Why Writelike works

Cognitive load theory

Photo of Michelle Alford by Alayna Wiley. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Cognitive load theory is an information processing model that has over 40 years’ worth of amazing experimental results. It’s content agnostic—it has no particular opinion on language teaching or writing—and it has little to say about student motivation, which is important. But in terms of raw instructional design, it is both powerful and reliable.

CLT can be weirdly divisive, but the recommendations of cognitive load theory will sound straightforward to most teachers: don’t overwhelm students with too much instruction at once, give them time to practice, provide examples, novices need more scaffolding than experts, and so on.

The practical question is a matter of degree: how much instruction vs practice? How many worked examples? Where is the boundary between novice and expert?

If you take the theory seriously, the resulting instructional designs can look quite different to conventional teaching in English (although less so in performance-oriented fields such as art, sport and music, in which many methods align naturally with the theory).

You’ll see the CLT influence on Writelike in the emphasis on minimalist instruction, emphasis on learning through worked examples, massed practice, part-whole structures, and explicit scaffolding for novice learners.

Further reading: NSW Government Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation

Social learning theory

Film crews are a great example of communities of practice

A big hole in cognitive load theory is motivation and meaning. CLT-informed instruction helps students develop mastery, which is often motivating in and of itself (we tend to want to do things we are good at). But CLT has nothing to say about why we teach anything, or why students should be bothered to learn.

Social learning theory fills this gap. Learning is never done in isolation (even when we are alone): content is culture and mastering relevant skills has social value. We derive motivation and meaning from our relationships with other people, both directly as individuals and more broadly as participants in society.

Writelike is particularly informed by the apprenticeship and community of practice writing of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. In the purest sense, that would suggest having young students work as proof-readers, researchers and layout assistants, but Writelike has a more watered-down, school-friendly approach.

First, even though Writelike is an online tool, it is designed to be situated in a classroom, with a teacher and a group of students. The instruction, guidance, elaboration and feedback from the teacher is crucial, as is discussion among students. Second, the peer review system provides for social reinforcement and value. Third, by scaffolding from authentic texts, we are keeping students close to the craft of writing, with all of its real-world complexities and values.

Further reading: See these extracts from Etienne Wenger’s 1998 book on Communities of Practice 

Genre-based pedagogy

Spread of fiction and nonfiction books

Where cognitive load and social learning theory are content-agnostic, genre-based pedagogy is explicitly about teaching reading and writing. The genre-based approach emphasises the social role of different text types and attempts to develop student mastery of genre-specific text features.

Genre-based pedagogy places a heavy emphasis on writing as a means of learning to read, analyse and understand texts of all types. Similar to social learning theory, it tries to induct students into a cultural heritage of meaning-making and exchange through texts, and similar to the suggestions of cognitive load theory, it teaches complex skills by starting small and providing lots of modelling.

Writelike aligns with genre-based pedagogy because it has a similar functional and craft-oriented point of view, with a focus on developing fluency in genre conventions. Writelike has a similar approach to the deconstruction of text, joint construction (whether through worked examples or teacher-led rewrites) and then individual construction at multiple levels of complexity.

Further reading: Good summary of the genre-based approach to reading and writing from the Victorian Government Department of Education 

If you'd like to run a controlled trial

We love collecting evidence! If you’d like to run an controlled trial experiment at your school to see the difference between students/classes using Writelike and those not, we’d love to help out. Get in touch.