Writing Templates: Getting a Jump Start

Dec 8, 2016 by

Templates help structure writing tasks

“Dear Grandma, thank you for the T-shirt you got me on your trip to Alaska. I really like the funny picture of the grizzly bear on it, and red is my favorite color. I have been wearing my shirt to school and all my friends are asking when I went to Alaska! Thanks for remembering me on your vacation.”

Think about assisting a child who is writing a thank-you note. You might find yourself prompting the child on what a good thank-you note should include. In addition to thanking someone, the note should identify the gift, express appreciation for the gift, and perhaps comment on how the gift is being used. A conclusion usually recognizes the gift-giver for his or her thoughtfulness.

In other words, there is an internal structure of this specific communication – the thank-you note – that you are teaching to this child. In effect, you carry around in your mind a thank-you note template that can be adapted to specific circumstances when you write your next note.
Likewise, you have a mental template for a sympathy note, an invitation, a letter of complaint, a mail-order purchase, and others.

Teaching/Learning Activities

A template is merely a pattern that can be built upon to create something useful. Templates are used in quilting, woodworking projects, genealogy charts, computer applications, and of course, writing. However, because writing templates are mental structures, many students never figure them out. Instead, their writing lacks coherence: information may be randomly stated, and key parts missing.

Teachers can use template frames as an activity to develop student ability to handle a variety of classroom writing tasks. They are especially valuable in helping students cope with essay exams. Using template frames involves the following steps.

Step 1: Begin by creating (or collecting) exemplary models of the kind of writing you expect from your students. Well-written models should exhibit a clear text frame organization, such as cause/effect, compare/contrast, argument/support, problem/solution, or concept/ definition.

Share these models with students before they undertake a writing assignment. Underline key portions that signal the template, such as the topic sentence, text frame language, transitions, and summary or conclusion. This step helps make the template explicit for students.

For example, the following essay answer could be used to illustrate a cause/effect template for students studying weathering in earth science:

Question: Explain the causes of mechanical weathering and describe its effects on rocks.

Answer: Mechanical weathering is caused by water, by plants, and by animals. First, water causes weathering in two ways: by freezing and by wetting and drying. Freezing water forms ice in cracks of rocks, which splits them apart. Water also causes weathering because when some rocks get wet they expand and when they dry they shrink. This leads to rocks breaking up. Secondly, plants cause weathering when their roots grow into cracks in rocks and then break them up. Thirdly, animals dig holes in the ground, which expose rocks to water, which weathers them. As a result of mechanical weathering, rocks are broken into smaller pieces but keep their same chemical composition.

Step 2: Provide students with a template frame as an outline for a writing task, such as answering an essay question. A template frame contains the key elements of a paragraph and guides students to an organized response as they construct their writing. The template frame should emphasize key words that forecast the text organization of the paragraph, such as:

  • comparison (similarly, likewise, in like manner)
  • contrast (but, yet, however, on the other hand, on the contrary)
  • concept/definition (for example, furthermore, such as)
  • problem/solution (for this reason, therefore, instead of)
  • argument/support (in conclusion, if, indicate, suggest)
  • cause/effect (because, consequently, since, then, as a result).

The following template frame could be given to students responding to the following essay question on a history test: “What problems did prairie farmers encounter and what did they do to solve their problems?”

Prairie farmers encountered a number of problems that made life on the plains very difficult. First ______. Another problem ______. ______ was a third challenge they had to face, because ______. The farmers tried to solve their problems by______. They also ______. Finally,______.

When students use the template frame to write their answers, they should not treat the outline as a “fill-in-the-blank.” Instead, their answer should be rewritten into paragraph format, using the cues provided in the template as a guide. Moreover, some students will wish to customize the template to fit their ideas and writing style. Encourage students to also expand the paragraph with additional sentences and elaboration.

Step 3: As students become practiced in using template frames, you can gradually ask them to assume more of the responsibility for organizing their writing. One tactic that helps reinforce this process is to have them work in groups to develop a template frame for a question they will be answering. Have the students choose the template they feel would work the best for the essay, or pick three to be offered as options.

Template frames can also be used to structure many other types of student writing.


Template frames teach students how to craft well-written responses that can be personalized as students become more sophisticated writers. Other advantages include:

  • Students are given an organized way of “getting started” when confronted with writing tasks;
  • Students learn to use key transition elements that reflect appropriate text organizational structures, such as cause/effect or argument/support.

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