Do you feel like you are pulling teeth trying to get students to answer a question during lessons? When teaching, I often felt like I was talking to an imaginary classroom with imaginary students. I would ask a question and wait for a response to what seemed like forever (more like 10-15 seconds). Finally, one brave student would attempt to answer the question but stumble with forming their response, and we are back to the awkward silence. There are several reasons why students may experience challenges with expressing their ideas verbally in math class.
We are going to assume that students have something to say but don't know how to say it. Have you ever had a thought or feedback advice in a meeting but stumbled with formulating it into a clear, coherent statement? I sure have. Sometimes many ideas are running through our heads, that it becomes difficult to focus on the central concepts or to link the thoughts in a conversational manner. When most people experience frustration, confusion, or overwhelm, they shut down and say or do nothing. We can help students overcome this challenge by providing sentence starters.
As mentioned, students may struggle with expressing their ideas or linking related thoughts verbally. Sentence stems/starters is an instructional technique that helps students effectively communicate by offering students the opportunity to answer questions in the form of a complete sentence. Sentence stems help students get started sharing their ideas through speaking or writing while relieving the pressure of thinking about how to form a thought.
Sentence stems can be used when students are:
- engaging in a math discussion with a peer.
- practicing the use of academic language.
- sharing their thoughts on how to solve a particular problem.
- reflecting on a math concept recently learned.
How to use sentence stems in math class?
Share a list of sentence stems with students in advance. I have seen teachers post a few stems in their classrooms in a visible place. Some teachers choose to have students put sentence stems on the front or back of their notebook for easy reference. Either way, students need to know how to access this support tool when needed.
Model how and when to use sentence stems. Just because most middle school students have seen a fill in the blank type sentence does not mean they understand the purpose of a sentence stem. Take time to review some sentence stems and share examples of when to use each stem. Model asking a question and using a sentence stem to respond.
After modeling how to use sentence stems in math class, allow students to practice having conversations with the starter phrases. Start with simple non-academic phrases such as "I like to ____ on the weekends because ____" to provide a low barrier to entry for participation. Transition students to using sentence stems in an academic context by finding a math problem that has multiple ways to solve it. Ask students to use the following sentence stem "One strategy I could use to solve this problem is to ____" to draft a response.
It is not enough to introduce sentence stems one time and expect students to use them without prompting. Teachers must consistently encourage students to refer to their resource when necessary.
Start by introducing a few sentence stems to your students. Save the infographic below for immediate access to twenty-five sentence stems to use in your math class.
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Next steps: Reflect on your current classroom environment. What is one way that you are using sentence stems to cultivate a community of academic risk- takers? What is one new strategy that you plan to try to increase your efforts?