I have long considered that getting your Model for Writing (M4W) spot-on, is the key to successful teaching of writing. When working with colleagues to support with planning, this is where I often insist we start. I begin by guiding the teacher towards articulating what it is that they really want their pupils to be able to produce in writing by end of the unit, and what skills they want this piece to show. This usually gets us straight to the crux of the issue because it gears us up to talk about what it is that the children can currently do, and what it is that they need to get better at. Moreover, this helps me as the adviser to support my colleagues in determination whether the skill being proposed really is an appropriate next step for the cohort. Often, at this point, I find myself trying to reign in their expectations (not something I do lightly, you may imagine). It may be that my colleague is attempting to move onto a skill that is not referenced in the year group’s Programme of Study, and doesn’t actually represent a suitable next step for the group; or, it may be that my colleague is moving on to the next writing skill too quickly, and that the children may benefit from lingering for longer on a skill that they are only just beginning to adopt in their independent writing.
When we have decided what it is that we want the piece to showcase, then we start writing. The term ‘showcase’ is one that I have found particularly helpful in the context of preparing M4W. The model – alongside demonstrating superb writing in line with whatever the task demands – should act as a window through which the skill that we are trying to foster can be seen. In this sense, the skill – be it ‘expanded noun phrases’ or ‘prepositional phrases’ or ‘subordinating conjunctions’ – should litter the piece to such an extent that the children cannot fail to notice its inclusion. This may make for a ever-so-slightly contrived piece of writing (although often I find that it does not) because you will be using that grammatical skill more often than you think strictly necessary. But, this is crucial because if that grammatical feature is only used once or twice, how likely is it that the children will consider it important enough to use in their own subsequent writing? Furthermore, if there are only a few examples contained within the piece, then you have allowed yourself a very limited number of examples to draw upon when discussing the use of this feature with the children. Instead, you would want multiple examples of this skill in use to allow you multiple ways in which its use can be referenced.
To exemplify this point, imagine that we are focusing on a year 3 class and that their next step to improve their writing is to extend their sentences using a range of subordinating conjunctions. When writing my model, I need to be mindful therefore that many of my sentences are indeed extended using this grammatical feature. If I am struggling to do that, then I might ask myself how the children will cope when asked to do the same task. Is it that the skill is not relevant to the task in hand (unlikely in this context, but it may be relevant if we were considering a different grammatical skill, such as speech demarcation for example)? In that scenario, the task may need to be re-thought to ensure that it acts as a suitable vehicle to allow this core writing skill to be enacted. What we must avoid at all costs is shoe-horning grammatical features into our models when they do not warrant a place. First and foremost, the model should have a purpose; the grammatical feature must work to ensure that the purpose of the writing is achieved.
When reviewing my model in light of my planned intentions, I might ask myself the following questions:
- How obvious is this grammatical feature within the model?
- Is it masked by too many other grammatical features?
By this I am alluding to the fact that if you want a feature to shine, then you must dampen down the glare from the other writing features in the piece. It is counter-productive to try and showcase too many grammatical features in one go. If you equate ambitious modelling with throwing all the elements of the PoS for the year group into one piece, then disappointment will surely follow. Quite simply, the children will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Better to stick to just one core writing skill that you know the children need to work on, and let it shine.
This may mean holding back on other features that you know the children have yet to master. So, for example, if you deem ‘extending sentences through the use of subordinating conjunctions’ to be a key next step, then push your concerns about the use of prepositional phrases and adverbs of time to one place for a moment, and instead focus on the one big thing that you want them to develop. By all means, include a sprinkling of these in the piece, but don’t make them the star of the show.
What I find most rewarding about working with teachers to plan their M4W is that once complete, the model then dictates the learning required and therefore the lessons that need to be planned. Following completion of the model, the teacher and I may ask, ‘so if this is what I want the children to ultimately produce – or something like it – what learning experiences do I need to plan for to allow this to happen?’ This then leads to purposeful lesson planning, ensuring that each sequential stage provides a learning opportunity that will ultimately lead to the production of a successful piece, or pieces, of writing.
We may go on to rationalise that if we want this feature to be put to good use in their own writing, then the children will need ample opportunities to engage with the model. First and foremost, they should be encouraged to react and respond to the effectiveness of the piece: does it affect the reader in the way intended? What were the best bits? When the effect has been established, and ideally ‘felt’ by the children, then they can be guided to spot the grammatical feature that is ‘on show’; note its usage and consider its effectiveness within the context of the piece.
Some questions and prompts that I may use to support this are as follows:
- How might this piece sound if I removed the grammatical feature in focus?
- Does it reduce the effectiveness of the piece? (In this instance, the model can be re-written to eliminate the feature).
Can the children spot what has been taken away? Can they name it? Can they re-insert the feature to restore the effectiveness of the piece? Can they come up with their own examples that they might be able to then use in their own piece of writing?
They will need to have lots of practise of using that grammatical feature – both contextualised within the piece that they are going to write, and discreet to ensure that they can apply the skill outside of the context. They would then benefit from seeing how other authors have used it to write effectively in similar contexts – cue the need for reading around the genre, where we show the children how other great authors have created similar effects using this grammatical feature. When ready, they need to have a go at creating an effective piece themselves –collaboratively at first. The teacher can be on hand at this time to collect examples of excellence where the feature in question –alongside other lovely bits – have been incorporated to good effect. Then, the children will need to have a go independently, incorporating this feature as they have been shown along the way. Finally, the children need to be encouraged to review their written piece.
- Did it mimic the effect of the modelled piece? How and to what extent?
- How did the grammatical skill in question contribute to the effectiveness?
- Can the children find an example of where they used this feature to great effect?
- Conversely, can they find an example of where their writing was less effective and could have been made more so by the use of the feature in focus?
The journey across a unit towards producing a quality written outcome may seem long and undulating, but the starting point is always the same: it begins with a good model. One thing is for sure, getting that right is no doddle!
For more guidance on using and creating appropriately pitched models, inspired by quality texts, explore our Models for Writing booklets (available for purchase from our online shop.)