Writing Frames are a Recipe for Success

Last year I was given a class of struggling middle school writers. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I needed to provide them with even more scaffolding than usual. This is when I began using a lot of writing frames.

At first, I was worried that the kids would become too dependent on the frames. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that providing students with a writing framework is the same as giving someone a recipe.

My students needed that recipe to bridge a growing achievement gap.

Why Should I Teach Using Writing Frames?

Some teachers might argue that writing frames and sentence stems hinder creativity blah-blah-blah… Believe me, I get it. I was one of them! But now I’d like to ask you to consider this analogy.

If you want to make Grandma’s Presto-Pasta Sauce, I’ll give you her recipe. You’ll probably follow it pretty closely the first few times you make it, right?

After that, it’s likely you’ll experiment with it. Maybe you’ll add some extra garlic, or fresh basil, or dill-weed. (I don’t recommend that, lol.) The point is that you will start out with Grandma’s sauce and then you will change it and make it your own.

It’s exactly the same with writing frames and templates. Once kids understand the required structure, organization, and language, they can experiment and make the recipe their own.

Kids aren’t floundering, making the same mistakes in structure and wording. There is no doubt that students become stronger, more confident writers when they start with writing frames and practice using the right text structure and the correct academic vocabulary words.


RACES Writing for Text-Dependent Prompts

For several years, I’ve been teaching my 5th – 8th graders the RACES method of writing text-dependent responses. RACES offers a structured way of organizing a short response. And you know how I LOVE my acronyms! (Can anyone say SLIME?)  RACES is successful because it not only requires textual evidence, it also requires an explanation or analysis of the evidence.

Here is the acronym:

  • R- Restate the prompt
  • A- Answer the question or address the topic
  • C- Cite textual evidence from the passage
  • E- Explain how the evidence supports the answer
  • S- Sum it up

If two pieces of text evidence are required, students respond using RACECES, repeating the C and E parts.

We practice RACES all year long, and I encourage kids to write the letters RACES on their paper and then check off the letters as they address that part. I also put up a huge bulletin board with academic language sentence stems, and I suggest that they use those stems in their response.

Why Students Need Writing Frames

Most students find success with RACES. Unfortunately, I still always had a few kids who continually neglected to explain. I call this “evidence dumping.” It happened despite my best efforts, which include rubrics, checkmarks, and walking around the classroom reciting, “Don’t take a dump at your desk.”

Middle school kid humor, friends.

I had other students who vaguely paraphrased the evidence, instead of citing passages from the text.

Those struggling writers needed more than a graphic organizer. They needed structure and they needed a specific recipe to follow and learn from. Writing frames were exactly what my students needed.

Scaffolding with Writing Frames

This is an example of how I started using writing frames. Then I’ll explain how I scaffold lessons so that students don’t become too reliant on the frames.

First, we read an Action Magazine article about Alcatraz, and I asked students to write a short response on this prompt:

What made Alcatraz a good prison for violent criminals?

I started out just giving kids lines to write on. While some did a fair job, others wrote something like this student’s response:

Alcatraz was a good place for a prison because it was on an island. It was hard to get to.

I went through the rubric with them so they could see what was lacking, and then I handed them a RACES paragraph template. Below is one student’s revised paragraph. The framework part is bold.

Alcatraz was an effective prison for violent criminals for a few reasons.  According to paragraph 4 of the article, it was built “…on an island surrounded by rough, shark-infested waters.” This detail shows that the location made it hard for prisoners to escape and if they tried they would probably die. 

The bold part of the writing frame shows how I guided students toward the answer.

After using writing frames specific to the prompts, I eased students into general RACES templates with sentence stems that are not specific to the prompt. This required kids to fill in the answer, evidence, and analysis.

Then I graduated to giving them the RACES acronym on the paper so that they are reminded to check off the letters are they write their response. I differentiate by offering this page to the more proficient writers.

Improvements I Notice

The results have been amazing! For the first time, I no longer have kids leaving out parts of the response, writing vague details, or  “evidence dumping.” They’re also using academic vocabulary words. However, the most important result I’ve seen is that these kids aren’t reluctant to write, because they know exactly how to get started. This alone has resulted in increased self-confidence about writing.

After observing the improvements, I began using sentence frames, as well as paragraph frames, and even essay frames! Scaffolding and differentiating each part is essential, so I have systems in place that I will write about in a future blog post.

If you have students who struggle with writing, try using writing frames to scaffold instruction. They offer the support that students need until they can make that recipe their very own.

And if you’d like to see Grandma’s template… I mean recipe, click here. 🙂 Mangia!

Paragraph Frames