Sentence Builder Boxes: Support for beginning writers

Meeting the demands of writing with language learning is an uphill climb, so one nice thing we can do for second language writers is reduce their cognitive load.

A sentence builder box does this by providing relevant vocabulary in a structure that is salient to a task. Students use the box to create meaningful sentences by making vocabulary choices. They do not have to attend to grammar as closely because the box provides it for them. This means they can focus on what they want to say rather than getting bogged down in the disparate rules governing words, phrases and clauses.

The following is a builder box designed for a past tense description of a childhood home.




My neighborhood

The corner shop

My community

My building

My neighbors

was (not)











The cars

The streets

The stores

The parks

were (not)

The student simply selects from each column to build a meaningful sentence that fits his purpose. One student might write, My building was safe. The neighbors were friendly. Another could write The streets were crowded. The cars were noisy. By mixing and matching within the pattern, each writer can focus on making his or her writing distinct.

Different stages of the lesson plan

An advantage of using these simple boxes is that they are very flexible. The following are three places where a builder box could be integrated into a process writing lesson plan.

Brainstorming: To create the box above, the teacher can elicit places and people to the board in a column on the left. The teacher then elicits adjectives that describe these places and people in a second column to the right. Finally the teacher adds the BE verbs in the middle and sets students to creating practice sentences individually in pairs before they start writing.

Revising: To help students elaborate, the teacher might create a new builder box with a useful supporting detail sentence type. She then invites students to add nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbials, essentially adapting the box by adding vocabulary. In the model below, writers provided details that explained why their neighborhood was friendly or safe.

Subject Verb phrase Prepositional phrases of time

My family

My friends and I

My relatives

The neighbors

The children

The parents

My brothers and sisters


hurried to school

gathered in the park

shopped at the corner store

played soccer

talked at the shop

met friends

walked by the river


in the morning

in the afternoon

in the evening

Editing: After drafting, the teacher might design a builder box that provides the correct form of a frequently occurring error that she has noticed. Then she can assign students to locate a place in their paper where they can use the structure.

Errors: Was fun to play soccer.         It was interesting meet friends.

Subject/verb stem Adjective Infinitive phrase
It was fun





to play soccer.

to meet friends.

to watch people.

to sit at a café.

to go to the movies.

When used sparingly–no more than one or two per assignment–builder boxes can be integrated into a process writing sequence in a way that fosters a sense of accomplishment at very low levels. What’s more, by supporting students in writing accurately, they can potentially reduce the amount of time teachers spend dealing with error.

Material adapted from Trio: The Intersection of Vocabulary, Grammar and Writing, Oxford University Press.

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