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Why modelling mistakes is the key to teaching writing

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Teaching writing is hard. Writing is a difficult enough task for adults and many children will do anything they can to avoid it.

One of the main reasons for this is the fear of making mistakes in a highly visible, and virtually permanent manner. Yet as educators we understand that the most successful learners are those who see mistakes as necessary steps along the way to mastery.

One of the best ways for educators in any subject to successfully teach writing is to model the writing process. This is not a new or original idea, but it has become diluted over the years. Perhaps it is time to revisit what successful modelling looks like in the classroom.

There are four core stages to the modelling of writing:

  1. Engage the learners by getting everyone to sit where they can clearly see the whiteboard.
  2. Tell them what you are going to write about.
  3. Begin to write on the board, clearly voicing your thoughts as you go. This is the important bit – you are modelling your thought processes as a successful writer, not just the physical act of writing. Include mistakes, deliberately if necessary, and clearly correct them with a pen of a different colour for the sake of clarity.
  4. Constantly review your text with the learners by asking them to improve it – ie, treating it as an obvious draft and helping them to understand the importance of making errors.

You don’t need to write much; some of the most effective pieces can be a single sentence that is heavily crafted. The aim is to make sure that the learners understand the importance of making mistakes. Of course, you can choose to focus your attention on specific elements of the text, such as the grammar, the genre or overall style – it's up to you.

As well as being effective for teaching different aspects of writing, this approach is also useful for fiction or non-fiction writing – it is infinitely adaptable to any genre. In fact, some of the best examples of such modelling I have had the privilege to see were in science and humanities lessons.

I’ve come across educators who feel uncomfortable with this process, but it is genuinely effective. You quickly overcome the odd feeling of deliberately making mistakes in front of the children as they become engaged and enthused.

Modelling in this way help learners in any subject area to become more effective writers – and it also helps them to develop the fabled "growth mindset".

John Perry was talking to Nicola Davison.  He is an education consultant and former headteacher

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