Using Sentence Starters with ELLs

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The initial stages of language acquisition can be overwhelming for Newcomer learners.  We can support these students (and all ELLs!) by incorporating “sheltering” techniques into our teaching practice.  Sheltering strategies help to make content more accessible to language learners.  Sentence starters are one type of sheltered instruction.

Sentence starters are helpful for language learners in that they can be used to scaffold both oral and written expression.  Also, when learners are provided with sentence starters, they are relieved of some of the pressure to structure an entire reply.  This allows students to focus on the body, or "meat", of their response. 

“Sentence starters provide opportunities for ELLs to successfully participate in classroom activities in structured, purposeful ways.”

–Louise El Yaafouri, The Newcomer Student, 2016

When introducing sentence starters to learners who are within the early stages of language acquisition, it is best to limit the number of prompts to choose from.  In fact, one or two options are plenty.   As students grow in their language development, the number of options can be increased.  With time and consistent opportunities to practice, learners will eventually develop efficacy in using a broad range of starters.

To make the most out of using sentence starters, the specific prompts should be visible to students as they are speaking and/or writing.  Appropriate usage should be modeled- by the instructor, by video, or by other students, or in some combination of all of these.  Eventually, students will become more independent in their production sentence starters.  

As learners move closer to mastery with a particular set of sentence starters, these supports can be gradually lessened and eventually removed.  Meanwhile, more complex strategies can be introduced- with new supports, if needed.   Through this process of continuous scaffolding, we can guide our students closer to language proficiency and deeper content understanding.

Included is a collection of key sentence starters for academic participation.  The prompts are organized into two categories: listening capacity and speaking capacity.  They are suitable across grade and age levels.

Do you currently use sentence starters in your classroom?  Share your experiences and contribute new prompts on Twitter @NewcomerESL #sentencestarters.