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Perfecting the Sentence: Explicitly Teaching Sentence Stems

I spend a lot of time at GCSE and A Level explicitly teaching and modelling various types of sentences that I want students to use in essays. These provide a very powerful way in which students can frame and signpost their analysis; a syntactic anchor to hold down their argument.

In this post, I want to outline just a few of the sentence stems that I most frequently use with students. A lot of these are, of course, down to personal stylistic preference, but I do think the underpinning idea of explicitly teaching, modelling and rehearsing such sentences is a really valuable and worthwhile use of time.

Just as… so too…

This is a really helpful way to embed comparison and connection into an essay, as well as helping to build an argument and develop a point. For example:

Just as Mr Birling is revealed to be a highly arrogant character so too is it obvious Mrs Birling cares only for herself or Just as Gatsby years for Daisy despite the impossibility of fulfilling this love so too does Hardy’s speaker grapple with an impossible desire.

I find this is most effective when used as a syntactic bridge either across or within texts. In the above examples, the student may have just spent time discussing Mr Birling or Gatsby and so might use this sentence to transition into a discussion of Mrs Birling or Hardy.

This sense of Y is further reinforced/augmented/further suggested/cemented/compounded by…

This is an example of what John Tomsett calls Janus-faced transitions, which I absolutely love teaching students about, partly because it’s an opportunity to tell them about Janus, but also because they really help in essay writing.

The basic idea is to use this sentence, much like the above, to knit two points together, but in a way that is both fluid and meaningful. It again helps to build an argument across an essay, ensuring it doesn’t read like a series of disconnected points. This is what it looks like:

Day-Lewis’ use of ‘wrenched’ suggests a certain anxiety, given it indicates his child is being ripped unnaturally away from him. This sense of anxiety is further reinforced through the use of ‘half-fledged thing’…

It is called a Janus-faced transition, after the two-faced God, because it looks back to the previous point (in the above example the anchor of ‘anxiety’ is referenced) as well as forward (the next point will develop the discussion of ‘anxiety’).

Here’s a screenshot from a class explanation of how to use Janus-faced transitions:

These transitions can also be used very effectively as single-word cues in order to help build a cogent argument across multiple points, without always needing to specify the previous point in manner of ‘This sense of X is…’ Modelling and rehearsing how to use transitions like this, Janus and otherwise is a really effective way to help develop coherence.

When considering X one is struck by…

This is a sentence stem that gets a lot of use in my classes, especially at the start of essays. A typical essay might begin:

When considering how Priestley presents Mr Birling as arrogant one is struck by his declaration that the Titanic is ‘absolutely unsinkable’. Or perhaps When considering Macbeth’s obviously violent nature one is immediately captured by Shakespeare’s initial description of him in battle, yielding his sword so that he ‘carv’d out his passage’.

There are a couple of reasons I really like this formulation. First, I’ve found it encourages students to begin looking at specific instances of language straight away. Using ‘one thinks of’ helps to cue a particular example from the text. What image or word does one think of? Second, I think ‘considering’ helps to frame the kind of attitude we want students to adopt towards a text. It’s explorative, tentative; they’re considering rather than telling. Finally, it helps to ensure an immediate focus on the precise terms of the question where the X refers to the question being asked.

This stem itself doesn’t guarantee any of these happen, but it does help to push students in the appropriate direction, and with lots of modelling and rehearsal can be really effective.

Pressing upon…

I think I must say a variation of the following several times a lesson: Say more things about fewer images. I talk about identifying divable images that students out to dive into or drilling deeper into an image, saying multiple things about it.

There are a few phrases that I use to try to help prompt or encourage the desired depth of analysis, but I especially like ‘Pressing upon’. This would always be used after an initial point of analysis, as a way to transition into a further point. A student might write, for instance:

Bennett’s use of ‘precious’ helps to convey just how much Hector values knowledge, it is something dear to him, almost like a jewel. Pressing upon this image further, one could also suggest ‘precious’ indicates knowledge ought to be protected, it is delicate and needs defending.

In this example, the sentence stem has cued up the further point, providing a way for the student to neatly and cogently shift into it whilst also framing the act of drilling deeper into the language being used.

Similar to the way in which/In much the same way that…

This is a sentence that I think works really well when moving from one text to another in comparative essays. It’s what I call a linked transition. Rather than beginning a new text without any reference to the previous one, I ask students to transition into the next one by explicitly referencing the previous one, thus creating one point of connection immediately.

As an example imagine the following question from a GCSE Poetry Anthology: Compare how poets present attitudes to toward a parent in Follower and one other poem. A student might begin the second half of the essay simply by moving directly to Mother, Any Distance with this sentence: ‘Armitage presents the relationship between mother and son as fractured…’, before then continuing with the analysis.

Using a linked transition, though, they might instead write:

In much the same way that Heaney depicts an ultimately difficult and burdensome relationship between father and son, Armitage too presents the relationship between mother and son as fractured.

It’s such a small and easy change to make, but makes a big difference.

Whilst it is true that….one could also argue….

We all know that the best essays tend to consider multiple points of view or interpretative perspective. I often find students attempt to do this in a rather clumsy fashion, typically some variation of ‘an alternative interpretation is’ or ‘another viewpoint might be’. From day one, I encourage my students not to do this and instead model phrases such as ‘whilst it is true that…’ or ‘whilst it could certainly be argued that…’ before than outlining the alternative view with ‘it could also be argued…’ or ‘one could also argue…’.

I find this stylistically smoother, but also feel it better frames the interpretative disposition I hope to encourage in my students: explorative and attentive to the multiplicity language. It’s not so much an alternative interpretation belonging to someone else, but rather a single reader simultaneously holding within their mind an understanding that is multivalent.

This suggests/indicates/implies/insinuates X because…

Continuing with this idea of multivalence, one word that is all but banned from essays is ‘show’ as in ‘this image shows the reader…’ or ‘this shows…’ For me, ‘shows’ is the analytical equivalent of ‘nice’ in creative writing. One step up from ‘X puts an image in the reader’s head of…’, but still not quite fitting the bill.

Instead, I prefer any of the following, as well as other similar what we might call analytical verbs: suggests, indicates, implies, insinuates. Not does this, to my mind, help to frame an exploration of literature that is attentive to its inherent dialogism, it also provides a cue to help students better appreciate this.

When I model and rehearse the uses of these words, I go to great lengths to explain why they are more effective than ‘show’. They provide a really effective way of framing what is a major aspect of the conditions of literary study, namely that the interpretation of literature contains very little of right and wrong, but rather levels of evidence and appropriate readings. An image might suggest something, but it does not definitively mean that thing. This is a key lesson for students to learn and embedding it into how they write about literature, with extensive modelling and explanation, is a powerful first step.

A Word of Warning

I recall a number of years ago first reading Dan Willingham’s ‘Why Is It So Hard to Teach Critical Thinking’ and being really struck by the thought that a student might know the cue that is expected, but still not how to enact it. They might know, for instance, they are expected to use the above sentence stems, they might remember them and know the words, but that is not a guarantee they can successfully implement them. This has always stayed with me.

The solution, I think, is in large part lots and lots of modelling of their use, both live modelling where the teacher is verbaliser why they are using a certain stem and why it is appropriate, but also static modelling where an examplar is picked apart and discussed. This will help not only to acclimatise students as to how to use them, but why they ought to deployed in certain contexts and not others.

Here’s a sheet I use when introducing these sentence stems:


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