Sentence starters KS2 – How I used them to up my writing game
Lose those exasperated refrains of “I don’t know what to write”, and get pupils off to a flying start with these irresistible sentence starters for KS2
I’ve been a teacher for nearly 20 years, and almost every educator I know has suffered this pain: delivering what you believe is an engaging, stimulating, practically BAFTA-winning introduction to writing, only to be met with “I don’t know what to write,” or “What are we doing?”. So often, the difficulty comes not from writing in general, but rather getting pupils to start writing. Enter sentence starters for KS2.
We all know those pupils that struggle to write, and often it’s the ones that don’t read a lot. There are many reasons for this correlation, but I think one key factor is that they don’t have that bank of imaginative ideas that reading provides, to dip into. Sentence starters are great for providing these ideas that allow children to get going. For me, they’ve been a game-changer. I made up a few within a lesson one day and popped them on the working wall. It was a ‘spur of the moment’ idea, but it really worked. The less confident children used them, found a voice and began to engage, safe in the knowledge that they were on the right track. Others even added their own suggestions.
So, how did it work?
If you haven’t come across them much before, sentence starters, also known as sentence stems, give all pupils the chance to contribute, orally or in writing, while using complete sentences. They’ll help the children begin their composition, while (sneakily) encouraging practice of the vocabulary and grammar conventions you want them to learn.
Types of sentence starters KS2
Just like people, sentence starters come in many shapes and sizes. Some are a classroom staple and useful for many writing opportunities. Others are created for a more specific purpose. They can help to introduce, activate prior knowledge, build, support, structure, suggest, clarify, elaborate, give examples, reinforce and summarise.
You can use them at any point in the lesson to structure meaningful conversation. They can be useful at the beginning of a piece of writing, in the middle, or even towards the end – whenever you think they will clarify learning or aid progress.
Here are my steps to success:
When thinking about writing genres, create your starters and always include genre-related key vocabulary, phrases and language structures. Start small and keep sessions speedy, oral and fun at first.
Once pupils have mastered using them, download these ready-made sentence starter clipboards. Use as they are, or adapt to suit your style, teaching, children or aims. You choose. Just be sure to build in progression.
Show pupils how to use sentence starters. Don’t just focus on the writing, but the thinking, the choosing, and the ‘hmmm, that one doesn’t quite work, I need to change it’ moments. Model changing your mind, and the messy planning and writing process: just do it with the sentence starters as part of the journey.
Review the starters you use regularly, and provide examples of how children could potentially complete some of them (oral or written). Complete a couple deliberately wrong and watch the fireworks! Can children identify what’s wrong with the rest of the sentence? Can they correct it? Create opportunities for practice.
Once pupils are confident with sentence starters, they can share their ideas. You can critique results, giving kind, constructive feedback. A crucial piece of advice to give to pupils is: “Vary your sentence starters.” Even with strong sentence openers, writing becomes bland if they overuse the same ones. Encourage variation. Write your own bland version and read it out in a monotone voice, just to drive home the point.
Plan regular revisits. To encourage progression, challenge pupils with sentence starters that are just above their current assessment level. Make them work for it!
As well as making sure you’re following the right processes, engaging activities can also help bring your writing lessons to life. These are my favourites for helping pupils use sentence starters:
Cut out (or just mix up on a worksheet) a selection of sentence starters and endings. Pupils need to match up each starter with the correct ending. Are there any starters that work with more than one ending? Why? This activity is great for provoking discussion on the ways we use language.
Prepare some sentence starters and give a copy to each pupil. Then, give them two to three minutes to complete each one, using information from recent learning. After three or four minutes, the children should swap their sentences with a partner and add to or edit the information on their partner’s sheet. After another three or four minutes, pupils should then swap back and review their edited list.
Sentence starters reboot
Get pupils to choose a paragraph from an old piece of writing that they want to improve, and have them redraft it using sentence starters. Encourage them to focus on choosing the starters that are going to provide the best flow, will have the best impact, and will make their writing the best it can be. This is a good opportunity to discuss who the intended audience of the writing is, and whether children can figure out which type of sentence starters will work best. For example, are they trying to introduce something, support an argument, give examples, or summarise a point of view?
News at 10
This follows on well from ‘sentence starter reboot’, and involves pupils presenting their writing as a news report, using the appropriate sentence structures. You could even turn your classroom into a news studio and have the children take it in turns to read their work, and give each other constructive feedback.
Prior knowledge tap
For this activity, give the children a time limit and see how many sentence starters they can come up with. You could try prompting them with questions like: “How many sentence starters that you would expect to see in a set of instructions can you write in four minutes?”
Try adding sentence starters for KS2 onto interactive dice, so pupils have a fun way to practise their vocabulary. In groups of three or four, depending on the size of your class, each pupil takes a turn rolling the die, and then the rest of the group need to come up with different possible endings to the starter that has been rolled. The bonus is that these are easy to adapt, depending on your class needs or learning aims.
10 reasons to use sentence starters
- They’re easy to make, adapt and readily available.
- Starters provide scaffolding for pupils who need additional support and more time to think.
- Conversations become more vocabulary- and content-rich. Pupils build on each other’s ideas.
- They create a supportive environment where pupils encourage one another.
- They can be adapted for individual SEND aims to allow all pupils to access learning.
- Familiarity with them can help to decrease anxiety and encourage a positive mindset to get started.
- Like the joy of a good pick ‘n’ mix sweet selection, a budding writer can really experiment and learn new ways of expressing themselves.
- Sentence starters often work like a ‘word map’ to help explain struggles when pupils need help. They are a great tool for children who are non-verbal – I found this to my absolute delight!
- You can use them for games and spelling when you have a few spare minutes.
- You can download a FREE set of sentence starters at tinyurl.com/tp-SentenceStarters
Collette Waddle is a UKS2 teacher and resource creator. Follow her on Twitter @ColletteR