If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of using quality writing models in the English classroom for everything from creative writing to an alternative to the dreaded TEEL. And I’m not alone in thinking that one of the best ways to learn how to write well is by emulating other great authors.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
― T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood
In fact, our entire writing cycle hinges on finding quality examples of writing across different forms, genres, and voices. The biggest problem that I’ve found with this is having the time and the resources to track down these models for use in the classroom.
Using writing models
I’ve found that models work best when they are short, accessible extracts, with a clear purpose and an obvious technique that students can emulate. And when I say short, I mean short. If I’m teaching how to build tension in a piece of creative writing, for example, I’d rather use half a dozen passages from a range of stories, than two or three chapters from one particularly tense novel. This has the advantage of reducing the reading burden on students, as what I’m aiming for is not a test of their reading comprehension abilities, but their abilities to understand and reproduce a certain literary technique. It also provides the students with evidence of a range of voices, and proof of the statement much used by English teachers that, “there is no right answer. “
This approach also works for teaching expository or analytical writing. Rather than hand students a formula to follow – like TEEL – I prefer to show them a range of paragraphs with different strengths and weaknesses, and then spend time discussing what makes the paragraphs successful, or otherwise.
Unfortunately, using a range of short examples makes the process of tracking down suitable extracts even harder.
The hunt for writing models
First, models of excellent writing are everywhere. I’m always reading, and I often highlight or copy out particularly interesting and exciting passages from both fiction and nonfiction texts. But this organic way of building up a bank of writing models is still problematic, as you generally don’t know what the model will be about until you stumble across it. If you’re putting together a unit of work on characterisation, or creative writing in general, or how to structure a paragraph, then you don’t have time to wait until an excellent piece of writing falls into your lap.
Luckily, we have the internet to help us out. There’s no need to spend hours trawling through your own much-loved library looking for examples of excellent writing. Google a few terms like the ones below and spend 20 minutes going down the blog rabbit hole, and you’ll find plenty of resources for use in writing units:
- Best characterisation in classic literature
- Examples of tense scenes in novels
- Descriptive and detailed settings from fiction
- 10 best moments in science fiction novels
- Excellent opening lines from books
As for analytical writing samples, there are two places that I head for. The first is the VCAA VCE examination website with years of sample responses to the English examination. Because of how our writing cycle works it doesn’t matter that these responses are unlikely to match the texts we’re teaching at the time. We can use models of quality essay responses from any students to any text and highlight the transferable skills used to write the response. The second source of models for analytical writing, and the much larger, is our own students. A few years ago, we improved our cross-marking and moderation processes, as well as starting to collect most of our main assessments in electronic forms. Over the years this has meant that we’ve built up a bank of high, medium, and low range responses to every one of our major assessment tasks. The added bonus is that there’s a certain competitiveness that comes up in the students when they see the previous year’s anonymous high range responses and strive to beat their own cohort.
Quick searches online, sample examination responses, and past student work all provide excellent resources for short writing models to use in our units.
In 2022 my colleague Ben and I will be working on a Writing Strategies book that includes carefully selected models across a range of forms and genres. Sign up to the mailing list to stay updated.