I was recently on a course, the final assessment for which was a large, evidence-based essay documenting the impact of a certain project we’d undertaken in our schools.
When I opened up my laptop to write, it was reminiscent of those fateful Great British Bake Off challenges where the poor contestants are ordered to create a perfect Norwegian kvaefjordkake in 20 minutes with limited instructions and absolutely no concept of what, who or where a kvaefjordkake is.
Fortunately, when we next got together, my table of teachers all expressed our complete absence of any inkling of how to begin the essay and we were mature enough (only just, mind) to approach the course leader and ask for some examples.
Quick read: The 4 secrets of a high-quality text in primary
Quick listen: Should WhatsApp be used to teach writing?
Want to know more? How self-regulation boosts pupil achievement
He said it was an excellent idea and we were all sent email copies of high-scoring assignments from the previous cohort, which made getting started far easier.
Now, I seem to remember this happening rather a lot during my secondary school years; either that, or I wasn’t listening particularly well to the teacher (this is very possible).
“So you need to write a persuasive leaflet about Swanage – off you go.” Erm...
I’ve also seen this all too often in primary settings, where teachers get downhearted when their pupils produce very average pieces.
But how on Earth can children write without being shown Wagoll (What A Good One Looks Like)?
Assumption is the enemy here. It's very easy to assume that our pupils know what to write, especially if they are familiar with the subject or genre.
But the great thing about modelled writing is that, when it is done well, everyone in your classroom benefits.
Your most-able children will leap at the chance to magpie language, while your middle-ability students may find that semi-colons may suddenly “click”.
Modelling for English can take many forms but I will focus on three:
It can be a daunting prospect at times; just ask anyone who has live-written in front of a lesson observer. But real-time modelling is an extremely valuable tool, especially for pupils who lack confidence.
It is important to know what you plan to write before you get started, but an element of modelled vulnerability is a great strategy here.
Showcase what you want the children to see while also demonstrating the writing process, writer’s block and all.
Forgetting capital letters and misspelling words gives pupils the opportunity to correct you (which they’ll love) and this boosts their confidence while reminding them not to make the same errors. Win-win.
Pre-written modelled texts
The well-prepared model is an essential piece of kit. This doesn’t have to be a whole text (although the pre-written element does lend itself to this approach more than its real-time counterpart).
For trickier writing genres like newspaper articles and explanatory texts, a full text is ideal.
Not only do they see the nuts and bolts of the text, such as vocabulary and punctuation, but they also see how to structure it and what a polished, finished article looks like.
Another benefit is that you can take your time and be incredibly selective with what you include in the text, ensuring that a plethora of “common exception words” appear, for example, or that it is littered with embedded clauses.
Subject knowledge is imperative here and it can be daunting, especially in the upper echelons of key stage 2, where age-related expectations are dizzyingly high.
But if we’re intimidated, imagine how our pupils feel when they’re facing the task of writing a certain genre for the first time in a while.
Using ex-pupils’ texts as models can be highly effective, offering myriad benefits. Your pupils will appreciate that the text was written by a peer (when a teacher produces a piece of writing, there is a slight risk of “Well of course you can do it, you’re a teacher’).
A text written by another child can increase confidence and in some cases (I often choose older siblings) healthy competitiveness.
And it saves you a job! Writing model after model can be time-consuming, even for the most confident of writers. You clearly taught this lesson very well once, so reap the rewards once more.
Websites like Pobble enable teachers to upload examples of their pupils’ writing, which are then handily categorised for those emergency Monday morning lessons.
Teachers should be wary not to develop an over reliance on modelled texts, however. We are looking to cultivate independent writers.
But despite that health warning, there is no denying that modelling is one of the most valuable items in the teacher toolkit.
Without examples, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Remember, even the most accomplished of bakers needs to sneak a peek at Mary Berry’s recipe if their kvaefjordkake isn’t to fall flat.
Philippa Seymour is a KS2 teacher and English specialist in South Gloucestershire