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.


12 thoughts on “Modelling writing… and the meaning of life

  1. Pingback: Edssential » Modelling writing… and the meaning of life

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  3. Dear M. Atharby, I am hoping George’s medical treatment has done well for him in the long run. As infants, they all do need to stare at us and get socially tuned into the relationship of just who they are in relation to us big people. Adults are the absolute key to healthy infant development. But this facet is barely recognised in most learning theories I come across. And worst of all are those theories that say kids somehow construct their own meanings independent of us adults. It just is so untrue. Many biological scientists are now starting to think of children as absolutely needing adults models as the basic mechanism by which we humans have evolved. The implications this has for teaching I feel are immense, but yet to be fully detailed, after so many erroneous ideas have floated around within education for 100 years or so. The social learning, social brain ideas are so rich and valid. George needed his social input experiences, so critical. Cheers, Greg Yates in Adelaide, (Thank you an interesting blog, and thanks for citing the book).

    • Many thanks for taking the time to comment. George is doing brilliantly, even if he can only see through one eye. Here in the UK, I am part of a generation of teachers who have been trained to ‘facilitate’ learning; many new – and potentially very good – teachers are wary of direct instruction and modelling. ‘Constructing meaning independent of adults’, as you say, is a bizarre idea – any parent can tell you that. The evolutionary theory is very powerful and I thank you for bringing it to light so persuasively in your wonderful book.

  4. One of the best pieces on the teaching of writing I’ve ever read. This is at the core of school improvement in my view. It collates everything: the ‘simple’ strategies to demystify the most challenging act students ever do in a classroom. This is ‘the task’ for me, not just in English classrooms, but in every curriculum area: Overcoming the fear of the blank page and using the writing process as the route to independent learning and deep understanding.

    A poignant and brilliant piece. Thank you.

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