modeling · think aloud

Modeling as Eavesdropping on a Writer’s Inner Monologue

I was in a workshop recently with a skilled teacher who was modeling her writing for students. To open the lesson, she reconnected with part of a familiar mentor text that illustrated the learning target. Then the teacher shared two models she had pre-planned and carefully selected. One was a video clip she had found online, and the other was a live model of her own writing. Using the document camera to project her writing, she added several sentences to a work in progress that demonstrated the learning target. 

All three models clearly illustrated the skill she wanted students to try in their own writing that day, showing the specific technique in context and in action. 

And yet. . . something important was missing. As she released students to write, I realized: The what was super clear, but the how? Not so much.  

It is essential for young writers to see models of the kind of writing they are being asked to do. This helps them to develop a vision for their work, to understand in a concrete way what it is they are trying to accomplish. Kudos to this teacher for her precision around providing models for writers. 

However, the power of modeling—modeling the verb—is the opportunity to make not just the product visible—model, the noun—but the thinking of the writer visible as well. Without modeling the thinking, it is still a bit of a mystery how a writer gets from point A to point B—no matter how clear that point B might be. 

When a proficient writer writes in front of students in this way—creating a model without modeling the thinking—the apparent ease with which the writing happens on the page can be misleading. I sometimes wonder about the self talk that happens as young writers watch this process. How many are thinking, “I can’t do that,” or “Why is it so easy for her?” or “How does he know how to do that?” I wonder how many young writers are internalizing the misconception that being a “good writer” means that the words just flow onto the page without any difficulty (or thought)? 

As proficient writers, we make many decisions in the crafting of each sentence, paragraph, and piece. Writing is complex work. The best writers are the ones who are tenacious enough to engage with and power through the hard parts. Over and over again. Modeling—by writing while thinking aloud—is our opportunity to let kids in on this truth. 

I know, for example, that the teacher from the opening minilesson spent time in advance of the lesson pre-planning what she would write in front of kids. She didn’t just get up there and wing it, because she understands that writing requires thought and revision. She had an authentic audience for her writing, and she wanted to craft the best possible passage to illustrate the technique. However, from the point of view of the kids, she sat down, pulled out a marker, and expertly cranked out several sentences that met the goal of the learning target—perfect in one go. 

I suspect that her intent was efficiency. This is a teacher who values big blocks of time daily for writers to write, so that they have opportunities to grow (hooray!). She keeps those minilessons mini. She wants and expects kids to take the learning from those minilessons and apply it to their own work (awesome!). However, without that extra insight into HOW she applies that learning to her model—without an opportunity to eavesdrop on her inner monologue—students will be (inadvertently) less prepared to be successful with their own attempts during work time.

Here’s what I encouraged this teacher to think about after the lesson:

  • What is the thinking work you had to do as a writer to pre-plan what you would write in front of kids today? (Because I know she did lots!)
  • What would it look and sound like to make that thinking work visible to kids?
  • What kind(s) of questions might you ask yourself aloud to surface this thinking as you are writing in front of kids?
  • Where in the modeling would it make sense to stop and think aloud about the decisions you need to make as a writer? 

And, big picture: How will it help young writers to see a proficient writer engage in challenging thinking work in front of them? To see an adult writer wrestle with a decision, to try more than once, and to seek feedback? What a relief it must be when students discover that it is actually unrealistic to expect themselves to craft perfect text right out of the gate!

Now I have no doubt that this teacher has taken this feedback and has already upped her modeling game with more explicit think alouds (because she’s a reflective go-getter). 

I celebrate the fact that she is working so hard to provide clear models of writing for her students. Her level of intentionality means that writers in her workshop already have a vision for the kind of writing she is asking them to try. By writing alongside her students, she is demonstrating that she is a writer as well. Her next step is to plan for regularly unpacking the thinking work she is already doing to make it visible to kids. And because of the kind of learner she is, I’m confident that she is ready for it.

If we want young writers to be able to think for themselves and to persevere through the challenges of writing, it’s essential that we provide modeling for what it looks and sounds like when writers do that. It’s essential to be transparent about both the product and the process.

9 thoughts on “Modeling as Eavesdropping on a Writer’s Inner Monologue

  1. Talking about the HOW is so important.
    YEARS ago, I learned to keep a process log when I was doing my own writing. It was partially a way to reflect, but it was also a place to make the how visible to myself so I could turn-key my process to students when I was demonstrating with my own writing. Keeping a process log certainly takes extra time, but it’s well worth it.

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  2. Yes, we must model the thinking and decision-making, the back-pedaling, the re-thinking, and the crossing-out, etc that happens when we write. I’ve done it a few times and with middle schoolers, they quickly became bored watching me think. With high schoolers, they zoned out in about ten seconds. And then I felt weird up there blabbering on about “this word or that word?” and on and on. So while it’s an awesome idea, it’s really hard to do from a practical, class management perspective.

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    1. Management concerns are something to consider–no doubt. If kids aren’t with us, then it doesn’t matter what we’re modeling (or not). A couple of tips I might offer would include being super selective about what I think aloud about–making sure it’s something kids are genuinely needing to figure out because it’s new/hard–and keeping the modeling short (and focused on just one thing). With most grade levels, I also come in with something in progress (“So I was working on this piece last night. . .” or “After our work yesterday on. . . I went home and. . . Now I’m trying to. . .) rather than starting from scratch. You’re right–it can be boring to watch someone write in front of you, because writing can be slow and laborious. I try to think about how to focus on the most high leverage parts of the process.

      Thanks for sharing your thinking!

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  3. Amy,
    This blog post also is pushing me! I know I already, when reading-aloud to students, stop and think-aloud. But this has been something I do just during Reading Workshop. Thanks for the nudge to also do it during Writing Workshop. Duh…but I needed your wise words to suggest it. Thank you! I also have fond memories of dining with you and other Slicers in Baltimore, 2019…my last trip before Covid. Now those memories are even more special to me. I hope the world calms down eventually so we can be in-person again soon. So grateful to meet you today, here!
    Sally, Arlington, VA

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  4. I am going to be facilitating a session on Writer’s Workshop this week with teachers from grades K-6. This post will definitely influence my planning and presentation. I am already rethinking my approach. My first mentor text that day will be Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. My wheels are already spinning and it is just past 6AM.

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    1. Thinking is always the goal, so I’m glad to hear that the post got your wheels turning. Good luck with your upcoming session! That’s a wonderful mentor text for so many craft moves. Mem Fox is the best.


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