“When you are modelling, you are creating a picture, a still life, perhaps something like a silent film. You convey emotion but you are only using your body.”
Now I am not going to discussing the world of fashion in this post; it’s going to be about writing. But replace but a single word in the above quote – body to words – and it captures something of what I’m trying to achieve when modelling writing: creating pictures with words to convey emotion. And just as spending a little time and effort to prepare the canvas before creating your masterpiece will yield better results, so too will preparing your canvas before you model writing by creating a simple modelling frame.
This is a modelling frame. [fig. 1] It’s nothing more than two perpendicular lines drawn onto the paper or dry wipe board where I’m going to be modelling – the horizontal line drawn towards the top of the page and the vertical line towards the left. At the top is a space to write the purpose of the writing (a), to the left an outline of the structure (b) and in the centre the modelled writing (c). That’s it.
Establishing the reason for writing is perhaps the most important thing of all. It influences everything that follows. Knowing what you are trying to achieve determines the structure of the writing – the sequence of events of information. It determines the tone, the range of techniques and sentence structure, and the choice of vocabulary.
And yet it is so often poorly done, often hastily scribbled at the top of children’s books as a learning objective. I’ve seen some real corkers in my time:
WALT: To entertain the reader. This is perhaps my favourite pointless purpose of them all. It’s so generic as to be of no practical use whatsoever. To entertain the reader how? By scaring the living bejesus out of them? By sweeping them along in a sea of melancholy? By thrilling them with dramatic action? And in service to what? Are you trying to persuade them of something? Inform them of something interesting? And which writer wants to bore the pants of their reader? Now some writers might well achieve that, but even the worst of them sets out with the intention that their writing is going to be something that someone somewhere will want to read, that it will be entertaining in some way.
WALT: to build suspense. This is slightly better but not by much. All fiction writing builds suspense. Good narrative is often a constant rollercoaster ratcheting up suspense and releasing it. Ratchet and release. Ratchet and release. It’s not so much a story mountain as a whole range, each peak loftier, each crevasse more a plunge into the abyss, than the last. [fig. 2].
The ‘suspense WALT’ is almost always applied to spooky or mystery writing, but applies to everything. In a romance – will they or won’t they get together? And when they (inevitably) do, will they stay together? In a fantasy – will the poor little farm boy defeat the Dark Lord? Will evade escape from the minions sent to to destroy him? And when (inevitably) caught, will he escape? And in a dystopian sci-fi – will our hero realise the utopia in which she lives is but a fiction? And once she (inevitably) does, will she save us all from the techno-robo-cyber nightmare in which we all live?
WALT: To persuade the reader. Swap in the text type du jour: to inform / instruct / recount / discuss. But ‘to persuade the reader’ begs the question: to persuade the reader about WHAT? It’s a whole different kettle of fish to persuade your reader to use less plastic than it to persuade them to by the latest brand of ChocoPop CrunchyFlake cereal.
The crucial thing that’s missing from all of these purposes is the ‘what’? What is the crisis point building up to? What are we trying to persuade our reader about? The what matters. It will inform the content of the writing and gives the purpose some substance..
When writing purposes for fiction writing, I use a simple formula. [fig. 3] The [x] is the what and [y] is mood (fiction writing tends to be evoking an emotional response in the reader).
Let’s use this with a few examples. Year 4 are reading Beowulf. We’ve read the epic battle scene between our hero and the ferocious beast, Grendel. They’ve ‘ewwed’ at sinews tearing as the monster’s arm is ripped from its socket. We want to write a similarly epic battle scene between Beowulf and another fictional Norse fiend. Our [x] is straightforward – it’s the fight between Beowulf and his ghastly foe. And our [y] is the mood we want to evoke with our writing: we want it to feel hectic and dangerous. So there we have it, our purpose: to make the fight feel hectic and dangerous.
Or we have read Philip Pullman’s, Clockwork with Year 6. We want to write a similar introduction: the the cosy little inn nestled between snowy peaks. Again our [x] writes itself – it’s the inn. And how do we want the inn to appear to our reader, our [y]? We want it to feel warm and inviting. And so our purpose is: to make the inn appear warm and inviting.
Ot Year 3 have read Carol Ann Duffy’s wonderful modern fairy tale, The Lost Happy Endings. We’ve been terrified for Jub as she hurries through the woods with its skeletal trees with twiggy fingers, its bushes ready to pounce like muggers. And we are rewriting the story to be set in Victorian London. Our [x] this time is Jub’s journey through not the forest but the dark city streets, and our [y] is scary:. Our purpose: to make Jub’s journey through the streets feel scary.
When writing purposes for non-fiction, I use the formula in [fig. 4], where [x] is verb that indicates intention (persuade, convince, discuss, inform, explain, retell, review, etc.), and [y] this time is the what. Depending on the verb used the formula might need a tweak (sometimes the the phrase ‘the reader’ is unnecessary, for example), but the idea remains the same.
In Year 2 we are learning about healthy eating, and we might want to persuade our readers to bring healthier snacks to school. Our [x], our verb, might therefore be either convince or persuade. And our [y], the thing we want to convince or persuade our reader of is to bring healthy snacks to school. So our purpose is: to persuade the reader to bring healthy snacks to school.
Or in Year 5 we are studying the great ancient civilisation of Rome and how it grew from a small settlement nestled among hills by the Tiber to a mighty empire that stretched across much of the known world. Our [x] this time will be inform and our [y] is the rise of the Roman Empire. And our purpose becomes: to inform the reader about the rise of the Roman Empire.
So, using our Lost happy Endings example, once the purpose is established, our frame might now look like [fig. 5]. It serves as a constant reminder of what we are trying to achieve. We will refer to it constantly when writing. Should we describe the streets as busy or empty? Let’s refer back to our purpose, and ask which is more scary. What time of day? is Jub walking during the day or at night? Is it raining or is it sunny? Does she stride, trudge, or scurry? In all cases we refer back to our purpose and see which decision best meets our aim.
With the purpose established, it’s onto the structure, the (b) in [fig. 1]. We may have already planned the writing with the children, but planning tends to be fairly broad brush: the introduction, build up, conflict, resolution, and ending of a story; the introduction, pros and cons, and conclusion of a review. But we aren’t going to be modelling the whole thing; we’ll be focusing in on a smaller section – in our example, the build up to the first crisis in the story, the theft of the Sack of Happy Endings. So it’s useful to map out how this section might be structured. These notes, jotted along the left-hand side of our modelling frame will guide our writing with key events (a shadow appears) or writerly notes (describe the villain).
I always involve the children in this process, at times discussing and taking suggestions, at others directing them towards key structural elements they might miss.
We might start off by discussing key information, always referring back to our purpose: when and where are we? We decide we it’s a cold, grey winter evening. It’s dusk and getting darker fast. Jub is on an empty street. We then plot our key events. It starts to rain and thunder rumbles across the sky. Jub decides to take a short cut through a an alley. A dark figure appears at the end of the alley. Lightning flickers. The figure is revealed – our villain.
As we build up our sequence of events, make notes along the left of the modelling frame. [fig. 6]. The level of detail included in these notes is up to you. Just bear in mind that the more notes you include, the more it will support children as they write their version independently. But the trade off is that more detail will be more restrictive. I tend to jot down between 5 and 8 brief notes, using abbreviations. A simple limiting factor to the amount of detail provided by the notes is that the writing must be big enough to be easily read from the back of the room.
Those of you with a more artistic nature could jot down simple images instead à la Pie Corbett’s story maps. Sadly, my illustrations are as much a hindrance as a help
Now our modelling frame is complete. The whole process need only take a few minutes. We are ready to begin writing. And we have a lot of support. We have a clear purpose we can continually refer to. And we know the points along the way we need to visit as we craft our writing.
When I model writing the frame serves two important uses First, because my thinking about purpose and structure is done, I can focus children’s attention upon the how of writing: technique and vocabulary. And secondly, it keeps me on focused and on track. My Achilles’ heel when modelling writing is that I get too carried away with children’s ideas and before you know it I’m writing something I didn’t intend to write. The frame guards against that. It’s not that I can’t veer away from the structure a little if a better idea comes along while writing, but I’m constantly reminded of where we need to go.
I shall save the filling in (c) and actually modelling writing for future posts. But for now our canvas is primed. We are ready to paint.
Should this have piqued your interest, I’d love to come and work with your school on modelling writing. Do get in touch.