Teachers know the feeling – it's either absolute silence in your classroom when it's time to kick-off a classroom discussion, or everyone is talking at once and over each another. One of the tools I have used to help students get comfortable talking in the classroom while implementing KnowAtom's inquiry-based science curriculum is sentence starters. When students first come to us, they may need help understanding how to begin a group conversation and how to take part in one respectfully. In addition, learning active listening skills is just as important.
Let's explore how analysis sentence starters can help students learn how to listen to one another and form claim, evidence, reasoning (CER) arguments, rather than talking at or over their peers. I am going to use examples from the KnowAtom curriculum to show you how to implement CER sentence starters. But it's important to note that sentence starters for evidence can be used as discourse frames for just about any subject. Ultimately, they help students learn how to talk, listen, and support their arguments with evidence and reasoning.
Improving Student Discourse and Encouraging Discovery with CER Sentence Starters
The KnowAtom curriculum starts off with nonfiction reading, followed by Socratic dialogue for each lesson. Within classroom discussions, students take the lead in discovering what's most important about the reading and what connections can be made to concepts they already know. These discussions serve as a useful bridge to the hands-on part of the lessons, where students investigate, experiment, and engineer together. Classroom discourse is an important part of helping students thinking critically about what they've read and how they can use that information in their lab work. The analysis sentence starters tool helps students get the most out of group discourse while respecting their peers and learning from different viewpoints and experiences.
Why are student-led discussions so important? Research shows that achievement and engagement levels rise when students take the lead in their own learning and discovery process. Instead of passive participants, discourse encourages students to develop and support their own ideas, collaborate with peers, and change their beliefs as they acquire new data. As a teacher, student discussions allow us to measure student comprehension more effectively than just asking for memorization of terms and concepts does. CER sentence starters help students strengthen critical thinking and speaking skills, providing the tools they need to become active rather than passive participants in the classroom. Students learn to ask questions of themselves and their peers, identify missing pieces of information, and actively listen.
Sentence Starters for Evidence and Group Dynamics
Using KnowAtom's curriculum in our science classes, we do almost everything in teams. To be successful, students must work together, discuss new ideas, question their peers, and share their ideas within diverse groups. If they're carrying out an investigation, they need to be able to communicate with one other, including when something is going wrong. In my class, I welcome cross-collaboration across groups as well, so students learn from one another, challenge the ideas of their peers, and improve final outputs by combining the best strategies.
Sentence starter examples like this one help students develop the skills to think through their own ideas, evaluate different arguments, use evidence to support or reject an idea, and communicate that to their peers. Improving group communication skills is a great way to strengthen classroom culture as well.
When using CER sentence starters, the goal is for students to develop creative, analytical, and evaluative thinking skills. These are the 21st-century career skills that the next generation of scientists, engineers, and others will use to deepen our understanding of the planet, reach new heights in scientific discovery, and solve the problems of a new generation. That's why critical thinking skills are the foundation of the next generation science standards. Once I stopped worrying about just making students remember core concepts and memorize vocabulary – and challenged them to prove their ideas and delve into hands-on activities, I saw them make so many new connections.
Implementing Claim Sentence Starters in the Classroom
KnowAtom provides sentence starters examples for both early and older grade levels. In some classes, especially those with English learners and students not reading at grade level, I use simple sentence starters to help. What students are often looking for when we're "hearing crickets" in the classroom is, "What are the words to organize my thoughts?" This sentence starter template gives very simple examples, and students just fill in the blanks.
For the topic, "Rocks and plants are different because rocks don't need food," in the example above, the sentence starters give students a framework to agree or disagree and figure out why. At some level, the student knows rocks and plants are different. But once they have to argue why they have to go back and make connections to what they know. With the KnowAtom reader at hand, students review the text, the pictures, and what they learned from class discussions and investigations to figure out the difference between rocks and plants.
When students engage in arguments based on evidence, using the sentence starter prompt, "I agree because," they learn not to just agree or disagree, but to have some evidence for their thinking. As you implement sentence starters for evidence throughout the year, students get used to needing to provide some evidence to back up their reasoning every time.
At the bottom of this sentence starter example above is a great lesson in cause and effect. The student said, "When the north pole tilts towards the sun, it's summer in the north." Using the sentence starter helped the student both verbalize their thinking and start to create an understanding of cause and effect. That's a very complex concept. For a student to be able to identify that for themself is powerful, and it's a concept they'll use again and again as they make new connections along their learning journey.
Questioning, Discovery, and Sentence Starters Examples
Noticing and wondering is something that really deepens a student's learning. As students begin to notice and question, and we require them to stop and verbalize that thinking, we're building critical thinking skills that they'll use for a lifetime. When the teacher asks, "What do you notice that's going on in this experiment," it gives students a chance to wonder. "I wonder why that plant is turning brown?" That's the beginning of high-level thinking and a great jumping-off point for a small or large group discussion.
When peers challenge one another with, "Well, how can we find that out? What do you think is going on," we give students the opportunity to take risks – rather than be passive participants in the classroom. In this example from my own class, students were looking at two plants. One was green, and the other was turning brown. The discussion moved from "Why is that plant turning brown" to "Why is the other one green," and "What's the difference?" As students learn they can find answers to their own questions, excitement and engagement levels rise. But you have to have the wondering first.
Here's another example. In one class, students were looking at the water cycle. A student said, "Oh, this reminds me of when we left the ice cream out of the freezer, and it turned into a liquid." They are making a connection that this happened at home and wondering why it happened, asking, "Is there some connection to what happened when the ice cream was no longer in the freezer and what we read today?" This high-level thinking came from incorporating the grade three to eight discourse sentence frames into our classroom discussion. This is just one of the many different examples of sentence starters available from KnowAtom.
Curiosity, Respect, and Discourse with Sentence Starters
One of the most important things that sentence starters can be used for is to teach students how to be curious, respectful, and good listeners. I've had many students share with me, "I disagreed, but I didn't know how to say it. I didn't want to seem mean." One way to get students more comfortable with asking their peers to explain when they don't understand is, "Could you repeat your idea?" This is a good way for students to question without, as they say, "being mean" and to show curiosity in others' ideas.
The next step might be to ask, "What's an example of that to help me understand?" When their partner responds with, "If (blank) and (blank) are true, that must also be true," we've really deepened their thinking. The students are having a conversation, actively planning or carrying out their experiment or investigation, and learning from one another.
When a student says, "I see the result, how can I extend that? What else might be true," they're learning to make connections and build critical thinking skills. Using sentence starters, we're also building a strong classroom culture of safety and respect, where students can listen, connect, and be curious with one another. When a student says, "I want to build on your idea," or "I would like to share an example of what my partner just said," it's such a profoundly respectful moment for the class. Highlighting a peer's work, showing that you've been listening closely to them, and making connections with their ideas can be groundbreaking on both sides of the partnership.
Student-Led Classroom Discussions with CER Sentence Starters
Using sentence starters to launch respectful, student-led classroom discussions won't happen overnight. It's a process and it takes patience and repetition. When I started using discourse frames and began having discussions that required my students to talk to each other as scientists and engineers and challenge one other, it was slow going at first. But when you create routines and give students the tools to succeed, they will learn as much from the process as they do from the result.
To start, distribute the sentence frames and prompt students with, "Why don't you circle one or two of these that you'd like to practice using today." This is sometimes awkward at the beginning and the kids can get a bit silly with it. It is worth it though, when you start overhearing teams working together, using the sentence starters, and building critical thinking skills through collaboration. It is in those small group discussions where I see the first success stories.
This is not something that you can just try once. To be successful, sentence starters need to become part of your regular routine and you must continue to model them in your own classroom. I make sure that I utilize the sentence frames and model how students should be talking to each other, especially early on. As we continue collaborating in large and small group discussions throughout the year, students improve exponentially in their speaking, questioning, and listening skills. By the end of the year, developing arguments with claims, evidence, reasoning – CER – becomes second nature.
Building an Inclusive, Respectful Culture with Sentence Starters
When we teach the importance of expressing an opinion and backing it up with evidence, we're giving students the message that "My thoughts matter. There is room for me in this discussion." We're empowering students that everybody has a place in this discussion – an important lesson for all. Sentence starters used effectively help you create a classroom culture of inclusion and respect for all ideas.
One way to model this in a whole-class discussion is to use an inner and outer circle. Half the class is assigned within the inner circle and are the ones discussing the topic at hand. The students in the outer circle sit behind them and take active notes on things their partner does well during the discussion. One thing we always strive for is 100% participation of students within the inner circle. To help those members who are shy and students who are learning English, we spend a lot of time talking about how you bring someone into a conversation and how you support a peer who wants to be part of a group discussion but doesn't know how to begin.
Using the sentence frames, model for your students asking their peers:
• What do you think about this?
• What did your data look like in your experiment?
• What did you think about the chart on page four?
It's helpful to discuss and model with students how not just to invite someone into the conversation, but how to support them throughout. Can you give them a hint about what you're asking them to share? For instance, "I think we read about that on page eight" or "I think the picture on page six may have what we're looking for." Each time a student joins in on the conversation and has a positive experience, it becomes a little bit less scary for the next time.
When to Use Discourse Frames in the Classroom
When can these discourse frames be used? The short answer is all the time! During Socratic dialogue, when students begin to explore their thinking about the lesson phenomenon, using sentence starters helps them take what they've read and plan for the hands-on investigation. Using sentence starters before the discussion begins helps students plan what they're going to say.
Sentence starters can also be used in the hands-on part of the lesson. As students discuss the question they are experimenting with, they use the sentence starters to frame their inquiry and to communicate with their team. The tool can also be used in the unit's wrap-up. As students engage in scientific discourse by de-briefing their investigation, experiment, or engineering lab, they share results and reflect on what they've figured out about the lesson's phenomenon.
The de-brief is an exciting time for students as they share the results of their experiment or prototype. It can also be a little overwhelming, especially if students don't know where to begin. Sentence starters can be used to help students by filling in the blanks with their data, framing their conclusion, and understanding how best to share it with the class. Using sentence starters really helps level the playing field, bringing everybody in and giving them the jumpstart they need to join in the discussion and frame their arguments.