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Models and samples as a resource for writing
by Greg Gobel
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Effectively using models

Teacher’s attitude

In my experience, the most fundamental consideration when using models is the teacher’s attitude. If a teacher only sees the model as what the learners must aim for, the learners will be unnecessarily limited and even frustrated as they try to reach perfection. They could also lose motivation, feeling that they cannot draw on their own ideas for content or form. However, if the teacher views the models as a helpful aid, a tool that complements the learner’s ideas, the learners tend to exploit models rather than attempt to mimic them. Models should be seen as ‘a resource rather than an ideal’ (Watson in Raimes, 1983: 127). Raimes clearly identifies their appropriate use: ‘The model becomes not what [the learner] should do but only an example of what [the learner] could do’ (Raimes, 1983: 127, my italics). Importantly, as examples, we do not need to see them as ideal samples of the genre — models fall on a continuum from inappropriate and ineffective samples to highly appropriate and effective; models may also be full texts or parts of texts.

Helping us understand

Quite simply, models help teachers and learners understand. They are concrete, observable, analyzable, comparable, improvable, and breakable. Hedge explains, ‘In order to appreciate the skills needed for successful crafting it is useful to look at finished pieces of writing and to see how ideas are put together and developed’ (Hedge, 1988: 89). She says ‘analysing the productsleads to greater understanding of ‘what features a piece of writing has,’ ‘the range of writing and the way one form differs from another,’ and how ‘one form of writing.. .can vary in overall organization and development according to the specific purpose for which it is written’ (Hedge, 1988: 89).

Nunan agrees: ‘...Creativity, and creative freedom can only exist within certain boundaries and conventions if communication is to be effective, and a major task confronting the learner of a second or foreign language is to identify the boundaries of his or her new language.’ (Nunan, 1991:88) Without models learners would be less able to identify these boundaries and conventions, i.e., less able to understand what they are writing.

Encouragement and comfort

I believe the classroom should promote a comforting and encouraging atmosphere. Unfortunately, writing can be intimidating. Some learners may not be very effective writers in their first language. Others may fear, as Rosen says, that they will be ‘a lonely figure cut off from the stimulus and corrective of listeners’ (Rosen in Hedge, 1988:5).

Richards addresses this: ‘the effective writing teacher is not one who has developed a ‘method’ for the teaching of writing, but one who can create an effective environment for learning, in which novice writers feel comfortable about writing and can explore the nature of writing -- and in so doing discover their own strengths and weaknesses as writers.’ (Richards, 1990: 114-115). Models can help create this ‘effective environment’ by not leaving learners in the dark and reducing confusion about expectations. Here are three such situations.

Learners may have the genre in their Li, but they may not have personal contact or experience with it. For example, White discusses a Polish student whose task was to write a reply to a complaint. This particular learner had ‘been raised on a diet of essays and literary criticism’ (White, 2000: 63). The learner’s teacher also lacked experience with writing a reply to a complaint. ‘The student’s solution was to make use of a model text from a published source’ (White, 2000: 64). In the end, using the model was the only help the learner had. There was no guidance nor any other resource utilized, so the learner was not as successful as possible. However, importantly, the learner sought comfort and encouragement from a model in this situation. It is reasonable to say that many learners, even native speakers (e.g., myself), would do the same. Flowerdew observes, ‘Many native speakers make use of others’ writing or speech to model their own work in their native language where the genre is unfamiliar. It is time that this skill was.. .exploited as an aid for learning’ (Flowerdew, 1993:313). Thus, teachers can use models to meet this natural and logical choice learners may otherwise make on their own, keeping in mind models are not the only solution.

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