Using Example Texts – Writing With And For Children

#WritingRocks Twitter chat with Carolyn from @Write_Example

  • 20:01 – First question posted.
  • 20:02 –  Oh dear – it’s just going to be me and the dog!
  • 20:04 – I should probably have posted my response to the first question…
  • 20:05 – Ooo hello, someone’s joining in…

And we’re off. So was the start to my first ever twitter chat. Never in my life has an hour passed so quickly: the discussion that followed was insightful, educational, challenging and inspiring.

When @Writing Rocks­­_17 asked me to host a #WritingRocks chat session about being a writer-teacher and getting the most out of example texts, I was thrilled and nervous in almost equal measure. Thrilled won: I jumped at the chance. #WritingRocks are a group of teachers interested in discussing all aspects of teaching writing in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. At the heart of the Writing Rocks philosophy is their Writing for Pleasure Manifesto which is a brilliant read – highly recommended. If you’d like to find out more, check out the rest of this blog which is packed with great information for anyone teaching literacy. I owe a huge thanks to the guys at #Writing Rocks for their support and for the chance to get involved with a #WritingRocks session especially covering an area that I’m so enthusiastic about.

I was also lucky to have help – in the form of an excellent example – thanks to Nicola at @TheWritingWeb who had recently hosted a fantastic chat covering Planning Purposeful & Authentic Writing Projects. Nicola kindly shared her how she’d approached her chat, and the fab postcard she’d used to advertise it. I’d really enjoyed Nicola’s chat so was incredibly grateful for her advice and support.

So here’s how it all went down on the night…

Q1. What are the pros and cons of using example texts?

The pros of using example texts in the classroom weren’t a hot topic for debate in this chat– my guess is that most people participating were broadly in agreement.

Ideas shared:

  • Multiple bases can be covered at once – vocab, grammar, voice, style, purpose – providing a rounded learning experience.
  • Example texts provide an opportunity for children to imitate, innovate and invent.
  • Getting children immersed in a text can be a great way to inspire them write their own versions.
  • Examples chosen from excellent authors can open teacher’s and learner’s eyes to techniques and ideas they may never have otherwise thought of.

Looking at the cons of using example texts began with the comment that finding the right texts can be difficult, followed by the idea that it’s important for texts to be high quality; however, this quickly evolved to a much deeper discussion sparked by the brilliant questions of…do they though? Do example texts always need to be high quality? Or is being authentic enough?

Ideas shared:

  • Some of the most powerful were pieces were the ones that teachers had written from the heart.
  • There is a power in challenging pupils to deliberately write an appalling example – it’s fun, children love spotting other’s mistakes, and it can inspire some children to raise their game.
  • Modelling the rough drafts and edits – blind alleys, wrong turns and dead ends – is easy to forget but important to remember. On the flipside of this, are we brave enough to show how emotionally tough the process of drafting can be – how sometimes we must kill our ideas and start all over again?

For me, this was a great reminder that writing is a balance of processes and each process – including writing for pleasure – can be developed in many different ways, which bring us to…

Q2. How can an example text be used to model writing for pleasure?

I’m really enthused by the discussions around how to develop writing for pleasure going on at the moment. Most creative pursuits are, by nature, pleasurable but, with so much emphasis on other parts of the writing process in the curriculum, the pleasure of writing has been diminished for some children and teachers. I couldn’t wait to hear people’s ideas…

Several people thought that examples could model writing for pleasure:

  • if the example had come from someone writing for pleasure.
  • if combined with raising the profile of writers as inspiring people.
  • if writerly behaviours were modelled.
  • if a writing community was also being developed.

Another perspective shared was that writing for pleasure can’t be modelled from a text especially if a teacher has a specific expectation. This was followed up with the question of… ‘Maybe just modelling texts isn’t enough – maybe, we need to model the writer’s life too?’

The next great question raised was… ‘Do people only ever write if they have to write an example text for their class – or do they write for pleasure as well?’  Some responses were that daily writing of poems and memoirs brought a lot of joy, and that some of the writing process can simply take place in your head – long before you get a spare minute to put pen to paper or finger to smartphone. I liked the line ‘Using the notes app on my phone has changed my life. You can write anytime – anywhere!’.

Some teachers have found that a way to model writing for pleasure is to share their own writing notebook – great idea – but one brave teacher who’d done just this had some words of warning…double check it first for doodles, comments or snippets of eavesdropping which may give you reason to blush!

Q3. What makes an excellent example text?

I love a magic wand question. To summarise, it seemed that most folk are looking for texts which are written from the heart; inspire children and make them smile; are appropriately contextualised; and can be used to scaffold learning in terms of grammar, organisation, language and style. But, people had different ideas of which of these is most important, and so followed a discussion around the benefits of teachers writing their own example texts.

One argument for teachers writing their own texts was that teachers could then cover exactly what their class needed at that time. Also shared was that if teachers ‘write the write’ they’d understand children’s experience of writing processes more easily and so would also be in a better position to do pupil-conferences – there was some fab book recommendations shared regards pupil conferencing – ‘How’s It Going?’ by Carl Anderson and ‘In The Middle’ by Nancie Atwell.

I liked the ideas that ‘You wouldn’t teach maths without first working some problems out on the board – why should writing be any different?’ and ‘There is also the metaphor of you wouldn’t teach a pupil to play the tuba if you had never played it yourself – Donald Graves.

Some felt that writing with spirit and heart was the priority and that ‘crow-barring’ grammatical features into a text removed some of the pleasure from writing and had a less powerful effect on the children. This was generally agreed with, except for the point that having a strong grasp of grammar can be liberating for a writer as they try to communicate their message and what better way to help children learn grammar than seeing it in action?

Perhaps it’s always about balance and what the teacher is hoping to achieve by using a particular text. For me, a text needs to tick three boxes – be engaging and enjoyable; show purpose and help motivate writers; and inspire confidence by providing useful examples of language.  Here at @Write_Example Towers I’m currently working on a bank of differentiated example texts that model grammar-in-action, in a range of contexts, but are also engaging and fun to work with. The hope is that these texts will complement teacher’s own writings by ‘ticking the technical boxes’ thus allowing teachers more flexibility in creating their own examples for their particular class or a specific learning point

And, if you’d like to read more about teachers as writers, Teresa Cremin kindly supplied us with the following links…

Q4. If you had to choose – lots of similar texts vs one text studied in depth?

This made me smile: ‘I love diving really deep so we can see the writer’s craft at different levels. ‘That ‘oh look what they did there moments’ that you get when you really know something!’

And then from another a group of experts: ‘The apprentice writers in my class prefer lots of similar texts.’

Followed by the wise words, ‘Depth over breadth for close up – wider reading of examples for enrichment. We don’t have to choose.’ ‘All about balance in the end and thus hard to wrought and always in response to unique learners! No wonder supporting writers is hard!’

Thank goodness we don’t have to choose – like having to choose between cake or…cake! For me, I like the upside-down triangle of looking at lots of similar texts initially to get the brain juices flowing, and then into detail with a fit-for-purpose example.

And of course, there’s the ‘b’ word again: balance. As with many things, it’s the middle way that yields the best rewards, and whether you prefer using polished pieces or rough notes; a range of texts or a single text; examples full or grammar or examples full of deliberate errors; writing straight from the heart or all of the above – it comes down to what works for each class and each teacher.

Bit about the author Carolyn from @Write_Example

A teacher for 10 years, a writer for much longer. Recently, I’ve had to take a step back from the classroom due to some fairly major health challenges, but I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for teaching, learning, reading and writing. My mission now is to build a bank of excellent example texts which teachers can use to complement their own writings and methods of teaching writing processes. No launch date yet, but it’s getting closer all the time… watch this space!

For the full list of #WritingRocks summaries, go here.


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