence Frames in Inquiry

Add yours

  1. Brian, have you seen the book “They Say/I Say: The moves that matter in persuasive writing”? It’s a very good little paperback on the productive use of writing templates. Check it out.

    1. My lizard-brain/gut might agree with your sentiment, but my experience this semester does not. Looking at quality of student writing this semester, I think having this kind of structure has helped otherwise struggling students get a foot in the door, while also helping otherwise successful students to frame a better argument. For my assignments, the sentence frame part is just small bit of the writing assignment, so it’s not like students don’t just “fill in” the blanks with a few words. Students typically submit anywhere from 750-2000 words of writing per week, depending on how much of the their thinking they off-load to diagrams. I do not think that my sentence frames are ideal (this is my first semester using them), and I’d bet I need to give them more writing templates rather than sentence frames; but at the moment I’ll take higher quality learning and higher quality writing, than worry about concerns that this stuff is for 6th graders.

      1. If they are doing 750–2000 words a week, I wouldn’t worry about a small amount of formulaic writing. That seems like a pretty high writing load for a high-school class or a college class that is not a writing class—do they have any time for their other classes? That load is higher than most college freshman composition courses, though typical for higher-level writing courses. It is a bit high for a course whose main focus is not on writing.

    2. From “They Say, I Say,” by Graff and Birkenstein: “In our view the templates in this book represent the stock in trade of sophisticated thinking and writing, and they often require a great deal of practice and instruction to use successfully… Creative forms of expression depend on established patterns and structures. Most songwriters, for example, depend on a time-honored verse-chorus-verse pattern, and few people would call Shakespeare uncreative because he didn’t invent the sonnet and other dramatic forms that he used to such dazzling effect. Even the most avant-garde, cutting-edge artists need to master the basic forms that their work improvises on, departs from, and goes beyond, or else their work will come across as uneducated child’s play.”

  2. So, I looked into word counts more closely. On assignments where diagramming is more heavy students range from 350-1250, with most between 400-600. On assignments with less diagramming as an emphasis, students range between 600-2000, but most are between 800-1200. I’d say this inquiry course emphasizes writing heavily–developing scientific ideas and explanation, engaging in argumentation around evidence/reasoning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: