Texts, any texts, can serve as models for writing. Not just the long-form, formal writing tasks that students have to do on exam tasks, but as sentence or paragraph frames, or templates.
As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein explain in They Say, I Say, their really awesome book on academic writing, templates
have a generative quality, prompting students to make moves in their writing that they might not otherwise make or even know they should make…. In showing students how to make such moves, templates do more than organize students’ ideas; they help bring those ideas into existence (Graff & Birkenstein, 2014:xxi).
Last week students in my IELTS prep class were discussing issues from the reading homework (from a text called “Walking with dinosaurs”, in the Cambridge IELTS Trainier book) when suddenly the structure of the first paragraph jumped out at me:
The media image of palaeontologists who study prehistoric life is often of field workers camped in the desert in the hot sun, carefully picking away at the rock surrounding a large dinosaur bone. But Peter Falkingham has done little of that for a while now. Instead, he devotes himself to his computer. Not because he has become inundated with paperwork, but because he is a new kind of paleontologist: a computational paleontologist.
What got my attention was the series of moves made by the writer:
- Introduce a commonplace idea
- Introduce a contrasting idea (first as a teaser, delaying the full explanation)
- Develop the contrasting idea
- Offer a supposed rationale for the contrast
- Overturn the supposed rationale with the true one
And there are a series of clear and reusable frames – a template – that could easily be used by students:
My rationale for all this is that one of the challenges of academic writing (ok, some of you might debate that Cambridge and IELTS exam writing is true academic writing) is getting students to deal with opposing viewpoints, offer differing views, and develop, even if to dismantle, contrasting arguments.
So I boarded the language of this template but substituted:
The media image of Italy is often of…
They brainstormed a series of possibilities, including the Mafia, mothers, fashion, food, and work habits.
Then they worked in pairs to write and revise their paragraphs. Hopping from group to group I got to help them a series of interesting issues, mostly around the idea of the expectations you set up with each sentence and how to satisfy them in the successive sentences to make the argument flow (moving from general to specific, setting up contrasts, exemplification, etc.).
The only student example I’ve got written down is a fragment on my whiteboard photo:
….Not because the media’s depiction of us as addicted to pasta isn’t true, but because Italy also has a whole host of other food traditions to choose from.
I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more reading-text-as-writing-template opportunities.
They Say, I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, 2014.