This is a posting of my presentation at the NATE North writing conference.
I think the routines and habits we establish in and out of the classroom are massively important. Whether these are routines to help the start of lessons go smoothly or to mark exercise books, there are things we should be doing again and again, refining, improving and embedding. Writing is no different. For students to be able to produce excellent writing there are several teacher and student habits I feel are important.
Part 1 Mentor texts and modelling
We want students to produce excellent writing but there are a few issues that we need to acknowledge. First of all, many students do not read regularly and do not encounter different writing styles. When I think about what made me a good writer at school, I am convinced that it was the fact that I read a great deal. But even if students have a reading habit, they are still less likely to read non-fiction and so when we ask them to write it is unsurprising that they will struggle if they have no idea of what a successful piece might look like. This is why we should surround students with mentor texts.
“A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” Jeff Anderson, in Mechanically Inclined.
Whenever you are asking students to write, you show them examples of texts to use as models- mentor texts. I like calling them ‘mentor texts’ because of the associations of the word ‘mentor’-these are the texts we learn from. We should collect these whenever we come across them. They can be whole texts, sections of texts and can even be created by you for the sole purpose of being a mentor text- although I would only do this if I couldn’t find a better one in the real world.
The first step is to read the mentor text. It is worth creating opportunities for students to interact and analyse aspects of the text. Then I would draw attention to anything worth pointing out: paragraph structures, sentences, vocabulary, punctuation and anything interesting at all. Draw out the interesting aspects that make this worth studying. Then students should be encouraged to imitate the text.
Mentor texts can be in all shapes and sizes. An example I used recently was this review of Rock of Ages. There is a cracking paragraph in there which could fit in any review which touches upon genre conventions:
Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the “Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?
There are a number of sentences with similar constructions throughout the text. I would draw attention to these as we read:
- If you’re tracking those names, you’re perhaps impressed.
- If you are of a certain age, you may remember them.
- If you’re making the kind of movie where everybody in the audience knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s best not to linger on the recycled bits.
Both of the above examples would lend themselves well to activities where students imitate the language and style. For good measure, here are a few more openings of film reviews I think would work well as mentor paragraphs.
If you are looking for mentor texts, then they don’t come any smaller than sentences. In Everyday Editing, Anderson explains how he chooses sentences that:
- Connect to students’ worlds-their interests, humour, or problems;
- Show a clear pattern that is easy to observe, imitate, or break down;
- Model writer’s craft and effective writing-powerful verbs, sensory detail, or voice.
I now spend much of my time in lessons looking at sentences, mainly inspired by the blogging of Chris Curtis (see recommended reading). We need to form a ‘sentence stalking’ habit as teachers and then pass that on to students.
This paragraph from a mentor text I used with a class has several sentences of note and I chose to ‘zoom in’ on the opening one:
Like many homeless young people that come to Centrepoint, Mark is used to being ignored.
We can encourage students to play around with a sentence like this.
- How is it different from Mark is used to being ignored like many homeless young people that come to Centrepoint?
- How does it change if it becomes Mark is homeless. Mark is used to being ignored.
- You could get students to substitute words. You could ask them to create sentences with a similar pattern e.g. Like many_____________, Mark____________________.
- You could experiment with different words to start e.g. ‘unlike’ / Just like/ As with.
You can see examples of this in action below when students were asked to use the mentor text as a guide for a similar piece on an animal rescue charity:
The second example is notable because, although the student has used the mentor sentence to create their own, the ‘dear helpless humans’ opening does not fit and is an example of trying to cram in a language technique at the expense of the tone of the piece.
The next example is also notable because the original mentor text had a punctuation error (which I didn’t spot) and the student has imitated it. This makes me realise that students will learn from the texts we show them. If we show students who have a target grade of C a C grade piece of work as an exemplar, we are guilty of lowering expectations as they will imitate that and not a better piece of work.
Teacher as writer
The teacher should model the process of writing. It isn’t just a case of showing a final product to students. They need to know that there is a hidden part that the best writers never show but always go through. Students need to see that it is never a perfect process. Sentences change, bits are removed, and sometimes when it is completed we’re not that happy. My visualiser is an essential tool to help me to do this. A useful website is screencast-o-matic.com as you can record videos of your modelling. This allows you circulate the class and you can save them and refer students back to them.As we start writing, I also like to ask students to write on my whiteboard either side of the Smartboard. It makes their thinking visible, other students can take ideas and we have something to critique afterwards.
Part 2: revision and redrafting
The first part of the post was all about ways to ensure that students produce a strong first draft of writing. The next set of habits that we want students to encode are to do with the crucial stage of revision of work. After the first draft, something needs to happen to ensure that a further draft has some improvement. All too often, drafts can be simply neater versions of the first drafts with the odd word replaced with another using a thesaurus.
Acting on feedback
Students should act on feedback as part of the process of writing and not just after it is finished. I use mail merge to create ‘feedbactivities’ which are handed to students as starters. Examples are collected here. The more immediate this feedback loop is, the more likely that students will improve as a result. I like improvements to impact on the current piece of work as well as the next.
Another useful feedback method is the Taxonomy of Errors. Simply put- this is a collection of class errors on a piece of work- read this blog for a more detailed explanation. In my own version, I collect the errors/targets along with some guidance on how to improve. The pictured example is based on the Centrepoint mentor text. In the example I have informed students of their more specific target (T4) but you could ask them to identify their target from the list or use it for peer assessment. Here is the list of targets.
In Write Like This, Kelly Gallagher makes a compelling case for revision:
It is modelling revision- taking a rough draft and moving it to a better place- that is critical if our students are to sharpen their writing skills. Many of my students come to me with a ‘I wrote it once; I am done’mentality, and it takes many modelling sessions before they start to move past this attitude. Anyone can write, I tell them, but rewriting is where good papers emerge. Revision is where it is at- the make-or-break point for the paper, the place where bad writing has the opportunity to be transformed into good writing.
His ‘STAR Revision’ is a good starting point. Remember that you can’t just give students this sheet and they’ll magically revise everything. It all needs to be modelled, discussed and reviewed. Versions of this could be produced for specific tasks and text types. (Thanks to @KerryPulleyn for this idea)
There are certainly more routines worth exploring to help to improve writing and I’m always grateful for more ideas. The above are proving effective for me but as always are works in progress.
Most of my ideas come from other teachers. Here are some ideas for further reading:
Chris Curtis (@xris32) is a prolific blogger. His blogs on sentences have had a huge impact on my practice and they are collected here.
Jeff Anderson(@writeguyjeff) has written a number of books on writing. 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know is a treasure trove of ideas and highly recommended.
Alex Quigley (@huntingenglish) has this brilliant blog on shared writing.
I’d recommend reading anything by Kelly Gallagher (kellygtogo).
Finally, I did speak about vocabulary in the original presentation as I feel that vocabulary routines are extremely important. Here are my posts on vocabulary:
- The vocabulary gap
- Unfamiliar words part 1: Context
- Unfamiliar words Part 2: Dictionaries and word parts
- Choosing which words to teach
- Getting on top of homework