Don’t forget about using past papers to teach new skills

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

When I show Collins Writing workshop participants authentic student examples of Type Three or Type Four compositions, I sometimes get the question: “You said this was a Type Three example, but there is a 2 at the top of the page. Is this really a Type Two?”

I explain that the 2 at the top of the paper indicates that this is the second composition of the year by the student, not the “type” of writing it is. “We ask students to number each new composition. We want them to keep their papers at school, so we can use them later in the year to practice or reinforce various writing skills.”

We call this “using past papers,” an essential tenet of the Collins Writing Program. As powerful as the strategy is, it is often overlooked—or at least underutilized—by many teachers. I fear that I may not do a good job of clarifying for teachers how past papers might be used and the benefits for their students. Let me elaborate here to make the case for numbering, keeping, and utilizing compositions in your writing program.

Why Number the Compositions?

As students set up their papers for a new composition, make numbering them part of the routine set-up. “FCAs on the top lines left side; name and date on the top two lines on the right side; composition number in the middle of the top margin.”

Numbering the compositions has several benefits. First, it provides a tangible running record of works to date. As the year goes on, you will be pleasantly surprised at the sense of accomplishment students have in their growing body of work.

Second, numbering the compositions helps students keep them in a neat, easy-to-use, chronological order. It’s much easier to search for “composition #4” than to look for the “book review we did in October.”

Why Keep the Compositions at School?

There is a simple reason for keeping student compositions at school rather than sending them home: Past compositions are the best possible source of practice material for developing or honing writing skills. They are much better than skill sheets or practice on anonymous pieces of writing because they are specific to the needs of the student. What better way to practice sentence combining than looking for sentences that could be combined in a piece of writing done earlier in the year?

Many teachers have students keep their compositions in Collins folders—the Collins Primary Writing Folder (grades 1–3) or the Collins Portfolio (grades 4 and up). These folders not only give students a way to keep their work neat and in order but also ask students to reflect on each piece as it is completed. What did they do well? What improvements might they make on another, similar piece? We know that effective writers set goals, reflect on how well those goals are met, and revise their goals to improve their work. Collins folders foster that kind of goal setting and reflection.

But no matter where compositions are stored, it is essential that students have a body of work to reflect on and use during the school year.

Why Use Past Papers?

We don’t want past papers to be just a collection of student work. We want them to be an active, working portfolio of compositions that students use to practice new skills and develop as writers. You can use them to:

  • Select authentic models. Mentor text is a powerful teaching tool in writing because it makes concrete for writers what otherwise might be rather conceptual. Showing examples of mentor text that have varied sentence beginnings, interesting leads, or an embedded quote makes those writing features more accessible and understandable to students. The same is true for student examples. Your students’ past papers provide you a reservoir of authentic student work from which to draw good (and not-so-good) examples to clarify FCAs, to exemplify writing features, or to model revising and editing techniques. Of course, you will want the permission of the student before sharing any part of their paper.
  • Practice new skills. The best possible practice material for students is their own writing. For example, practice with similes could be done by finding opportunities to use similes in a previous composition. Is there a more meaningful way to improve sentence variety than to analyze the sentence lengths of a previous piece of writing? Using past papers does not mean rewriting entire compositions. Rather, it involves targeted activities to practice new skills or techniques. Writing a new lead for a previous narrative, for example, doesn’t mean rewriting the whole story. It means simply rewriting the first few sentences or the first paragraph to apply a newly introduced technique for grabbing the reader’s attention.
  • Improve previous work. Most past-papers activities are strategically targeted and relatively brief. They give students practice at applying revising and editing strategies, and it improves their original piece of writing. Using past papers in this way reinforces the power of the writing process and how writing can be revisited and improved.
  • Reflect on progress. Having a body of work allows students to look back over their previous writing to see growth, identify areas of improvement, and set meaningful goals for themselves.

Using past papers is a powerful strategy for teaching new skills throughout the school year.