What is Writelike?

Teacher with Writelike on whiteboard

Writelike is a platform designed to help students develop advanced creative and narrative writing skills.

It takes a craft-oriented, text-modelling approach to writing instruction which will be recognisable to teachers experienced in mentor-text methods, genre-based pedagogy, or cognitive load theory.

Writelike has been developed with grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the US and the Queensland State Government in Australia, and incorporates advice and guidance from Professor John Sweller at UNSW and Professor Steve Graham at ASU.

What problem is Writelike trying to solve?

Many, many students struggle with advanced writing!

In the English-speaking world, we do a pretty good job of teaching students to read and write, but we don’t do as good a job developing their ability to create complex texts, such as stories, reports, analyses and arguments.

In Australia, standardised writing scores steadily decline from grade 3 through to grade 9. In the US, about one quarter of 8th and 12th grade students are proficient in writing. (Note: That's 2011 data; the 2017 study had a methodological problem and results haven't been released—but it's not likely to have improved.)

Naplan writing scores decline as students get older

NAEP 2011 writing scores

If you’re a teacher at any level—from primary school to university— you probably see students struggle to write fluently in the major school genres; you likely receive garbled stories and essays that sound like Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot.

Of course, we have great students, but their success is more often a function of local conditions—family background, personal temperament, school culture, an excellent teacher. Not everyone needs to be an author or a journalist, but it would be great if everyone could write in a way that entertains, informs and persuades the various people in their lives.

What are we collectively doing wrong?

Writing is hard. Teaching writing is hard. There’s no quick fix.

But one problem we have is that we tend to teach writing the same way this picture teaches drawing: 

Draw the rest of the damn owl

Of course that's a glib statement and a wild generalisation, but there are definitely some systemic issues in our writing instruction. 

  1. We don't have enough time. Writing takes time. Teaching writing takes time. And everyone is short on time. Our good students are good because their families put in extra time and marinate their children in text and speech. So we need to be more efficient in our writing instruction, but clearly we haven't cracked it yet—maybe someone somewhere has the solution, but it's not working at scale.
  2. We don't give enough instruction relative to the complexity of the tasks we assign. We ask students to write all sorts of authentic texts including ads, essays, short films, stories, editorials, poems, plays… In doing this we try to provide real-world tasks, but in some ways we are providing students with briefs that would challenge an experienced professional, and then we don’t give nearly enough instruction in how to do the job. We might provide a template, a summary of text features, and maybe an exemplar or two, but is this enough? 
  3. We over-emphasise strategy. We tell students to use PEEL and TEAL structures, dramatic arcs, five paragraph essays. But when students begin to write, the strategies go out the window because they don’t have the basic clause or sentence-level fluency needed to apply the strategy.
  4. We over-emphasise originality. With writing, more than any other skill in school, we prize originality and punish plagiarism. But talk to any artist or craftsperson—writer, painter, programmer, composer, musician, dancer—and you’ll find they’ve all spent time copying other creators. In our rush to reward original expression, we under-emphasise the importance of copying and scaffolding from existing texts.
  5. We don’t provide enough practice. In a skill-based domain, such as piano or soccer, learners get lots of practice between performances. Learners engage in a complex process of exercises and drills punctuated by recitals and games. Writing is as much a skill as sport or music, but we don’t have the same rigorous approach to practice. In school, “practice” tends to mean writing a draft of an essay before handing in the final, which is like learning to play piano only by playing concerts.

How does Writelike try to solve the problem?

Paired snippet and example

Writelike doesn’t pretend to be a complete solution, but we do try to improve one part of the system, which is helping students learn to deconstruct text, identify useful patterns, and apply those patterns in their own writing. 

To so this, we take the following approach:

  1. Collect snippets of authentic text. Short enough to be accessible, but authentic enough to be compelling.
  2. Highlight useful patterns in the snippet text. Patterns range from narrow grammatical patterns to broad semantic or structural patterns. Even a short snippet of text can offer rich possibilities.
  3. Provide minimalist instruction. By minimalist we mean just enough commentary to understand the function of each part of the pattern.
  4. Provide worked examples. These illustrate how patterns could be applied to different content.
  5. Ask students to write variations, applying the pattern to their own content.
  6. Build from small parts to larger wholes. Within a Writelike lesson, students might write 6-8 very small snippets before taking a pass at a larger 1-2 paragraph piece that combines some or all of the patterns they’ve practiced in the lesson.

Why teach this way?

This approach addresses the problems listed above:

  • We can provide text that is challenging but not overwhelming.
  • By highlighting patterns, we can be granular in our instruction.
  • We provide real-world tactics that students can use at a clause and sentence level.
  • Using worked examples and close scaffolding, we take the pressure off students to be original.
  • We build fluency in sentence-level skills, so that students have the capacity to pursue higher-order strategic goals.

This method doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a synthesis of ideas from cognitive load theory, social learning theory and genre-based pedagogy. You can read more about the theoretical foundation here.

Why put it online?

You can teach using the methods above without any technology other than pen and paper, and there are some excellent teacher development programs that can train you in similar approaches. 

But technology can help us scale. Teachers have limited time for both prep and instruction. A good tool can help teachers scale their instruction.

With Writelike, the goal is to provide high quality lessons that teachers can use to build a solid foundation in all students, so they have more time to work on higher-order, higher-value instruction. 

It’s important to read and write longform text outside of Writelike

Illustration of young people reading

Writelike is like a gymnasium: it is a place to practise writing skills, but it’s not the real world.

The real world is the world of reading and writing longform text in all its richness—this is where the real action happens.

Writelike will have the greatest impact in a classroom that has a rich culture of reading and writing. However, within that context it can help all students read and write more effectively by developing a greater acuity about the construction of text.

What content does Writelike cover? What’s coming up?

Writelike is in its infancy. Right now we are focused on middle years creative writing, with narrative writing content for senior students to come. We’ll then move on to other text types.

Other questions

  • If you want to know how to use Writelike in your classroom, read our summary.
  • If you have general questions, check the FAQ.
  • If the FAQ doesn’t answer your question, let us know. We’ll answer directly.
  • If you want to stay informed, sign up for our newsletter (in the footer at the bottom of the site).
  • If you want to request lessons or features, send us an email.
  • If you want to run a trial of Writelike to see what kind of impact it has on your students, let us know. We're keen to get some data!