Modelling writing… and the meaning of life


Forgive me for starting with a personal story. My son, George, was born with a rare corneal condition in his left eye. At 3 months, his eye was operated on at Great Ormond Street giving some possibility of sight. For six months, his right eye – which has perfect vision – was patched for half his waking hours to give his left eye a chance to develop vision. This was largely unsuccessful. During the patching, George would sit in one spot, virtually unaware of what was happening around him. Over the six months, many aspects of his development seemed to stall – he did not crawl, for instance, until he was over a year old. However, as soon as the patching came to an end he was a transformed child, appearing to bounce back into life again. Now, finally, he could dedicate all his time to watching us, the ‘experts’ of his social environment, model the physical and social skills necessary for his development.

The question I have to ask is this: if we, the experts, do not model the skills in our classrooms that we expect our students to master, how many of them will be left sitting in the dark?

Hattie and Yates, in Visible Learning and the Science of How we Learn draw on social-evolutionary evidence that demonstrates that very young babies are sensitive to how adults communicate to them through eye gaze. From the very earliest months, children are prewired to learn socially from adults. In fact, Hattie and Yates even point out that our very existence relies on successful modeling:

As a species, we adapted and evolved to transfer knowledge to, and receive knowledge from, one another.

The point I am making is that we need to be very dubious of theories of learning that do not centralise the importance of modeling and expertise. Independence should be seen as the ideal result of learning from an expert, not something that miraculously occurs. Shaun Allison – here – outlines this brilliantly in his latest post (as well as in the diagram below).


As an English teacher, a central part of my work is ensuring that writing skills are successfully modelled. Many of our students do not have exposure to the written academic ‘genres’ our subjects require anywhere else but in our classrooms.

Here are 10 strategies I use.

1. Little and often. A paragraph, sometimes even a single sentence, is usually enough to use as a model. Too long and students get too caught up in the meaning and not the process. Vital to modeling successfully is that we make it clear to students what we are doing. We are not just writing on the board for the hell of it, we are demonstrating a skill we expect them, in time, to master for themselves.

2. Deconstruction. It is not usually enough to show students a paragraph written prior to the lesson and expect them to learn from it. They must pick it apart to reveal the complex combination of processes that have formed the paragraph. I often give students a list of features to label. Colour-coding is another quick and simple way to ensure focus on skills.

Coloured model

3. Construction. Of course, constructing a paragraph in front of the students and talking them through the steps you take as an expert writer is as good as it gets. The problem is that it is not always easy to be the expert writer while simultaneously managing your class! A trick I sometimes employ is using animations on PowerPoint so that I can reveal my pre-written model sentence by sentence.

4. Co-construction. Writing as a social experience is a very powerful learning tool. After watching the teacher’s construction, students help the teacher to construct another paragraph. Editing is frequent, debate over word choice becomes furious. Often my ‘expert’ ideas are wiped the floor with! See my blog on ‘the sentence escalator’ too.

5.  Modelling with literary texts. The teacher might be the expert in the classroom, yet sadly we are usually no match for our literary betters. We must teach our students to become literary magpies, pilfering the best words, grammatical constructions and ideas from the best writing. We cannot expect them only to do this naturally; the process needs to be modeled explicitly.

6. Modelling with student work. This, again, is vital. Students, legitimately, might argue that they cannot write a sentence like Dickens. But if they see that Charlie Dickens, 9T, managed it with aplomb last year, they may well be up for the challenge. One criticism often leveled at teachers like me who model religiously is that we are somehow curtailing our students’ freedom to write. To counter this problem, it is important to show the class a range of excellent examples. Through this, we model the idea that there are many routes to success… and thus we are promoting freedom, not stunting it. Sharing work at different levels of quality and discussing the differences is another very powerful form of modeling.

7. DIRTy modelling. This strategy gets a few smirks from the boys! After formative assessment of student work, I design a DIRT model. This is a model which consciously amalgamates the class’ targets. If I want some students to work on ‘pairing adjectives’, others on ‘a range of sentence starts’ and so on, I will ensure that these techniques are included in the model. Students can identify how and where I have employed their target before setting off alone.

8. Mid-task modeling. This is modelling as a mid-lesson response to student misconceptions and difficulties. This week, a large proportion of my year 11 class were struggling with the concision of their writing. I stopped the class to model a pared-down paragraph… and off they went again. Photographed student work is another alternative (I use the CamScanner and Dropbox apps for this).

Concise model

9. Teacher as writer. The teacher undertakes the same task as the students, breaking down the ‘wall’ between teacher and learner. As they write, the teacher types. I will stop sporadically to show and discuss my work, so that they can help me to find solutions to my difficulties and, therefore, gain greater insight into how to solve their own writing impasses.

10. Students create their own models. This is an idea I am currently developing. At the start of the term, students write a short piece of writing. This is redrafted several times until it is as polished as possible. The final result is attached to their exercise books in a prominent position, which acts as a potent model of their own potential to be referred back to throughout the year.

My main advice? Don’t leave your students in the dark.


My butterfly: the sentence escalator

This week’s post is my response to two excellent blog posts I read last week: Alex Quigley’s – here – and Tom Sherrington’s – here. Both posts discussed Ron Berger’s ‘ethic of excellence‘, pointing out the incredible potential of Berger’s approach to redrafting, feedback and resilience. Both posts also urged readers to watch the ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ video which exemplifies Berger’s approach:

‘Austin’s Butterfly’ was a revelation to me, the equivalent of a teaching epiphany. The gauntlet had been thrown down – I knew I had to respond right away in my own classroom. Much of my thinking at the moment revolves around two interrelated areas: how to guide my students towards making conscious decisions about sentence structure choices, but also how to help my students develop an academic register during verbal feedback.

So this week I have invented and developed what I am going to dub ‘The Sentence Escalator’, a way of transforming unstructured verbal feedback into lovingly and diligently crafted sentences. The chart below shows how it works, from bottom up (you will probably need to click on it):

 sentence escalator

The initial verbal comment is moulded into shape, extended-upon – or both – in a way that involves the whole class. The teacher’s language expertise is also important: at times a sentence must be scrapped or completely reorganised. “A sentence is never finished,” has become my new mantra (in fact, this week I have also banned the word ‘finished’ from my classroom). Ultimately, the long-term aim of this task is to ‘close the gap’ between the original verbal comment and the final written sentence, which is why it is important to reflect on the process for next time.

Here is how my year 9s ‘escalated’ a sentence when writing from the perspective of a WW2 soldier:

1. Verbal comment from Student A: “He’s drinking alcohol to calm his nerves.”
2. Verbal sentence from Student B (written up on the board): “I am drinking an alcoholic beverage to calm my nerves and desperation to stay alive.”
3. Written improvement (after extensive class critique) from Student C: Trembling in fear, I picked up a bottle of whiskey, my hand shaking like a boat.
4. After more editing on the board: Trembling, I grasp a bottle of whiskey, my hand shaking like the boat we stand in.

Here is how my year 11s extended an idea when analysing the effectiveness of language in an extract from Jessica Ennis’ autobiography:

1. “The word ‘pluck’ is like she’s lucky.”
2. “The word ‘pluck’ could have connotations of luck.”
3. The verb ‘pluck’ could have connotations of luck because she has been chosen out of many, yet also could have connotations of talent because she has been specifically chosen.
4. In a student’s book: The verb ‘plucked’ could have connotations of luck, perhaps suggesting to the reader that Ennis is very fortunate to be in the situation she is in; however, this is actually very much contradictory with the truth about athletes (concerning how much effort and hard work they put in to achieve their goals). This illustrates Ennis’ intention to make herself seem like any other girl her age in an effort to appear modest, which links into her description of herself as being ‘ordinary’.

Aside from its beautiful simplicity, I see a number of advantages of this strategy:

• It begins to instil Dweck’s ‘Growth Mindset’ – the perfect sentence must remain elusive and as a result we can all write a bit better (teacher included).
• It allows for the seamless integration of language skills and knowledge. As basic concepts are built-upon, so the sentence (or sentences) are extended or scrapped in favour of more complex alternatives. Imagine a lesson, or series of lessons, where a simple sentence containing a simple concept was gradually built upon. It certainly has a cross-curricular appeal.
• It allows for swift and immediate teacher-facilitated feedback on writing skills.
• It encourages the teacher to hone the language skills required for their subject. If the teacher is unable to model the academic ‘genre’ of their subject, how can students – especially those who are not exposed to such language at home – be expected to write well in this genre?

So, there you go. My mini-butterfly has taken wing…

Similar articles

My friend Gav McCusker has been utilising a similar strategy called layered writing when helping students to elaborate on their ideas.

The beauty of paired writing


If there is one writing strategy I love more than anything else in our educational universe, it must be paired writing. Done well, it can transform a darkened November classroom into an oasis of enthusiastic activity.

I’ll start with the benefits.

    In the process of teaching writing, it fits snugly between the modelling/deconstruction stage and independent writing. Students are independent from the teacher, yet dependent on one another. It is not a substitute to independent writing; instead it is a chance to practise new skills. It could also be used as a DIRT strategy, where whole-class and individual targets could be combined see my post on using DIRT strategies.

    Within the process that I outline below, students, as coaches, scaffold one-another through Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development.

    For me, it is peer-assessment in action. Rather than a tagged-on task at the end of the lesson, the peer-assessment is continual and ‘live’. The room is buzzing with questions: Have you used a full-stop here? Why not use a more sophisticated connective? Let’s find a better word for… The link between thought-processes and writing, so often buried and internalised in the teenage mind, is beautifully exhumed in sustained discussion. It can be used in any subject that involves extended writing, not just English. What better way is there for students to familiarise themselves with success criteria?

   It fits into Dylan Wiliam’s mantra for perfect group work: the group need to have a collective goal and individuals must be accountable. There should be no place to hide. See David Didau on this issue.

   Students love the challenge. See how I use extra incentives below.

   And most importantly of all, it is a joy to teach. I can sashay – not a verb I am often associated with – around the classroom, smile, chat to students about the finer points of their work, admire the school field… In the words of my friend and colleague Gavin McCusker, like all great lessons, ‘it runs itself.’

And here’s a way to organise it.

    First, the writing skill to be focused upon needs to be modelled and deconstructed. There are plenty of well-worn ways of doing this. I tend to focus on a single paragraph, so that we can draw out the key criteria we will be working with. This will always be at A* standard, whoever the group, whichever the year group; I do not want to set them up to fail. Read John Tomsett on  Growth Mindset if you are not convinced.

     Then the students need to be given – or, even better, need to create – the success criteria they will be working with. This could be made available to all pairs on a simple tick-sheet. Here’s an example I have used for Y8 persuasive writing.

Tick sheet

   Although some teachers might find it a little crude, I like to introduce a bit of competition – the winners will be the pair who score the highest number of points on the tick-sheet. (They must keep tally and I will check carefully before anointing winners.)

   Next the pairings need to be arranged. I like my students to work in similar-ability pairs; that way I can differentiate the scaffolding needed to help those who need it towards the best possible outcome. However, there are plenty of other options available. Here are the scaffolded  help-sheets I have used with with my year 8s this week:

Scaffolded persuasive letter

   A task needs to be set. Naturally, it is sensible that this is based on skills and knowledge developed in previous lessons.

   Before the pairs begin writing, it is important that they plan. (I tend to model the process.)

   Once writing begins, I ensure that time is roughly split equally. For half the time spent writing, one student is the ‘coach’, using the tick-sheet – along with a dictionary and a thesaurus – to verbally support the writer. Halfway through they switch and perform vice-verse roles. It works best on a shared, ‘neutral’ piece of paper.

   It can take time – often 10 minutes – for the pairs to get started, yet that is part of the beauty. They are thinking, discussing and extending. Or, as I like to see it, they are externalising the internal thought-processes that a good writer must go through.

   At the end, students are usually more than happy to read their examples out, without the usual reticence. Here is an example from my year 8 lesson:

Paired Writing_3

  Yes, there are some technical errors here, but the ambition, development and range of consciously used devices is very promising. Next lesson they will review their accuracy carefully, correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes in their pairs. For me, however, it is not the finished outcome that is important, but the paired-writing process itself.

  I use many other variations on the above sequence, but to me this is the most effective. I sometimes use larger groups of 4 and ask them to write a paragraph each – this is great for teaching discursive markers (connectives) as they have to discuss the organisation of writing in great depth. In odd numbered classes, a group of 3 can become inevitable be sure to pick your trios wisely.

Perhaps the only trouble with paired-writing, if I am honest, is getting the little blighters to write as well on their own as they do with their mates…

4 ways to use a stimulus to develop thinking

Looking back over the lessons and sequences of lessons I have been most happy with in the past few years, they have almost always had one common factor. They have begun with a great stimulus.

The benefits of the perfectly designed or sourced stimulus are manifold: to generate curiosity and anticipation, to provoke or entertain, to shock or engage, to surreptitiously drip-feed the key learning of the lesson, to stimulate discussion and higher-order thought, to find out where the students are, to find out where they need to go… and the list goes on.

Some of my favourite strategies are as follows:

1) Use of a picture or video in some way linked – or even juxtaposed – to the learning of the lesson.
2) Use of music – great for setting the mood you desire.
3) A fictional – invented by the teacher – real-life scenario that the students can empathise with.
4) An object or objects that can be passed around, the stranger the better. I once worked with a teacher who, to introduce a poem, passed around a glass jar telling the class it contained her own pickled umbilical cord saved from birth. It was really a butcher’s off-cut, but the class were none the wiser.
5) A physical role-play task linked to an idea you wish the class to explore. I know a teacher who, when teaching the theme of class in the play Blood Brothers, asks half the class to make boxes and the other half to take part in a halls-of-residence shindig (minus the alcohol, of course). The animosity for the middle-class party-goers generated among the working-class box makers becomes a palpable entity in the classroom!
6) One of my favourites. Give students two minutes in pairs or small groups to form a freeze-frame in some way linked to the learning of the lesson. Once they have frozen, choose one pair and use this tableaux as our stimulus – a stimulus that we can easily reposition and manipulate.

And the list goes on… Yet, there is a danger.  My brilliantly thought-out stimulus can fall flat on its face. When this happens, it is like the home side conceding a goal in the first minute of a match; if the class do not respond in enough depth, the atmosphere goes stale… and will often remain so.

The truth is, it is not the stimulus itself that matters, it is how we use it. More specifically, the lion’s share of planning time needs to be devoted to the questions we will ask about the stimulus – or we expect students to ask each other – not the creation of the stimulus itself. The stimulus is not the point of the lesson; it is a useful resource which serves as a shared springboard for thinking. Take the role-play task from above: if the role-play becomes all about having fun, with insufficient deeper questioning, then even though the lesson may be memorable, the learning point might fizzle away. (David Didau has written very persuasively about the delicate balance between fun and learning). Moreover, careful consideration needs to be given to how we introduce the stimulus – if gravity and maturity are required in student responses, we must establish this tone ourselves before the stimulus is unveiled.

Here are some ideas that work for me:

1. The key is to scaffold the questioning through a carefully planned sequence, moving gradually from lower- to higher-order questions. Shaun Allison at my school has developed a ‘learning journey’ poster which is very useful for this. Bloom’s taxonomy is an excellent tool – you can find useful question stems here – but for me I usually fall back on the questioning tiers I was introduced to during some P4C (Philosophy for Children) training I had in my second year of teaching. P4C,  an educational movement based on the work of Professor Matthew Lipman, was designed to stimulate children to ask philosophical questions in a ‘community of inquiry’. In P4C thinking, questions are divided into four categories: ‘comprehension’, ‘knowledge and research’, ‘speculation’ and ‘enquiry’ (or philosophical). It is a really useful tool not only to teach students how to formulate a philisophical question, but also to help structure whole-class questioning and promote creative and conceptual thought. Below is a stimulus I use before starting a thematic unit on ghost stories, along with the questions I have designed using this format (to be shared verbally with the class).



The ‘link question’  enables students to apply their divergent thinking to the learning that will follow. Whichever method is chosen to help design the questions, it is the scaffolded sequencing that is most vital. Probing Socratic questioning throughout the feedback is also a must. ‘Can you clarify what you mean?’ ‘Give me an example?’ ‘How might somebody argue against what you just said?’ ‘But if that happened, what else would result?’ ‘Is that always the case?’ (Alex Quigley’s Hunting English blog on the subject of questioning is excellent.) We must bleed our stimulus dry, and if it takes a whole lesson to do so, then so be it.

2. A stimulus is particularly useful when introducing analytical exam skills. The trick is to set up the stimulus so that students have to respond to it by unknowingly deploying exactly the skill you want to them to develop later in the lesson. When teaching the analysis of close detail in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I use the famous Great Depression photographs of Dorothea Lange.
Students are asked to find the small details in the photo that give us clues about her plight: the expression in her eyes, her clothing etc. Once they have investigated these in some depth and made some inferences about life in 1930s America, they will transfer these same analytical skills to the text itself by closely analysing the words and phrases Steinbeck uses to describe a character or setting. A similar strategy is used by a colleague of mine who makes all the children in her class throw their books on the floor and asks them to imagine they are taking part in a piece of conceptual art: ‘If we were an installation at a conceptual art gallery, what would the artist have been suggesting modern education?’ She then moves on to teaching the class how to respond conceptually to poetry, and thus transferring the skill to a new context. Sheer genius.

3. Using a stimulus that is at first appearance disconnected from the learning of the lesson works particularly well. Take this example. My Y11 students had been studying an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show for a spoken language project. In the sequence, Kyle is conducting a fierce verbal assault on his troubled teenage guest, Ryan. At the start of the next lesson, I showed them a video sequence of a giraffe fight from David Attenborough’s Africa. By finding the metaphorical connections between the two seemingly – at first – unrelated TV programmes, they could better understand Jeremy Kyle’s tactical use of linguistic features. On the back of this rather brutal stimulus, a few students quite brilliantly structured their controlled assessment essays like an analytical boxing commentary. Others referred to the manner in which Kyle viciously assaults Ryan’s use of local dialect, referring to it as his ‘vulnerable underbelly’.

4. Lastly,  introducing a series of stimuli, or using a single stimulus in more than one way, works particularly well at the start of an Ofsted-graded observation lesson. When introducing Y8 students to argumentative writing, I give them a series of questions. Depending on their beliefs, they have to move to one side or the other of the room, ready to feed back their ideas. I might start with ‘cats are better than dogs’, then move on to ‘friends are more important than family’, until I get on to ‘ambition is a stronger attribute than honesty’. The level of challenge is scaffolded in stages;  students rapidly gain in confidence and their responses become more sophisticated as they move through the statements.  Before each statement, I feed in a new argumentative skill or two, until by the final statement, students are using a range of argumentative language devices as well as taking part in a structured debate across the classroom. Even before the learning objective is set, students have gained verbal confidence in the skills and knowledge they will develop independently in writing later in the lesson.

So there you go. A stimulus, I believe, can genuinely make – or break – a lesson.