The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
Great teachers encourage students to engage in discussions. Whether it be structured partner talk or spontaneous chit-chat, these instructors know that students gain much from dialogue. The problem, in fact, is not getting them to talk. The trouble stems from trying to keep students on topic. Even the most well-intentioned partner talk can quickly devolve into random chatting. To keep conversations on track, teachers can use a structured arrangement of sentence stems.
This strategy works best with groups of students but can also be done in partners if necessary. Using a predetermined series of sentence stems, students hold a conversation about the content using those sentence starters. Moving in a clockwise direction, students typically respond to the same stem multiple times before that round comes to a close with a prearranged signal, such as a chime. The student sitting next to the last student who spoke then starts a new conversation using the next sentence stem on the list. This continues until students have worked through all the stems on the list.
Why It Works
Staying focused is sometimes harder than it seems. When given vague directions, such as, “Talk with your group about the chapter,” even the most well-intentioned classmates can wander far afield. The stems provide a point of reference for students as they talk about the content. Starting each sentence with a stem anchors them around the topic because even distracting comments will be brought back around when the next student returns to the sentence stem. It’s much more difficult to chase conversational rabbits when each subsequent student boomerangs back to the same starting point.
Students who are uncomfortable speaking, either through shyness or unfamiliarity with the topic, are strongly supported with this strategy. Instead of coming up with an entire thought to share, they simply have to repeat the stem and then add a word or two to the end. This structure makes even the most introverted student more comfortable. They know that they aren’t required to make a speech. They can instead view it as filling in the blanks, repeating the stem and inserting a few words at the end.
A hidden feature of sentence stems is their tendency to provoke deep analysis and introspection. If each group is allowed to use the same stem multiple times before moving to the next one, students will share more than once with a stem. The first time around, the answers might be shallow and simplistic. Most won’t like to repeat themselves, however, and will search for more intricate thoughts to share for the second and possibly third time they use the same stem. Allowing each round ample time to simmer before moving onto the next stem will force students to dive deeper into their responses.
Using sentence stems takes a bit of time to implement and can change based on how comfortable students are with the technique. Here are some ideas for making things run more smoothly.
1. Look at how the room is set up for student conversations. Ideally students would be able to sit in small circles, either with or without chairs, with no desks between them. The focus of this strategy is to generate a sense of familiarity between students as they answer questions about the content.
2. Consider the grouping of students. If they naturally sit in tables of four or five, are those the students you want them speaking with? Would their comfort with those students improve conversations or keep them from focusing on the sentence stems? Each situation is different and teachers should constantly monitor the dynamics between students to maximize learning.
3. Think about the scope of the sentence stems for students to use. Since these will form the backbone of the activity, they should be carefully crafted rather than thrown together haphazardly. The best stems are those that are more open-ended than closed-ended. For students to interact with these stems multiple times, they need to be broad enough to encompass a variety of responses. A general rule of thumb is to think about whether the stem, if asked as a question, would have one right answer. If so, the stem is too narrow and should be broadened or rewritten.
4. Determine the specificity of the stems. Will they be tied directly to a certain text or content? If so, they can probably only be used one time. Will they instead be more general, able to be applied to a variety of contexts? If the latter is true, the stems should still be applicable to the current situation. Some students might not be able to adequately respond to stems they find too general.
5. Decide how the stems will be provided to students. One option would be to have them written out, either posted on the board or passed out on pieces of paper. This would allow the students to be more self-sufficient but could lead to some groups jumping ahead. Another option would be to read the stems orally. Choosing this delivery method would keep the groups together but might confuse some if they are not paying attention when the stem is read. One way to mitigate this would be read the stems aloud and then display them visually one at a time.
The students in Ms. Burchfiel’s class needed some help holding powerful conversations. Too often when given the chance to discuss what they were reading or partner up to answer the chapter review questions, the students just stayed on the surface. They skimmed the pages to find the answers and often missed out on inferential thinking or deeper themes. Asking them to offer critiques of the author’s word choice or a character’s actions was like pulling teeth. If the answer wasn’t right in front of them, they struggled.
In the past her exhortations fell on deaf ears. Encouraging students to think deeper or dive beneath the surface did no good. She had a clear idea about the level their responses should reach but it seemed like she was the only one. To help move her students forward, she decided to provide her students with sentence stems for their responses. They already did a good job working together in groups. What they needed were a series of prompts to begin their responses that guided them in the right direction.
“Students, I know you enjoyed our read-aloud of There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar. You’re going to spend a few minutes talking about the book with your group. Instead of just having a general conversation, though, I’m going to give you some sentence starters. Our table captains will start the conversation for each group using the sentence starter I’ll put on the board in just a minute. Make sure your response starts with this sentence stem and try to keep your answers to 30 seconds or less so everyone gets a chance to share,” Ms. Burchfiel explained.
“When the table captains are done, the rest of the group will take turns responding, moving clockwise, all using the sentence starter. When the round is over, I’ll sound a chime and whoever is talking will finish up. Then I’ll display the next sentence starter and the next person in order will begin. If everyone in the group finishes before the chime sounds, the first person who spoke will go again and the conversation will continue. You’ll still use the same sentence starter until the chime sounds but try to provide a different answer. Are you ready?”
Ms. Burchfiel looked around the room and saw her students eagerly awaiting the first stem. She had them already written on the whiteboard but covered up with pieces of paper. Seeing that her students were ready, she revealed the first stem while speaking it at the same time.
“One way Bradley changed from the beginning to the end of the book is…”
She moved around and listened to her students excitedly begin discussing the book using the stem. The members of one group were talking over each other so she gently reminded them to take turns. Another group’s conversation was beginning to wander so she pointed them back to the sentence starter. Finally, another group was sitting quietly because everyone had spoken so she asked them to go again until the chime sounded. When the conversations began to fizzle out across the room, she sounded the chime and revealed the next prompt.
“Bradley’s animals represent…”
The quiet hum of the classroom turned into a dull roar as students clamored to share their thoughts. Ms. Burchfiel’s naturally talkative students maintained focus for longer than even she imagined possible because of the sentence starters. She even noticed that a few of her quieter students were speaking out because they felt comfortable with the stems.
One method for tweaking this technique is to vary how the sentence stems are shared with the students. They can be written beforehand on paper and distributed to each group so they have them as a reference. Another option would be to only relate them orally to the class, requiring students to pay attention and listen at the beginning of each new round. Some students would benefit from both options, hearing each stem read aloud but also reading them on the board as a point of reference.
If the sentence stems don’t need to be worked through in any particular order, a multitude of them could be written on strips of paper. These strips could be kept in a bag or a bowl and drawn out one at a time. This would randomize each round and keep the students on their toes. This method could also be used as encouragement for each group to discuss each stem with fidelity. The teacher could select one student from a group that remained on-task during the previous round to select a sentence stem from the bowl to begin the next round.
Students can also be trained to create sentence stems for review. With a little discussion about the merits of open-ended versus closed-ended stems, students could submit stems as a part of their review for a chapter or piece of text. This would give them ownership and provide them a chance to highlight various things they would be interested in discussing. The teacher could review the submissions to make sure they would work for this strategy and then place student-created stems in the bowl or include them in the master list of stems.
If a bank of sentence stems exists that students could pull from to discuss the content, students could be given some autonomy in choosing which stems to use each round. Pass out a list of potential stems to each student and give them a few minutes to read them over and circle a few they’d like to use. To begin each round, the first student selects a stem from the list and that is the one the group uses that round. At the beginning of each subsequent round, the next student to speak chooses one of the unused stems from the list for the group to use.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
This is a great oral language development tool that provides structure for student conversations. One norm that might need to be instituted for using this virtually is the use of mute. In large meetings, often students (and teachers) talk over each other when trying to converse. Through trial and error, most groups with regular meeting schedules develop a rhythm of when to speak and when to listen. For students still getting used to a virtual reality, it might be good to explicitly have students mute themselves when not speaking so they don't talk over the student using the sentence stem.
Selecting the stems can also be done randomly by using a tool such as WheelofNames.com. Students would enjoy being able to click the wheel and start their conversations with their partners using different stems. If a part of your video conferencing platform (e.g., Zoom, Meet), dividing students into smaller breakout rooms would help facilitate meaningful conversations.