Figuring Out the Why of What/How/Why


Underlying all of these acronyms is the idea that if we just give pupil’s a structure, the ideas will flow and the knowledge will unload itself into the frame. And this has some validity and use. 

In particular, when dealing with pupils that struggle to get their thoughts in clear sentences, who feel overwhelmed when faced with a big task, giving sentence starters is a lifeline. They might get to their lined paper and freeze, not knowing how to start- so they need something to fall back on. PEE, PETAL etc and can be that lifeline. The real issue is when an intended scaffold actually becomes the base.

Sentence starters become sentence enders. “I know this because” becomes ingrained and “this is demonstrated by the quote” strangles the beautiful language they may be analysing. Clunky, is what I’ve called it to students past and present. Structure, guidance, scaffolds are all things that novices need. But while practice makes perfect, it also makes it permanent.  

What/How/Why is seen and promoted as an antidote to that. General questions of how to talk them through the thinking, how to model the writing rather than the staid ‘this quote mean’- but the issue still remains that for pupils that struggle to write, they won’t be able to take advantage of the general probing questions that allow for exploration and confidence of language- they need the structure of sentence starters, they need the guidance of making sure their analytical paragraphs have clear topics, evidence and analysis– but how do we move them beyond the very basic foundation?

Figuring out a ‘We Do’

Modelling is what we’re told. Just model, model, model and kids will pick it up. So, that’s what I did. 

I made an exemplar and said, okay, this is what I’m going to use as my model’. But I ran into a wall– pupils couldn’t move from my example to their own, the gap was too big. I had modelled my thinking, had students think it through with me, annotate my model, but somehow I still expected them to get the same confidence with language without explicitly practicing it. Their ability to speak about the poem was great- it was clear they understood what Duffy was doing- but ultimately, I had to revert to the simple sentence starters ‘this is shown in the quote’ for their independent practice, because I was met with too many blank stares..

So here’s what I’m thinking- teach them content and style, one bit at a time.  Let’s look at two examples , one using traditional sentence starters (that I’ve been guilty of using and teaching) and another one using sentence frames from They Say/I say**

Swipe to see the other example

What differences do you notice? 

Both are perfectly fine and acceptable. One is a good example of how to use your knowledge of the poem and fill the sentence starters with knowledgey stuff from the poem . The other one in my view, reads like the writer has a stronger grasp of how language works. That they are more confident in their analysis. That they have tools and frames to manipulate at their will. 

Given this, what I’ve tried to add in my teaching of writing is using, modelling, and adapting what I call sentence frames rather than starters. Starters indicate ‘start it this way’ whilst with frames, it lets students know that they can edit them, change them, and make them fit to what they’ve written and where a certain frame might fit.  See a few examples here:

I encouraged pupils to change one sentence in their paragraphs or analysis u one of the frames as a stretch opportunity to take their writing and complexity to higher levels, and most students want to take advantage. One sentence at a time is much less daunting, and the chance of success is higher than if they redraft entire paragraphs. I was met with questions like, “miss, can i change this one to say x?” and miss, “would it make sense to rearrange this to say y?”. They not only knew the poems we studied, but they were learning how to write with style and confidence. 

Ultimately, I’d want no students to be using ‘this is demonstrated by the quote’, but some will still need it and there’s nothing wrong with having a fallback option. I am just wanting to support writers beyond GCSE and help them gain confidence in using their voice. 

I’m on twitter


** This book is a bit expensive to get in the UK, but I’ve also attached the sentence templates here so you can use and adapt them. It’s a work in progress, but I’ve got about ⅓ of all the templates copied so far. Check back or bookmark the document to see additions as I make them. 

** another example I’ve used is with conclusion sentences:

Conclusion sentence original: In conclusion,

Conclusion sentence from They Say/I Say: These conclusions, which x discuss through ___ , add weight to _________________. 


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