Writing frames

Frames, prisons, springboards ...

There are drawbacks to writing frames. They can cramp and restrict real thinking. For instance, I dislike the basic notion that a text has to have an Intro, a Main Body, and a Conclusion. If you set out thinking that writing consists solely of three units, you are not likely to write well.

But hang on ... just look at that first paragraph. What do we have ?


There are drawbacks to writing frames.

Main Body

They can cramp and restrict real thinking. For instance, I dislike the basic notion that a text has to have an Intro, a Main Body, and a Conclusion.


If you set out thinking that writing consists solely of three units, you are not likely to write well.

Ah. Well...er... Yes.

Have a look at a fascinating example of how the Intro - Main Body - Concl writing frame can both help and hinder a student's ability to write -   The Setting Essay #2

The value of writing frames

More seriously, writing frames are important in helping students to grasp how to structure their writing ... which in turn is related to how they structure their thought.

It is important for the teacher, or the students, not to get stuck with simple frames (which then become prisons), but rather to use the prefabricated frames provided as springboards, in order to move on to construct frames of their own.

The springboard process, I suggest, works as follows:-

  1. Student uses little structure ... ideas just sort of happen, in a random way
  2. Student uses simple received structures ... sorry, but this is the Intro - Main Body - Conclusion stage
  3. Student learns alternative structures ... this is the basic 'writing frames' stage
  4. Student plays with alternative structures ... experimenting with the writing frames, trying different versions
  5. Student fits varying frames to varying ideas ... the point at which brainstorming ideas links to choice of frames
  6. Student develops a frame from the structure of ideas ... the mature writing stage, I would argue

It may be worth referring to the NET SIEVE SPINE procedure, and reflect on how the development of ideas (content), may be paralleled by the development of frames (structures or form).

Frames in sequence

Let us consider how we can present a sequence of frames, ordered by increasing complexity - based on a very simple task, the For & Against Essay. I deliberately do not suggest a specific topic or issue, because the essence of a frame is that it can be applied to any suitable subject matter.

(very) Simple  ... the two-lump structure: all of the ideas 'for' in one paragraph and all of the ideas 'against' in another. There is little likelihood of sophisticated discussion in such a structure because the two sets of ideas are isolated and do not interact - but at least they are sensibly categorised.

Alternating (1)  ... one idea 'for' is followed by one idea 'against', and so on. There is the beginning of some kind of interplay between the arguments, especially if emphasis is placed on how the PRO and CON paragraphs are linked logically - by related topics or aspects of the issue ? Compare this with ...

Alternating (2)  ... this is the reversed structure: beginning with 'against' followed by 'for'. Does this make a difference to the effect of the argument? Quite probably, since each of the pairs ends on positive, not negative - there is the possibility of the 'for' arguments answering the 'against' arguments. This version should be selected by a writer who is basically 'FOR' - and the students should grasp this choice.

Crossover / Blended  ... the numbering indicates some common aspect of the issue dealt with by both 'for' and 'against'. This is the beginning of real debate - the two sides present differing interpretations of the same aspect of the issue within the same paragraph, so real argument can develop.

(AND ... what happens if we play around with the sequencing even more: PRO#1 + CON#1  >   CON#2 + PRO#2   >   PRO#3 + CON#3 ? Now we are beginning to get real interweaving of the two sides of the argument. )

You will see that the sequence moves from isolated sets of ideas to ideas that interact.

One, Two & Three

I would like to continue with the Essay, in order to establish more of this sequence towards complexity (but we should not forget that writing frames can apply to all other text types as well ... that is for other pages, later).

Here are three more writing frames, designed for essays that I have labelled Definition, Compare & Contrast, and Triad. These are described in a little more detail under the templates section in the page Argument : Balanced  - but simply put :-

Definition ... involves unfolding or analysing or debating the various meanings enclosed in a single given word (or concept)

Compare & Contrast ... obviously involves relating and assessing the meanings of two words (or concepts)

Triad ... (you've got the idea!) ... involves doing the same with three words

As you can see, there is a progression towards ever more complex handling of ideas.


Here is the basic pattern of the frame.

You start with a dictionary search for a big complicated word - say 'culture'. Students have to look at several dictionaries (print or online) and note the range of different meanings they find. They should then pick three (or four or five, depending on how skilled they are) Key Words - i.e. sub-definitions which seem to them to be the most significant. They then have to write a paragraph about each of those Key Words, discussing what they understand by them, and how they relate to the idea of 'culture'. The conclusion should mention all three Key Words, and argue how they are related.

A simple enough task, in itself - but the vital trick is in making the various paragraphs connect. Weaker students will write, in effect, five mini-essays with no real logical connection or thread of argument. So, fine - we point that out, and discuss the problem of cohesion.

Compare & Contrast

This is a classic task for more advanced students (consider the old A2 Comparative Commentary, for instance), but intermediate students may have neither the intellectual practice, nor the language skills such as a range of cohesive devices, to handle the job well. 

Here are the frames.

You open the preparation by discussing two linked subjects - say, two countries such as England and Spain. The students have to note down things which seem to be the same in each country, and things which seem different. You then require them to select two 'similar' elements and two 'different', and apply them to the writing frame #1.

This frame involves two challenges which raise the level of complexity :-

1. Discovering 'similar' and 'different' - unlike the dictionary exercise in Definition, above, the students have to develop their own material by discovering patterns in the two subject areas (in this example, countries). This requires some quite sophisticated pattern-recognition and generalisation. Which will also lead on to ...

2. "what the difference shows" - or perhaps it would be better to say 'what the comparison shows'. Having developed the content for the four main paragraphs, this content then has to be re-assessed in order to write the Conclusion.

Frame #2 is, of course, a slightly more complex variant of the basic material of frame #1. It should be productive to discuss this different type of organisation with the students, and ask why one might choose one or the other. The purpose of this discussion would be to emphasis that the choice of sequence depends on (a) content - i.e. the logic of what you have to say; and (b) effect - i.e. what impact on the sudience you want to achieve by placing one idea before or after another.


When you are trying to handle three major ideas in a piece of writing, you naturally have more permutations and variations to control, as can be seen from this diagram :-

This is a Venn diagram, and you can have a look at the page Venn analysis for some ideas about how this system can be used to control sets of ideas. Simply, it means that :-

The A space - indicates what all three words have in common

The B spaces - indicate what two words have in common (but not the other)

The C spaces - indicate what each word means in contrast to the other two

Using the Venn approach helps to have a methodical approach to working out how ideas are related, or not related, to each other. And it is surely vital that our students learn how to be methodical !

Here's a writing frame to organise the results of this quite complex analysis.

Evidently, this is a much more complex structure than the first frame that we looked at the very beginning - the (very) Simple Pro/Con essay. There is an Intro, then a brief section on A, followed by two sections on B and C (each subdivided into three sections with a miniconclusion), ending with an overall Conclusion.

Some points to note and pass on to the students :-

1. Any of the sections in the frame (e.g. A, B2, C3, etc) may need even more subdivision into paragraphs: the basic frame proposes 11 paragraphs, but some of these sections may be so complex as to require more structure. The frame proposes a structure, but if the content demands, we must start to break away from the frame and invent a new structure which better expresses the logic of the ideas.

2. Note the phrasing of 'distinctions' (quite subtle differences between ideas) and 'differences' (quite fundamental contrasts). This will require quite complex value-judgements on the part of the students - another rise in the level of complexity demanded.

3. The Conclusion "so what?" - I find that this cheeky question is good for urging the students to be clear about the point of what they are writing. This involves taking the exercise of applying a writing frame seriously enough for it to become a statement ...

And if students start make committed personal statements at this level of complexity, then the writing frame sequence has done its job !

Teaching the frames

I provide the graphics above in the form of a presentation - for the sake of rapid access, and in order to keep the students' heads up, and ready to discuss !

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