Does using sentence stems to promote exploratory talk improve analytical writing among middle ability boys?

Maggie Moe, The Angmering School

Project rationale 

Having worked in a comprehensive school judged as requiring improvement, school leaders have identified middle ability boys as consistently underachieving and frequently becoming disengaged in their learning. Underachievement in boys’ literacy has been studied by various researches for more than a decade, all reaching a similar conclusion: girls seem to consistently outperform boys in English. The Ofsted report Boys and English (1993) summarised the problem: ‘Boys have instrumental attitudes towards language skills which are accompanied by problems with motivation and a lack of engagement with the literacy curriculum’. Research suggests that low expectations and stereotyping boys as “lazy” leads to a self fulfilling prophecy (Rist, 1970) and a lowering self confidence and belief that they can be ”good” at English. 

In my experience, this is particularly noticeable when they reach Year 9. However, English provides the perfect opportunity to allow boys the space and time to talk and be heard, something they enjoy. Furthermore, the fact that they receive almost immediate feedback on their contributions is something they have commented on finding particularly helpful. Boys seem to be keen to answer questions and contribute to class discussions, but as soon as they are required to record this knowledge, it does not seem to be reflected in their writing. In fact they often tell me they don’t know what to write and in particularly how to start. In order to address these difficulties, I began providing sentence stems, moving away from traditional Point, Evidence, Explanation (PEE) paragraphs and focusing on the more flexible what, how, why. Coupled with these scaffolds, I insisted that students spoke out loud their paragraphs using the sentence prompts provided on the board. Every time I asked questions, I also insisted that students responded using full sentences. 

In order to evaluate the impact of sentence stems, I selected four middle ability Year 9 boys (all with 4/5 end of year 11 targets) and verbal CAT scores of 4-5. At the beginning of the year all four were underperforming on end of unit assessments. 

Baseline data 

At the beginning of the term, I interviewed the boys and tried to gauge their attitudes to English and writing in particular. Overwhelmingly, they told me that English was “boring” and writing was “hard”, they expressed a difficulty in knowing what to write especially when writing creatively and analysing language. Classroom observations and book scrutinies also exposed a tendency to get off task when asked to put their ideas in writing. Students were not taking pride in their work and frequently not completing written tasks. Classroom observations also revealed off task behaviour when students were asked to write in silence. However, all four boys responded well to oral questioning and thrived under praise.

Intervention & intended impact 

The first change I implemented was the layout of my classroom so that students were sitting in groups, and the importance of collaborative work and oracy was explained to them. I also explained to the class that we were going to focus on learning how to speak, with an oracy focus in each lesson. I provided sentence stems and insisted that students were responding to both oral and written questions in full sentences. The rationale for this was that the status of how we speak will be equal to what we say, as I believed that this structuring of ideas orally would lead to increased ease in structuring ideas when writing. 

Before students did any written analytical writing, I asked them to speak their paragraphs out loud using what-how-why sentence stems. Students then were required to write their paragraphs independently and in silence within a given time frame.

Impact data

The most significant impact of this project was the engagement and enthusiasm for the subject. Interviews carried out 4 months into the school year showed that the boys enjoyed English and believed they could be successful. All 4 boys remarked how they believed they had made progress and they were more confident writing answers down. The fact that they took a more active role in their learning and were expected to speak what they were going to write meant that their confidence had increased. Book scrutinies and end of unit assessments marked a significant increase in the amount the students wrote and the structure of the writing; in all but one individual, they were on track to achieving their end of year target. The one individual who is still working towards his target has had a significant number of days absence which has meant he missed out on many lessons and content.

Furthermore, an unintended consequence of the Impact Project has been the pride the boys have taken in their work and their behaviour in lessons. Believing that they can be successful in English has led to them completing homework far more frequently (previously there was a problem with this), asking for help when struggling with homework (coming in at lunchtime for help), and completion of tasks in class. Work completed in class, shows a marked increase in the quantity of writing produced in the given time. Previously students completed between one and two paragraphs, at the end of the term they were producing 3 paragraphs on average. What is difficult to determine is the influence of the focus given to the boys. As they were my research targets, I tended to provide them with feedback more frequently and as I was conducting research they were sat in front of the class and benefitted from an increased amount of attention from me. I believe this positive attention also had an impact on their progress and perceived success in English.

Research Ethics

All students in the class were informed that I was conducting an impact project and the reasoning behind the sentence stems and an increased focus on Oracy. At the completion of the project I informed the boys I had been focusing on that I was going to be writing about their incredible progress. They were very keen to participate and in fact this might have added to their perceived success. They were extremely pleased that they had been selected for something positive rather that something negative which had been their experience of school thus far. All names have been held back and therefore the students are impossible to identify.


This has been a very interesting project to be involved in and it confirmed all my held beliefs about the importance of talk in writing. If students are unable to vocalise their ideas we cannot, as teachers, expect them to be able to write them down. I had anticipated that behaviour and focus in class might deteriorate as a result of the increased talk. However the clear expectations and protocols for talk meant that students understood what they were supposed to be doing and remained on task. The greatest challenge in reaching any conclusive impacts is the influence of the teacher of students’ confidence. In general, I am a very nurturing and supportive teacher and students often comment on how much they enjoy learning with me. It is, therefore, very difficult to gage whether their increased confidence and enjoyment of the subject is due to the Oracy element and how much of it is due to the teacher.

In the future I intend to implement the sentence stems across all schemes of work, and following teachers training sessions, will aim to introduce this methodology across the department. It will be interesting to note whether similar results are evident across teachers in the department.


Anna Beattie (2007) Exploring the Value of Dialogue in Improving Boys’ Writing, Changing English, 14:2, 161-174, DOI: 10.1080/13586840701442976

Matt Pinkett, Mark Roberts (2019) Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools, Routledge 

Ofsted, (2003) Yes He Can—Schools Where Boys Write Well

Featured image: Pixabay

Leave a Reply