Using oracy sentence stems to boost the quality of written analysis among Year 8 middle ability boys

Louise Northey, International Academy of Greenwich

Project rationale 

At the school where the research was undertaken, a specific cohort that had been identified as underperforming in English were middle ability Year 8 boys. Therefore, these students were chosen as the focus group for the research. Five students were selected from the middle ability Year 8 English class. 

During the academic year 2018-2019 the school has worked on developing oracy, with a particular focus on using sentence stems to assist students in expressing their ideas fluently, and to encourage them to respond to the ideas of others. I wanted to see if the use of these sentence stems had any discernible impact on the writing that students produced, and if they felt that these sentence stems had a positive impact on their Oracy and their writing 

Intervention & intended impact 

Across the whole school, staff were asked to use oracy sentence stems in lessons and Advisory as a way to help students to express their views more effectively, and encourage them to build on the views of others. The following slide was produced to be utilised by teacher when conducting whole class discussion, or feedback from tasks: 

Baseline data 

The following overviews the students’ abilities at the point in the term where the sentence stems were introduced. The data comes from the students’ books and lesson observations which were undertaken within the class. Written evidence is provided from four out of the five students, as one of the students, Student A, was absent on the day the piece was produced. 

The examples of writing below were produced in class following discussion of two soliloquies from Much Ado About Nothing – during the discussion the Oracy sentence starts were displayed and utilised by the students. 

Of the five students, Student B received the most support from the teacher, specifically with regards to starting his work – this was typical in lessons. He wrote: ‘In Benedick’s soliloquy he is expressing his feelings in a mix of emotions by being confused at the start by saying ‘Love me? Why?’. By him saying this he is referring to himself as being not worthy enough to have a relationship with Beatrice.’

Student C’s response reflects how he often misconstrued tasks and wrote in an informal style: ‘In the story of Beatrice and Benedick they have a bit of a comedy and tragedy. Throughout the story between these two they have a turn on and a turn off with their affair.’

Of the students in the focus group, the most able is Student D, and his written style is more confident and accurate. His work also reflects the influence of sentence stems to introduce his ideas through his use of the phrase ‘the reason why …’:

‘In Beatrice’s soliloquy, Shakespeare has chosen prose to express his feelings. The reason why he chose this structure is because it is less controlled so he can show his true emotions and express how he chose this structure is because it is less controlled so he can show his true emotions and express how he really feels.’

The piece which showed the greatest influence of sentence stems was Student E’s, most specifically with his use of ‘I believe that’, the comparative connective phrase ‘however, this shows …’ and ‘this is similar’:

‘In Benedick’s soliloquy, I believe that Benedick’s use of punctuation, shows how confused he is because he is constantly questioning himself. However, this shows that is sure what he is meant to do. This is similar to Beatrice’s soliloquy because they are both questioning themselves but Benedick is answering them.’

Impact data

At the end of the three month period in which the research was undertaken, the five students were asked to complete a short questionnaire to see which sentence stems they could remember, which of these they used in their writing, and what impact they felt they had on their Oracy and written skills.

Firstly, students were asked which Oracy sentence stems they could remember. All five students wrote down sentence stems in relation to agree and disagreeing:

  • ‘I agree … because …’
  • ‘I disagree … because …’
  • ‘I agree/disagree with you because …’

Four of the students referred to ‘I believe that … because …’. One student listed the following additional sentence stems: 

  • ‘I think that …’
  • ‘Why we have …’
  • ‘We can relate to this because …’

They were then asked to list the ones that they use in their writing – three students stated that they used ‘I believe that … because …’ and one stated that they used ‘Why we have …’. Only one student referred to using more than one of the sentence stems, stating that they used: ‘All of them because in my SPEED [analysis] paragraphs I see two sides to things sometimes. I say I can disagree but then say some points when I do agree’. 

Students were asked to rate how useful they found the sentence stems: 

They were then asked to respond to the question ‘Do you think that these sentence stems improve your Oracy skills?’:

Finally, they were asked to state whether they thought that the Oracy sentence stems improved their writing skills:

In addition, at the end of three-month period, students had an assessment week. The responses produced by the boys to the summary question (question two) of an AQA GCSE English Language Paper 2 style assessment was used to see if the influence of the sentence stems was evident in their writing. Unlike the piece used for the baseline data, this response was produced completely independently in exam conditions.

Student E, wrote ten sentences, and gained a score of five marks, out of a possible eight. He used three sentence starters which explicitly led in to his points and analysis:

  • ‘However …’
  • ‘This is shown …’
  • ‘This shows that …’

Student A also gained a score of five marks – of the eight sentences that he wrote, five contained explicit sentence starts:

  • ‘I know this because’
  • ‘More evidence could be ‘
  • ‘This suggests that …’ (used twice)
  • ‘However …’
  • ‘I know this because …’

Student C’s writing showed the greatest improvement, in comparison to his previous written style – despite there still being informality to his expression, the use of sentence starts helped him to stay focused on the question. All three of the five sentences he wrote started with phrases or connectives which explicitly led in to his points and analysis, and he gained three marks:

  • ‘But with Source A …’
  • ‘Furthermore …’ 
  • ‘The fact is …’

Of the five sentences that Student D wrote, three included sentence starts to introduce supporting evidence, with the use of the phrases 3/8 ‘this is evident’ once and ‘this shows that’ twice. He also used ‘however’ to bring in a comparative point.

Student B used the most unsophisticated sentence starters, using only the phrase ‘But in Source B …’ twice in the four sentences he wrote in order to introduce a comparative point, and as such his writing did not show any implied influence from the Oracy sentence starters, although he achieved a mark of four out of eight.

Research Ethics

The research was undertaken within a classroom situation. Students were informed of the purpose of the research and gave permission for their writing and their questionnaire responses to be used as evidence through signing a consent form. Parents were informed of the research through a letter, which outlined the purpose of the research and the form that it would take. The students’ names have all been changed, and their written work typed up so as to ensure anonymity.


The data shows that although the students are not directly using the exact oracy sentence stems in their writing, there is evidence that particular sentence stems are supporting them in expressing their views and ideas. Furthermore, the majority of students (four out of five) saw the use of the oracy sentence stems to be supportive in developing their Oracy skills.

The findings highlight that the use of sentence stems, for both spoken and written tasks, does have some benefit for students. In order to ensure that the impact of the Oracy sentence stems on students writing is more explicit there is a need for there to be greater cross over between the sentence stems given to assist students’ oracy and those given for their writing. 

As such, the current oracy stems will be adapted, so that they align with those given to students to use in their writing – this will require an audit of the sentence stems used by the English and Humanities departments in particular, as these are the two subject areas that utilise them the most with students. so that there can be a clear cross over in the language and phrasing of the oracy and writing sentence starters that are used.

Furthermore, the sentence stems will be then categorised in terms of their purpose – for example to introduce a point, to develop an idea further, to bring in an alternative perspective – and these can then form part of classroom displays, which can be referred to when delivering both specific Oracy and written tasks.


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