The Essay Shaping Sheet:  Friend or Foe?

Essay shaping sheets are essentially templates for writing that guide students through the writing process.  A shaping sheet can be as small as a sentence template or as large as an entire paragraph or even essay.  But are these tools helpful, or do they ultimately hinder student development?  Well, the million-dollar answer to this question is… it depends.

On what does it depend?  Here are some factors to consider:

1)    The skill level of a particular student or group of students

2)    Student familiarity with the particular type of writing assignment

3)    Prior student performance on similar writing tasks

4)    The usage of other methods for scaffolding writing instruction

My Story

Some teachers would argue against ever using a shaping sheet for any reason because they argue that shaping sheets can become a crutch to student writers.  I will admit that I was one of these teachers once upon a time, but that changed as my teaching experience expanded, and I found myself teaching in the largest public high school in the entire United States in Brooklyn.  This particular school happened to be a science/technology/math magnet school, so writing was my students’ weakest academic discipline.  I had to approach writing instruction in a brand new way to make it more appealing to left-brain thinkers who could rile off physics formulas from memory without batting an eye but stared blankly at me when I asked them to write a thesis statement.  Using a more formulaic approach is what ultimately worked for these students, and I broke thesis statements down into “x” and “y” factors in order to use a language they understood to comprehend the structure of a thesis statement.  It was new territory for me, and this new territory involved using shaping sheets.  Click on the image below to download a FREE shaping sheet that I used with my students.  You will notice that it contains mathematical terms that I created to use with this specific student population.  Algebra FINALLY came in handy. 

We started with shaping sentences for writing—from the thesis statement to the concluding sentence of an essay—and eventually used the same concept for practicing grammar rules.  Once an approach I never used in my days of teaching at a high-performing senior high school in Texas, it became a standard approach that I used to help my NYC students “crack the code” of grammar and writing.  These students differed from my other student populations in that 90% of them did not speak English as their first language.  But like all other scaffolding approaches, it was important that I gradually stopped using the shaping sheets and let my students craft new sentences without the use of a template.  And it worked!  I am proud to report my student scores on the New York Regents Exam averaged 90% and higher every year that I taught there!  Amazing!  Click the image below to download a FREE shaping sheet for a literary analysis paragraph.

Shaping Sheets & Transitional Devices

I’ve discovered that students mostly need a proper series of transitions and transitional devices to help them segue from one idea to the next. 

Click on the image to download a FREE copy of this list!

Click on the image to download a FREE copy of this list!

When creating a shaping sheet, think of it in terms of transitions, and point this out to students as they are using the shaping sheet.  Show them that it mainly consists of transitional devices and talk about the structure of the devices.  Are they in a cause/effect format?  Are they in an if/then format?  Identifying the structure is an essential part of the scaffolding process in enabling students to write without shaping sheets… eventually.  Part of the scaffolding process can be to have them create their own shaping sheets from a list of transitional devices.  This is an interesting outlining technique that students can continue to use for their writing assignments across academic subjects.  You can find a handout for Transitions & Transitional Devices attached below.  Click on the image for this FREE DOWNLOAD to use with your students.

The Takeaway

So, what is the takeaway from this story?  I think it’s important not to rule out a single educational approach or method completely.  It’s important to be open to new techniques of doing the same old things.  We need to recognize as teachers that there are MANY WAYS to teach the same skill and MANY WAYS to do it effectively.  If you find your that your students are floundering with a particular writing skill even after you’ve exhausted all the other approaches in your “toolbox,” try out a shaping sheet and see how it works for your students.  You might be surprised at how a shaping sheet can dispel confusion among your student writers.

Do you use shaping sheets in your classroom?  I’d love to hear from you!  Leave a comment below.



About the Author

Meredith is the founder and creator of TeachWriting.org and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.