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As I’ve shared with you in previous blogs, one of my ongoing interests is finding ways to empower my students to become better writers of English. What is the formula?

  • Vocabulary skills are important (Checked √)
  • Grammar is important (Checked √)
  • Controlled practice is important (Checked √)

…Wait a minute… Modeling is super important…

Modeling Writing

According to Cumming (1995), language teachers need to not only provide text models of a good writer’s final product (what an assignment is supposed to look like at the end), but also model the cognitive process of writing. In other words, we as teachers should model writing-as-a-process that mimics the actions performed by effective writers (hint: we need to write a lot to be one too).

Mimicking Writing-as-a-process

There is no secret formula. Teaching to a diverse group of learners from diverse backgrounds and languages really calls for a multitude of approaches: experimenting, reflecting, and coming up with a model that suits the task. For example, when I mimic the free writing approach to answer a prompt, my goal is to show students how to write freely, but with a purpose in mind. This type of cognitive modeling, as Cumming (1995) calls it, “involves demonstrating and practicing the kinds of thinking processes that expert writers use” (383). This process calls for ‘writing as thinking.’

Writing as Thinking

My intention is to help students see how I proceed with idea generation. Hence, I let them see how I go about writing as I speak aloud my thoughts, complete a series of sentences, revert, make changes, continue, and then return to the beginning to match verb form, subject referents, and logic.

Loving what I Do

I love it when my students point out something I’ve missed whenever I change a sentence midway and in turn the pronoun or subject reference also needs to be revised somewhere at the beginning. We end up discarding ideas, rephrasing odd ones, and editing content to come up with a first draft. This process takes time; as a group we learn that some ideas – although good ones – do not fit the context. “These ideas could probably be used for another essay on the same topic, but with a different main idea,” I tell them. Students learn to notice off-topic sentences and even put them on hold for another time (writers do get attached to their ideas). Hence, all thoughts are valid in free writing, but the ones that fit the purpose (and audience) are the ones that are kept – sometimes unperturbed, other times revised and edited.

What’s Next?

What do you do to model good writing practices?

Reference: Cumming, A. (1995). Fostering writing expertise in ESL composition instruction: Modeling and evaluation. In D. Belcher and G. Braine (Eds.), Academic Writing in a Second Language: Essays in Research and Pedagogy. (pp. 375-397). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Hi, my name is Cecilia. I love taking part in good brain awakening discussions. Blogging, I find, lends itself for that. I also believe in sharing my skills through scholarly practice, which is why I write regularly and have presented at several conferences, including TESL Ontario, TESL Toronto, CALL, and at Seneca College. My M.A. in applied linguistics along with my skills and experience have led me to my current position at Centennial College, where I teach English and ESL in the School of Advancement. I'm truly passionate about what I do: teaching, writing, creative expression, and helping my students (both L1 and L2) gain agency and take control of their own learning. Thank you for your readership and I look forward to reading and answering your comments. You can find me on Twitter @capontedehanna



  1. Hey, Cecilia.

    Thanks for the post. I love the idea of writing as thinking. I use Quick Writes in my class to help ELLs process content and reflect on their learning. Here’s an article about how, when, and why I use Quick Writes…ith-quick-writes/

    And YES, writing is a process. What I’ve found to be the most helpful is the teaching-learning cycle that teaches writing instruction through phases. The phases are setting the context, deconstructing the writing genre, collaboratively constructing the text, and finally independent construction. I wrote about it here in another blog post (released this Saturday).…-writing-prompts/

  2. Hi Tan,
    Thank you for your comments. Your approach is interesting. The more practice – the better!

  3. I really liked your cognitive modelling for writing. I am currently teaching ESL and I am looking for good activities to teach cognitive processes such as good writing. One of the strategies I use is the tree branches for generating ideas. I ask students to pick a topic they want to write about. Usually I get general topics such as video games, their country of origin, sports, other subjects, travel etc.. I ask students to draw a tree with a large trunk, big branches, small branches and leaves. Students can put their topic on the tree trunk ie. video games. Then help them narrow their topic down to something that is easy to write about. On a big branch they may include game consoles, smaller branches may include specific games and leaves would include specific topics that are accessible for writing, for example a child may write a review about a specific video game or may discuss the graphics of a specific video game. This process of creating ideas helps student narrow down their topic to something that is specific enough for their free writing needs. I feel that it is essential to ESL learning to teach these cognitive processes directly and scaffold them in these areas such a “picking a topic to write about”

    1. Great approach Christopher! Giving students the choice to write on topics that interest them makes sense. It adds to their motivation and purpose for writing.

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