Why You Should Be Using Sentence Stems In Your Elementary Math Teaching

Sentence stems are an essential part of the teaching and learning toolkit for elementary school math. From the moment a child starts elementary school, each new topic introduces specific vocabulary and concepts, many of which are similar and easily confused.

For example, consider tens and tenths. Without explicitly clarifying the difference between the two concepts, students may confuse the terms. 

It is important for students and teachers to have a common math vocabulary and understanding of the terminology. Ideally, this would also be shared across the whole school, avoiding concepts or vocabulary appearing to change.

By using accurate mathematics language when the concept is introduced, and not changing the language throughout the years, it avoids unnecessary misunderstandings or and math misconceptions later on. Sentence stems are one method for achieving this in practice. 

In this blog, you’ll find everything you need to know about sentence stems, including tips for using them effectively when teaching. 

What is a sentence stem?

A sentence stem, also known as a sentence frame, is part of a structured sentence with missing parts to encourage kids to communicate their ideas. They are used in a range of topics to provide clarity or to generalise concepts. These can be used across core subjects such as math and English, in addition to other subjects such as languages (including Spanish, French, and German) and social studies.

Sentence stems can be used from elementary school through to high school, but are particularly useful for introducing elementary students to new concepts. 

In math, sentence stems include accurate math vocabulary words in a highly structured sentence that provides students with a way to communicate their ideas with mathematical precision and academic language as well as clarity.

Sentence stems can be used in Common Core math examples and other state-specific math frameworks.

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Sentence stems in math

Sentence stems can be used to:

  • Express a key concept
  • Generalize a key concept
  • Provide a template for discussions or explanations

Each time learners repeat a sentence stem correctly, it helps embed the concept.

For example, if a student is asked what the value of the digits in 24 are and they say, ‘24 has 2 tens and 4 ones’, they can think aloud with mathematical precision and clarity. They are also able to embed the concept that 24 is the same as 2 tens and 4 ones (compared to an answer of simply ‘2 tens and 4 ones’). By encouraging students to say the whole sentence, they also reiterate the question and answer to others.

Expressing a key concept

Sentence stems that describe a key concept generally include missing parts to be completed. For example, ‘(number) is greater than (number).’ This simple sentence can be populated in different ways in different situations, such as ‘17 is greater than 7’ or ‘8.21 is greater than 1.32.’

This sentence structure helps students scaffold their thinking when providing an answer to a question stem. It also helps them to focus on the math involved, not on how to explain their idea (we have all had that moment of knowing the answer to a question until we are asked to say it out loud and our minds turn blank).

Generalizing a key concept

Sentence stems that describe a generalization are usually complete sentences. For example, ‘There are ten tens in one hundred’ or ‘Consecutive odd numbers always have a difference of two.’ This type of sentence stem clarifies a mathematical concept and does not change.

If a student struggles to understand a new concept, this type of sentence stem can be used to generalize the learning. 

Generalization sentence stems are very useful when embedding concepts or recapping prior knowledge before building on them. Sentence stems from previous year groups, topics, or lessons that may be relevant for future lessons to recap concepts.

Structuring ideas and explanations

Sentence stems can also help to structure ideas and can be used in a range of lessons and are not math-specific. They usually include sentence starters and ‘because’ to draw out an explanation.

For example, ‘I think the answer is… because…’ or ‘I know… because…’

This type of sentence starter can be used in any lesson to draw out the student’s critical thinking. Using this type of sentence stem, learners are forced to articulate their ideas clearly during class discussions. In turn, this shows if they have a surface level of understanding or a higher-level understanding of the concept they are exploring. This can help your students’ critical thinking skills by demonstrating this higher level of understanding of topics. 

All together now!

The different types of sentence stems can be used in conjunction with each other to give detailed answers that are rooted in mathematical understanding. For example, when answering 6 x 4, the student may use the following sentence stems to answer:

  • ‘To calculate 4 lots of (number), I can double (number) and double the answer’
  • ‘I know the answer is… because…’
  • ‘To calculate 4 lots of 6, I can double 6 and double the answer. I know the answer is 24 because 6 doubled is 12 and 12 doubled is 24.’

How to use a sentence stem

Repetition is a key part of using sentence stems in the classroom. Using an ‘I say, you say, we say’ system is helpful and can be easily inserted into lesson plans.

  1. The teacher introduces the sentence stem, ensuring that the learners understand what the sentence stem means. Then say the sentence stem (I say)
  2. Students repeat the sentence stem (you say)
  3. Finally, say the sentence stem with the whole class (we say)

This helps students to understand that the sentence stem is an important part of the lesson and how to say it correctly. Missing parts can be completed to fill in using different ways to show examples of how the sentence stem is used. The appropriate sentence stem should then be referred to throughout the lesson (or math lessons to come).

Students must use and understand the sentence stem as a regular part of their learning to promote meaningful conversation and accountable talk in the classroom. Teachers should also model using sentence stems whenever appropriate.

How sentence stems are incorporated into our math interventions

During Third Space Learning’s online one-on-one math tutoring sessions, students are encouraged to verbalise their reasoning and explain their working out to their tutor. 

Third Space Learning lesson slide with sentence stems
A Third Space Learning online lesson using sentence stems to encourage students to communicate their ideas with clarity.

Third Space Learning’s academic team build sentence stems into the tutor notes and tutor training to bring our intervention and resource offering closer together.

Why is a whole school approach important? 

Learning requires students to build upon what they already know. You cannot start teaching a child addition if they do not have a strong understanding of numbers, just as you cannot teach reading without an understanding of letters.

A whole-school approach to sentence stems benefits students in two ways: 

  1.  They use accurate mathematical language from an early age
  2.  They become familiar with the use and format of sentence stems. 

By using mathematically accurate language from a young age, learners should become more confident with the specific terms and their meanings, as well as improve their overall mathematical language proficiency.

Some sentence stems may appear simple, but by understanding how to use the sentence stem, the student can apply it to more complex learning.

For example, ‘(number) is equal to (number) subtract (number)’. This simple sentence stem is introduced in Kindergarten but can be applied in all other grades. It can also be applied to decimals.  While the sentence stem stays the same, the context changes, allowing students to focus on the math, instead of how to explain their answer.

How to start using sentence stems as a math lead

Firstly, math leads should understand what a sentence stem is and how they are used. Familiarize yourself with examples of sentence stems and consider how and when they can be used. 

As with most initiatives that are introduced in schools, it is crucial that you are confident with sentence stems and can answer questions as and when they arise.

When you feel confident with sentence stems, introduce them to staff in a staff meeting. If you have learning support assistants in your elementary school, you may want to include them in the training. This will help build a common language amongst all the adults in the school and uphold good classroom management.

While sentence stems are relatively simple to use, it can initially feel difficult to make time for these in a busy lesson. If all adults understand the benefits of sentence stems, they should find it easier to introduce them in their class.

Lead by example; if another teacher is struggling to understand how or when to use sentence stems, offer them an opportunity to observe part of your lesson where sentence stems are introduced or used with students to help with their professional development.

How to start using sentence stems as a math teacher

It isn’t always easy to introduce new initiatives into everyday lessons, regardless of how useful they are. A good place to start is to include sentence stems in your lesson plans and make a note of when to use them in the math lesson.

You could add them to an appropriate teaching slide or to your working wall or math display. By doing this, you will not have an opportunity to avoid introducing sentence stems to your whole class!

Persistence is key. Using sentence stems consistently helps students see them as commonplace and start to use them also.

Read more: Math Dictionary For Kids: The Essential Guide To Math Terms

Math sentence stem examples

Topics covered by Third Space Learning’s sentence stems and vocabulary lists include:

  • Place value
  • Additional and subtraction
  • Multiplication and division
  • Fractions, decimals

Base 10 (2nd grade)

  • 10 ones are equal to one ten.
  • There are 10 tens in one hundred.

Addition and subtraction (2nd grade)

  • Addend plus addend equals the sum. 
  • Minuend minus subtrahend is equal to the difference.

Multiplication and division (1st grade)

  • Double (number) is (number). 
  • (number/ item) have been shared equally into (number) groups/ lots/sets. There are (number/ item) in each group/lot/set.

Fractions, decimals (4th grade)

  • An improper fraction is a fraction with a numerator that is greater than the denominator.
  • When dividing by 100, we move the digits two places to the right on a place value chart.

Download Third Space Learning’s list of sentence stems to use in your classroom. These can be used as a whole class, or there may also be sentence stems that you develop with specific students to help them clarify their understanding.

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