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Modelling Matters: Thinking about writing in Year 6 English lessons

Written By: Kieran Briggs
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It is important to demonstrate that writing well involves careful thinking and decision-making.

Guildford High School is an independent day school for girls aged four to 18. There are approximately 980 girls overall with almost 300 in the junior school. Although entry is dependent on selection, there is a broad range of attainment within each year group.

The junior school participates in the assessment and reporting arrangements for Maths and English at the end of KS2, and our writing is assessed against the three standards of attainment in the English writing framework. We are constantly searching for effective teaching strategies that will maximise our pupils’ potential in writing. I chose to scrutinise my class’ first pieces of independent work to initiate a focus for improvement.

My year 6 cohort had no problem generating ideas for written tasks. However, when expressing themselves, pupils tended to revert to certain behaviours. Some splurged ideas, whilst others relied on a formulaic style which involved simple sentences. I deconstructed pre-written examples to demonstrate the components of a polished piece, but residual habits persisted in their independent work.
They needed to develop their skills in making discerning choices when writing. So I started exploring modelling strategies that would show all my pupils – especially the less confident writers and those with dyslexia – how they could foster an internal voice to direct and monitor their decisions.

My research

I chose modelling because composing a text together enables pupils to witness the teacher – an expert – crafting their ideas into a quality piece of shared writing. This draws on a range of research, such as Barak Rosenshine’s fourth principle of effective instruction, wherein he states: ‘The teacher modelling and thinking aloud while demonstrating how to solve a problem are examples of effective cognitive support.’ (p.15)

I also read Andy Tharby’s Making Every English Lesson Count, wherein he asserts: ‘To model writing means to hold a microscope to the mysterious, private experience of a writer who is transforming thoughts into words.’ (p.106) This is exactly what I wanted to show my pupils, and his take on modelling ‘live’ prompted me to reflect on my practice.

I concluded that whilst our shared writing experiences showcased all the necessary elements, the metacognitive processes underpinning the vivid vocabulary, varied sentence structures and punctuation choices were less explicit. I wanted to give a running commentary of my thoughts, articulated in accessible language to demonstrate how a desired outcome might be reached. This would show my pupils that a well-crafted piece of writing does not just magically appear, even for the highest attaining, but demands effortful decision-making.

Preparing for the approach

Modelling ‘live’ required pupils’ undivided attention, so we removed irrelevant stimuli in the classroom. The area around the board was decluttered and pupils’ desks were cleared. The minimalist space helped steer pupils’ attention away from extraneous distractions and reinforced the expectation that complete focus was required.

The board resembled a blank page in an exercise book, and pupils were expected to listen and observe during the modelling phase of the lesson. I decided that it made sense to reveal my strategic thinking after we had deconstructed the constituent parts of an exemplar text. The pupils could then mentally connect the finished article with implicit crafting, before engaging in their own written task.

I planned to model heavily in the autumn term and then reduce the frequency and depth of guidance during the following two terms – allowing the pupils time to practise independently.

The approach in practice

Below are the principles that shaped my revised modelling approach, with ‘live’ talk snippets as examples of practice:

  • Model in the first person: I vocalised self-monitoring by frequently using ‘I’ when questioning, evaluating, explaining and revising choices.
  • Model re-reading: I found that pupils with less developed self-regulation skills are often reluctant to check their work, so I paused regularly to read aloud what I had written, stating clearly my chosen reason. Examples included re-reading for sense, word omissions, punctuation, effect or cohesion.
  • Model how to refer to the audience and purpose: The key stage 2 English writing assessment framework highlights writing ‘effectively for a range of purpose and audiences’. (p. 5) I drew attention to the purpose and target audience from the start, and then referenced these aspects regularly during the modelling process.
  • Model how to relate a concept to prior learning: During modelling, I also showed how the writer can make connections with previous knowledge and then modelled how to retrieve and transfer this information.
  • Model how to relate a concept to prior reading: Pupils should also be encouraged to draw on their reading. The key stage 2 English writing assessment framework promotes greater depth writing, fuelled by reading. Rather than lift a phrase from a recommended book and parachute it into a piece of writing, though, I showed how to integrate a literary device used by a familiar author. For example: ‘Katherine Rundell’s ‘five kinds of cold’ description in The Wolf Wilder depicts vividly the Russian landscape so I want to engage the reader by writing my own adaptation.’
  • Model contextual inclusion of spellings from the National Curriculum: Shoehorning a spelling from the statutory word lists seems forced, but many of these words appear in the Tier Two category. According to Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2002), these are words, often of nuanced meaning and increased precision, which are more likely to be used in a written context rather than everyday conversation. Where useful, I modelled the inclusion of academic vocabulary, giving a contextual definition.
  • Make considered choices: This ability to make and explain deliberate choices when writing is emphasised in the KS2 greater depth standard. In the teacher assessment frameworks, it says: ‘Exercise an assured and conscious control over levels of formality, particularly through manipulating grammar and vocabulary’. (p. 5) I wanted pupils to establish a habit whereby a statement, such as ‘I am choosing to use X because Y…’ became embedded in their deliberations.

Refining modelling

As we went on, I refined my modelling approach in response to feedback from the pupils. This included:

  • Embracing the messiness of thinking hard. I modelled revisions, additions and crossings out to show that the initial expression of ideas could be messy, and that was to be celebrated.
  • Planning a specific focus before lessons. I chose a particular step in the writing process – such as the transition from a set of ideas to a cohesive paragraph – to model. This avoided information overload.
  • Deciding on the length prior to modelling. Often, writing one sentence and unpicking its constituent parts, polishing and perfecting it, whilst debating aloud, was sufficient. At other times, when addressing a deep-seated punctuation misconception for example, we needed a short paragraph or two.

Collaborative practice

The above examples place the onus on the teacher to model self-monitoring strategies. However, many of the pupils soon wanted to imitate and develop their own ‘voice’. Prior to independent work, I decided to have pupils practise in pairs as this would be less pressurised and build confidence.

Initially, they would hone a sentence, making their amendments visible. Later, the pairs wrote short paragraphs together, whilst discussing, questioning and evaluating their decisions.

Short pre-written texts with vocabulary, style and punctuation issues also enabled the pairs to practise vocalising their deliberations. I wrote these paragraphs before the lesson and printed them in the centre of A3 paper so pupils had space to show their revisions and to note the reasoning behind their choices.

A copy of these forms of practice were kept by the pupils and used as reference points when they were expected to utilise their skills independently. An example of this resource can be seen below.

Notes on a piece of paper


The response was promising. The class soon understood the expectation to listen and observe during the teacher-led modelling phase, and the pair work proved motivating.

I could see that by the summer term, most drafts showed the hard thinking behind the writing, although a small minority of pupils were not wholly engaging with the strategy, particularly in their independent work. In one of the final English lessons of the year, each pupil was given back a time capsule letter addressed to their ‘future self’, which had been written in the previous September. During a subsequent evaluative lesson, the interactions between most pupils revealed a stronger ability to interrogate their previous grammar, vocabulary, punctuation and style choices. A few less confident pupils still required an oral frame.

One pupil said she was now thinking more about sentence length and word order. Her writing had lacked flow and expression was restricted by a series of short sentences that relied on a subject plus verb opening. As her ‘inner voice’ developed, her drafts showed decision-making. Littered with deletions and revisions that were signposted with a personal coded system, her most recent pieces showcased an increased range of sentence structures.

A pupil with dyslexia began to draw on the literary devices she was encountering in her reading. Inspired by Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother, once bland descriptions were enlivened with examples of personification.

Overall, high-attaining pupils were assessed as working at greater depth in writing and the ‘cusp’ pupils met the expected standard. 86% of pupils attained a high score in the GPS paper and 84% of pupils attained a high score in the reading paper. On an interesting side note, scores above 110 were achieved by the less confident writers who had invested effort in nurturing an evaluative voice over the year. Whilst it may seem speculative, a commitment to the modelled strategies seemed to accelerate some pupils’ progress in English.


It is important to show that writing well does involve effortful thinking, making challenging decisions on content and choosing an articulate means of expression. To relay this message to the pupils, I focused on presenting non-verbal clues such as exaggerated pauses and facial expressions.

The issue of when to ‘move on’ emerged. Occasionally, there were pupils who would stall, spending too long overthinking or debating a single decision. It became necessary to model an awareness of time, making explicit references to the expected length of a response and showing how to pick and choose parts of the writing to be reworked.

I also felt there was a need to distinguish between showing personal deliberations whilst writing, and the class/teacher collaboration of shared writing. Rather than merging and possibly diluting these two approaches, as well as risking cognitive overload, the sole purpose needed to focus on the analytical decision-making element.

Of course, sharing ideas is of immense value and, as a natural progression from teacher-led modelling, pupils were then invited to contribute.

Moving forward

Whilst many factors guided these think aloud sessions, monitoring the pupils’ reception and reaction was key in determining success. A fine line exists between a modelling experience being of immense value and one that becomes a bombardment of teacher generated decisions. Although this teaching strategy continues to evolve, two prominent principles have emerged: the adoption of a meaningful and measured approach that shows the class how to think hard, and the celebration of pupils becoming directors of their own writing.

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