Teaching with Effective Models of Writing

Models of effective writing can increase students’ awareness of the ways experts and practitioners organize and present knowledge in their fields and disciplines. This page offers guidelines for selecting, annotating, and using models of writing in your class. Samples of ineffective or problematic writing can also be used as constructive teaching tools.

For more on this, please see the Five-Minute Revision page.

Selecting and Annotating Models

Because of their familiarity with the genres of writing they assign (lab reports, technical memos, ethnographies, primary source analysis essays, philosophical arguments, etc.), instructors are in a powerful position to assist students acquire rhetorical and cognitive knowledge important to their field. One way to support students is to provide them with examples of writing that demonstrate the specific features that are valued in the discipline, profession, field of study, or a relative skill level for a course. Models of effective writing strategies and practices can come from a variety of annotated sample texts, such as...

  • Assigned course readings
  • Excerpts from professional or academic journals or presentations
  • Samples of student writing (identity redacted) from a previous semester 
  • Samples developed by the instructor

Annotating a sample text entails labeling its key rhetorical and cognitive features. In effect, an annotated sample takes what is often tacit or implicit for experts and makes it more explicit for novices. As David Perkins (2010) has shown, annotations can help to “uncover the hidden game” involved in learning. Here are three examples of annotated models.

Sample 1: A Problem Set in Mechanical Engineering.

Here, the annotations point to important writing practices, such as providing a definition of axes and datum, converting values to standard units, and the importance of stating assumptions as they are made. In this example, the annotations appear as brief marginal labels that point to specific places in the sample. Note: The use of different colors for the annotations makes the document more accessible for site readers. Including different shapes for the annotation boxes would make the document even more accessible.

Sample 2: Grade 2 Narrative

In this second example, prepared for elementary grade teachers, a second grader’s in-class narrative about losing a tooth includes annotations after the sample. In this case, the annotations indicate how the young writer has met specific Common Core Standards for English Language Arts.

Sample 3: A Case Study Assignment

In this example, developed as a guide for instructors seeking to design assignments, the annotations include marginal comments along with an end comment that calls attention to broader objectives.

Sample 4: Student-Generated Annotation

As discussed below, involving students in the annotation of documents can be an effective in-class activity. In this sample, a group of students have annotated a paragraph from a profile essay on the tennis player, Roger Federer, written by David Foster Wallace. The students’ annotation calls attention to key stylistic features. This annotation activity was done prior to the students drafting their own profile essays.

Annotating Models: A Few Suggestions

Students in a design class working with fabric and apparel on body forms.

Annotations can entail oral and written features. The simplest and perhaps most common form of annotation involves verbal commenting in class. With spoken annotations, instructors and students talk through a sample of writing, observing notable features. Sometimes referred to as meta-teaching, this oral annotation can be done quickly and requires little time to prepare. A challenge, however, with relying exclusively on oral annotations is that students might not retain all the observations or transfer them to new writing contexts. While they require more time to prepare, written annotations are more durable, and they can be used repeatedly across terms and often in more than one course context.

Step 1: Collect models of the form, mode, or genre of writing. Your course reading list can serve as an initial site for collection. In anticipation of sample collection and redaction, it is important to include a statement in the syllabus or on an assignment sheet, asking students if their redacted work can be used in future courses. Such statements should include an opt-out option for students. The Writing Across the Curriculum Program has amassed a large archive of identity-redacted samples of student writing from across the undergraduate curriculum. We're happy to connect instructors with samples.

Step 2: Provide “Big Picture” framing by identifying the context—the scene and situation—for the model. The following questions, adapted from Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres (Devitt, Reiff & Bawarshi, 2004), are useful to consider when preparing annotations.

Setting: Where does the genre appear? With what other genres does this genre interact?

Subject: What topics, issues, ideas, questions, etc. does the genre address?

Purposes: Why do writers write this genre, and why do readers read it? What purposes does the genre fulfill for people who use it?

Step 3: Get into the details by Identifying and describing typical patterns in the model’s features. Drawing, again on Scenes of Writing, consider these questions when preparing annotations:

  • What recurrent features does the sample share with others of its kind? 
  • What content is typically included in this sample? What is excluded? 
  • What counts as evidence (e.g., personal testimony, quantitative data, textual analysis, etc.?) What rhetorical appeals, such as logos (logic), pathos (feeling), and ethos (authority) are used? 
  • How are texts in the genre structured? What are their parts (e.g., Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion), and how are they organized? 
  • What layout or appearance is common? 
  • How long is a standard text in this genre? What types of sentences do texts in this genre typically use? How long are they? Are they simple or complex? Passive or active? 
  • What diction (types of words) is most prevalent? Is a kind of jargon or specialized language used? 

Step 4: Provide brief, targeted annotations that note specific features. A strong annotation will identify a concrete writing move (Graff & Birkenstein 2018) or thinking pattern you would like your students to emulate.

Step 5: Align annotations with grading criteria. When the language in the annotation mirrors the language in a grading rubric, students are better able to see the relevance and importance of the annotation to work in the class.

Using Models in the Classroom

Students wearing 3D glasses looking at maps in geography class.

Annotated models are often provided as supplemental resources posted on Canvas. However, they can also be integrated into in-class activities to teach writing. One effective strategy is to have students, working in small groups, develop annotations for models they have selected or that the instructor has provided. This constructivist approach can be especially useful in capstone-level courses where students have some familiarity with genres or in courses where the writing genres involve multimodal forms. After students have prepared annotations, the class can then determine what the most effective features are and use those features to guide future writing and features of assessment.

A Caveat

Providing and discussing models can help emerging writers access some of the conventions and features of genres that have developed within disciplines and fields. However, a model is not a fixed form, nor is it a template to be filled out. As Charles Bazerman (2018) points out, “excessively authoritative models can put high walls around school writing, making it harder for nascent writers to reach out to other meaningful writing experiences.” Ideally, models will help students to analyze patterns that have emerged in disciplinary and field-specific ways, while at the same time encouraging them to adapt those patterns in new ways.