Improving student writing by modelling bad writing.

Tom Wayman, head of English,  Wellington College

“Let’s write the WORST story ever written” was a much more appealing invitation to my mixed-ability Year 11 class than previous offers to collaborate on writing the best one ever. Putting together a unholy montage of cliché, malapropism, comma splices firing off in all directions and gushing logorrhoea was not only liberatingly hilarious but deeply educational.


As each pupil threw down their worst into a shared Drive folder, they were able to gasp and chuckle as the very things which, unthinkingly, they were pretty much doing two weeks earlier they were now sending up. We projected a few onto the board: some were read out – it was all great fun. The set were able to atomise clearly what made in this case, a short story, poor. If we use exemplar material to showcase the best, who not put together wilfully weak work to highlight the obverse?

I did a similar exercise with my Year 9s last week. Using some of the excellent resources of the British Library timeline, around which we base the first seven weeks of our Year 9 curriculum, we were looking at using Victorian Freak Show posters to sharpen our analytical writing. In response to the question, ‘What do these posters reveal about the society at the time?’, I typed and projected live the following glorious glossolalia:

The societe was probably quiet nice becaue they licked to look at strange people and it was funny but they might have felt a but  bad which revelas that they like posters. Also they think tall people are weird. Which made them laugh. The thought it was good. The main attrecation of the show is the smaller perond to the right and it is very old which is shown bauise the paper is brown. I think that Amazons were strange, I think that they kind of through ti was quite nice.

Although this emerges as a parody of careless writing and editing, the key points of learning were a pleasure for the class to identify and guard against as they set off, for homework, to produce the real thing – to great success. I’d like to call this strategy ‘Modelling c**p’ – but that’s clearly not appropriate. It does catch, however, a little of the useful anarchy of the exercise….