The Imitation Game: Making better writers

Much like modelling metacognition, I have found encouraging students to imitate professionals and academics an interesting and helpful method in improving their own writing.

It is easy for teachers in certain subjects to forget that many of our creative subjects use the art of imitation in their lessons every day. Imitation is, apparently, a form of flattery and certainly a key way in which we learn. During A-level psychology, I learnt about child development and how initiation forms a key part of learning behaviours and thinking. It wasn’t until early last year that I considered using the art of imitation more explicitly in my classroom.

I was asked to present on something to staff that I felt had worked in my classroom and having used this in the classroom consciously for well over a year (see post on Metacognition) I knew that it would make sense to talk about imitation. Here’s what I talked about:

Confucius said, amongst many things, that we learn wisdom in three ways: ‘First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is the easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest’. It would seem to me that we are aiming for our  students to be wise and aware of their learning in order to be successful. Certainly, we ask them to reflect and hope that this will be a trait they continue in many aspects of their lives. We imitate our own behaviours both consciously and unconsciously and we know that only through experience will they come to understand and appreciate their learning and experiences with us. Often, we use imitation through modelling but there seems to be a slight and marginal difference between modelling and imitation that intrigues me. I decided to look into the use of imitation in the classroom a little further.

Having thought about and tried to use imitation techniques with my class, I discovered Donna Gorrell’s research paper called ‘Freedom to Write through Imitation.’ published in the best year to be born – 1987. It contains some information about how academic texts can be used to help emerging writers improve their writing style.  I found this had the clearest and most relevant information about small scale research completed on using imitation to teach writing. Gorell makes the obvious point that we accept painters copying other painters and musicians copying other musicians and that we must accept and encourage writers to learn from other writers. She says ‘it’s how beginners learn how it’s done ‘.

According to research, there are three different forms of imitation that can be used to create more academic writing:

imitation

There are many similarities between these types but interestingly Gornell claims to “have taught students to recognize and avoid sentence fragments by requiring that they write them intentionally, mimicking those written by professional writers. And students can learn to use semicolons in compound sentences, not by the usual method of correcting errors but by composing sentences from models that utilize those structures.”. 

I found this information valuable as this is how I had previously approached imitation in the classroom. Last year, I asked a Year 9 class to read through an analytical essay which was about a topic and texts they wouldn’t understand. This was on purpose so that students would focus on the language and structure of the text. The text I chose was the full version of the text below:

Capote essay.png

The process is as follows:

  1. Students identify the salient features in the text.

With close guidance, they are being led to ‘see’ what they too have seen but not noticed before.

  1. Students copy exactly the writer’s phrases and sentences.
  2. Students substitute the writer’s words and phrases for their own.

Now that I have used this technique a number of times, it has become clear how guided the process needs to be. This takes time but eventually students become very skilled in taking lines from others (more academic) work and using it in their own. Eventually, students having planned their own ideas and answers to questions can use these phrases to complete their own work. Some examples of my Year 9s’ work are below. You can see similar phrases from the first piece they read  such as:

To become an effective poet, you need to…

However, some could say that…

This would therefore lead one to think…

imitation 1imitation 2

Overall, techniques such as using a visualiser to show students how to write or providing them with academic texts to steal phrases from can make a huge difference to students’ style of writing.

Overall, I believe:

  • Imitation gives students an opportunity to find their critical voice.
  • With use, imitated forms become internalized, incorporated into cognitive structures.
  • Imitation can be used to support (controlled composition) and to challenge (imitating style/persona paraphrase).
  • What we need is not more writing, but more high-quality writing.

Therefore, we have introduced imitation into our medium term plans and titled one of our assessments in Year 9 ‘Imitate a gothic writer’. Students spend time reading, studying and then they magpie phrases from a range of gothic texts to use in their own writing. This technique has helped students write pieces like this:

gothic imitation

‘Willowy, elongated arms stretched from his shoulders, ending in small, delicate hands which gripped the armrests of his chair.

…What I saw as he stood to greet me was a bizarrely mismatched collection of features which seemed as if they had been arranged in a hurry, without much thought to the aesthetic.’

Having spoken to teachers in other subjects, this form of improving students writing and answers works across the curriculum. Teachers model and ensure their students imitate in written answers in Maths and Science.

imitation all

Using texts such as The Economist and National Geographic with academic style writing can be used to teach students how to respond in a variety of ways – for exam and essay writing. A skill that will help them to develop beyond their GCSEs.

We can find writing that students can imitate in many places. In our own academic writing from A-level or degrees or from sources such as:

Finally, I think this video shows the power of imitation. It may have a different message but it reinforces the idea that imitation is key to learning and that, if we don’t use it to our advantage, we might be missing something both useful and important.

 

 

Confession time: I began to research these ideas fully after having tried some techniques already with my classes based on work by a few English teachers who blogged about using academic writers many years ago (which ones specifically I can’t remember!). The research came afterwards and was useful to fine tune and adapt my practice. However, this method of approaching new ideas is something I hope to question and adapt in the future to ensure that my practice becomes more evidence based and hopefully better!

Sources:

Gorrell, Donna. Freedom to Write through Imitation. Boston: Little, 1987.

Gray, James. “Sentence Modeling.” Theory and Practice in the Teaching

of Composition: Processing, Distancing, and Modeling. Ed. Miles

Myers and James Gray. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1983. 185-202.

Kehl, D. G. “Composition in the Mimetic Mode: Imitation and Exercitation.

“Linguistics: Stylistics, and the Teaching of Composition. Ed.

Donald McQuade. Akron: L & S, 1979. 135-42.

Piaget, Jean. Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. Trans. C. Gattegno and F. M. Hodgson. New York: Norton, 1962.

 

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