All great teaching is founded upon expert explanations, questioning, practice and, crucially, modelling. Too often though, we can see modelling writing as the preserve of the English teacher, when the stark truth is that nurturing students to write like a scientist, geographer or historian demands expert modelling from those subject experts, too.
Pupils simply don’t transfer the skill of writing in English to other specialist areas very well. Not only that, for courses of study where written work may not predominate in assessment – like art, music, design technology or physical education – learners may consider extended writing as unimportant.
However, the new curriculum includes significant writing demands across all subjects, and teachers need to be able to address this matter successfully.
I think it is helpful, then, to delineate some careful steps that give a working structure to model the writing process for students. What is essential is that it happens regularly, with writing happening ‘live’, so to speak, in order to help students understand the nuanced skills involved.
Simply giving them an exam answer or a past essay can prove a useful tool, but it will not make visible to them the strategies they need to write with success.
Here, then, is my six-step to guide the modelling of writing, in sequence:
1. Do a writing pre-test
Whether it is an extended answer on the PE examination, or an essay about the causes of WWI in History, we need to get students writing independently without support to really understand the strengths and weakness of their work. From that baseline feedback we can start modelling what they need to improve.
2. Teacher-led modelling: 100%
We need to model for our students fully so that they can remain absolutely focused on the process. Getting students to write down your response helps with that focus. A pre-prepared answer often doesn’t cut it, so we need to write ‘live’ – talking through our choices and missteps and edits. Paradoxically, making mistakes can prove most useful to learning, so that should give us confidence!
3. Teacher-led modelling: 100% – but with questions
Once students have imitated and observed a full model, we want to start them actively thinking about writing choices. We still lead the writing, but we ask targeted questions so that students have to engage in the decision-making process that good writers undertake naturally.
4. Teacher modelling: half and half
After a couple of teacher-led models, students need to learn to go it alone. Like a parent holding the handlebars as they teach a child to ride a bike, we can guide this in the first instance. By modelling the planning process and starting the model answer, we give them enough to go on to start writing with independence.
5. Independent student modelling
Eventually, every parent needs to take their hands off the bike and allow the child to cycle off alone. By undertaking steps 2, 3 and 4, we can be assured that our students can write with much greater confidence. To complete the circle, we want them repeatedly to model writing to their peers. This can have powerful motivational effects, as fellow learners can provide more attainable models than a teacher.
6. Do a writing post-test
OK, so now that you have painstakingly arranged a sequence of modelled writing, it is time to note what students have learned.
Many schools and teachers are using technology to harness the power of modelling writing, such as using visualisers etc, but the good old-fashioned board can do the trick just as well. What matters is that we guide those clumsy early steps in writing toward assured expertise.
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