How I’m Teaching: Doing the ‘We Do’

One of the areas I have set myself to develop this year lies in my modelling of writing.

It’s taken me a long time (probably far too long!) to work out just how much support novice students need in producing a piece of writing. The cognitive load of even simple writing is huge when you consider all of the elements required:

As I have come to this realisation, I can also see that my modelling of the writing process has not provided enough support for students to make the transition from guided practice to independent work. While I have used the ‘I Do, We Do, You Do’ framework to scaffold my students’ writing, the approaches I have used have been limited to:

In a recent lesson I used ‘I Do, We Do, You Do’ with my able Year 10 students to provide an opportunity to reflect on my practice.

From that example, I could see that they followed the ‘I Do’ section well and the annotations seemed to help with their understanding. They asked lots of relevant questions about why I had chosen a particular word and we had a brief discussion about the way vocabulary choice sometimes changes the grammar of a sentence too.

The ‘We Do’ part of the activity was less successful. As I asked students to suggest what should be written next in our paragraph, I was met with a mixture of two responses: either complete silence or random guesses that were often widely wrong. This led to me increasingly writing the paragraph for myself and left the students without the experience of successfully constructing the analysis.

During the ‘You Do’ phase, the students were happy to work through putting a paragraph together but seemed to be spending a lot of time using support materials working out what went where, rather than focusing on the quality of their argument. This suggests that they hadn’t understood how the writing was constructed and were engaged in a loosely directed form of discovery learning. Some students found this overwhelming and simply decided that they couldn’t do it.

I think the fault lies in my approach to the ‘We Do’ phase of the activity and moving to a dialogic strategy too early in the students’ understanding. To move forward I’m going to trial three tweaks to the approach to see to give students  more scaffolding and reduce the cognitive load before we move on to independent practice.

Tweak One:

I’m going to point students to our support materials right from the beginning of our writing. Students already have permanent access to some resources like ‘What? How? Why?’ prompt questions and a general glossary that we keep in their books. I have made sure to remind the students about these in the ‘You Do’ phase but have stayed away from them before then, to avoid overloading them.

Making sure I am explicit in my use of them during the ‘I Do’ process and then encouraging students to borrow from them in the ‘We Do’ phase should help students engage with the support that is available. Of course, as students become more proficient, they will be weaned off the scaffolds.

I’m also going to provide students with a task specific vocabulary bank, to use throughout the modelling to help further reduce their cognitive load at a point where I want them to focus on the construction of their analysis.

Tweak Two:

I’m going to begin the ‘We Do’ phase with having students select the best sentence from a given selection, rather than create their own from scratch:

This will give us another opportunity to discuss how a paragraph can be constructed and the merits of different approaches, while minimising unnecessary cognitive load.

I’ve included some of the errors that students often make here too, like restating the connotations as an effect, so that I can address them and hopefully help to break the habit.

Including the challenge activity should help move on those students who are ready to create their own by having them think carefully about how an effective sentence is constructed. Their suggestions can be used as the basis of class discussion too.

Tweak Three:

As students become ready to start creating sentences, I am going to scaffold this by integrating think-pair-share into the process:

I will have students consider what they would write next, using the support materials available, then share this with a partner or their table (depending on the class), choosing the best of the sentences they have produced.

I can then ask for 2-3 examples from the class before we decide on which to write next and, crucially, why it’s the right choice. These tweaks will make the ‘We Do’ phase of the activity considerably longer but I think it’s worth investing the extra time in getting the students to really engage in the process and to support them in producing the best writing they can.

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