Few teachers would teach writing in primary or secondary classrooms without using a WAGOLL to model writing for novice pupils. The language of ‘WAGOLL’s – or ‘What A Good One Looks Like’ – is common, but there may be less shared understanding about how to use them most effectively in the classroom.

You will find lots of teachers using different language to describe WAGOLLS. They are described as ‘mentor texts’ in a lot of research on writing. Alternatively, they are a version of ‘worked examples’ (although this label is more typically used to describe completed problems in maths, and more). A little imitation is necessary. It is nothing new: variations on this strategy have existed for thousands of years and have likely stuck for a reason.

It is commonly accepted that reading with a writer’s eye, and being exposed to lots of great writing, is likely to prove helpful to pupils learning to write. Research evidence routinely backs this up:

“Students are encouraged to analyse examples and to emulate the critical elements, patterns and forms embodied in the models in their own writing.”

Graham and Perin, 2007
What are the principles for using WAGOLLS effectively?

In observing teaching, doing a bit myself, and surveying evidence and insights on writing, I think there are useful principles for using WAGOLLS:

  • Utilise multiple WAGOLLs where possible. When pupils are faced with one example of good writing, they too often simply imitate it. But shift pupils to comparing two examples and pupils begin to better to discriminate their key ingredients. If you have three examples – this could be a bit overwhelming – but with more confident pupils, they begin to get a rich picture of writing styles and moves for their own writing. They can better notice patterns of writing quality (whilst getting a healthy dose of reading).
  • Ensure pupils dig beneath the surface features of WAGOLLs. For novice pupils, it is understandable that they’d fixate on surface features of examples. For instance, for a written argument, they may notice the number of paragraphs, but not discern the crucial argument structure (e.g. such as the classic ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ structure). Sophisticated vocabulary can be visible to pupils, but they don’t notice there is a subtly connected pattern of language. Explicit teaching of the most important ingredients of the WAGOLL is essential.
  • Apply the ‘Goldilocks principle’ to WAGOLLs. Too often, we can use examples that are simply beyond the reach of pupils to imitate well. For instance, if we are teaching complex sentence structures, utilising Dickens, and David Copperfield, isn’t always ideal. We can apply the Goldilocks principle: ensuring the example is within reach. A good example is using past pupil exemplar – with their understandable flaws and mistakes – and not simple the most sophisticated examples we can find.
  • Read aloud, annotate, and ensure pupils pay close attention to sentence-level choices. Pupils can judge a good piece of writing when they see one, but they can easily miss nuanced effects. By reading the WAGOLL aloud, whilst narrating the writer’s potential thinking and sentence choices, we help pupils notice nuances of writing craft. We have been annotating to pay attention to writing moves, for thousands of years, so let’s be deliberate and explicitly model good quality annotation too.

We can ensure that pupils can translate these principles by applying practical teaching strategies that are based on said principles.

For instance, we can ensure pupils are discriminating between multiple WAGOLLs with a ‘Gold, Silver, Bronze’ approach to compare a trio of examples. Of course, the medal isn’t key. It is about encouraging pupils to explain the salient differences and the key ingredients that make for a ‘gold’ exemplar. ‘Comparative judgement’ (mobilised at school level by the likes of ‘No More Marking’) can encourage the rapid comparing of paired example for the same purposes.

We could further delve into the writers’ intentions with a WAGOLL by reading it aloud, annotating, but then ‘Reverse engineering’ a plan for that piece of writing. By getting pupils to devise a plan for a good exemplar, we get them to really notice the writerly moves. We also model and prioritise effective planning processes (a hallmark of good writers).

WAGOLLs are already used with great skill, in a significant range of classroom settings. But a little more precision, and explicit intent in how we should use them effectively, we may help pupils make marginal but significant gains in their writing development.  

More on writing development:

  • I argue we need to ‘Write less; Read More‘ – HERE.
  • I share my ideas for ‘Crafting Great Sentences‘ – HERE.
  • You can buy my book on ‘Closing the Writing Gap‘ on Amazon HERE and Routledge HERE