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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 38

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Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: How can the use of models improve my students’ work?

Models should show students where they are headed. They don’t need to be perfect, but they must be good models of features that are connected to learning targets. Within the set of interrelated practices—models, critique, and descriptive feedback—models are the linchpin. They set the standard and the expectation from which critique and descriptive feedback flow.

In the curriculum, models have been provided. Often a model of strong work helps ground students in a vision of what excellent work on a particular task would look like. Sometimes, students also may analyze a model of weak work before beginning their own work. The models in the curriculum will be similar, but not exactly the same, as the work students will do independently.

Any time we ask students to analyze models, it is important to first give them time to think about the content and then ask them to analyze the craft. For example, if students are analyzing a Martin Luther King speech, we wouldn’t first ask them “What rhetorical devices did King use?” Instead, we would bring them into the text by asking: “What was King trying to say? Why is it important?” Then we can move students to “How did King craft his speech to have the most impact on his readers?” First we want students to read as readers, and then to read as writers.

It is important that the model not give too much away in terms of the kinds of thinking we want students to do, but it should be familiar to them so that they can connect to it easily. For example:

  • In kindergarten Module 2, Lesson 7, before students draw in their weather journal, they examine one model and one non-model of similar work and share what they notice (see image below). Often non-models are used to set expectations for craftsmanship. In this case, the non-model shows black clouds, a purple sun, and color extending outside the lines.
  • In Grade 2, Module 3, students research bees together as a class and then research other pollinators in expert groups. Before they write about the pollinators from their expert group, they examine and analyze a model piece of writing about bees in Unit 3, Lesson 1 (see image below). 

Using Models beyond the Curriculum

Models are provided for you in the curriculum, but if you want to extend this practice into other parts of your students’ day, you’ll need to gather your own models. Learning how to recognize and select powerful, generative models is important, and it takes practice. The more compelling the models are, the more powerful students’ analysis will be. Ideally, you will begin building an archive of good work models that you gather and store for specific purposes. When you need to teach the format or genre of a research paper, for example, you have a file of research papers by former or other students to draw from.

You might also choose to create exemplary models yourself or find models from the professional world to set a high and authentic bar, especially for older students. If models of current student work are used, it is important to choose samples that represent different approaches to the same assignment, or different strong features, so there is little duplication in what is viewed and discussed. There should be a specific reason for each piece chosen. If the class is going to spend valuable, wholeclass time considering a piece, there should be a clear reason and a connection to learning targets.

Using Weak Work as a Non-Example

Although it is most important to have exemplary models, it can also be useful to have examples of pieces that are poorly done in different ways, particularly in those areas that you feel your students may struggle. For example, to help students remember to be less repetitive with sentence structure in a composition, it can be powerful to have them critique an anonymous student composition that is fraught with repetitive language. The image of this weak work will stay with them and can be discussed regularly to remind the group to be careful to avoid its pitfalls. 

When using weak work, there are some cautions. First, the work must be anonymous. Students should never be able to recognize it as the work of a current or former student. Second, the work must be treated respectfully. Modeling mean-spirited critique will promote an unkind classroom climate. Last, not all weak work is a good choice. Ideally, the work is compelling in its flaws. For example, if it is very strong in some areas but confusing in others, it can invite wonder and analysis. The best weak work is not an example of a student who wasn’t trying, but rather a student who was putting in effort and created something interesting to consider, but had confusions that resulted in problems that are likely to crop up for many students.

If you are interested in learning more about models, critique, and descriptive feedback, check out the PD Pack for Leaders of Their Own Learning, especially Chapter 4

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: