I’m a Reading / Writing Coach!

Have you heard any of these statements before?

Our students can’t read the textbook.

My students can’t write logical conclusions.

My students can’t spell, can’t write complete sentences, and can’t find a comma to save their lives.

Some of my students are doing just fine.  Why didn’t the rest of them learn?

Why didn’t my students learn this in language arts class?

Why didn’t they learn this in middle school?

Why didn’t they learn this in elementary school?

Why didn’t they learn this FROM THEIR PARENTS!?

THEY aren’t teaching students how to read anymore.

THEY aren’t teaching students how to write anymore.

THEY have lowered their standards.

I shouldn’t have to teach my students how to read.

I shouldn’t have to teach my students how to write.

I shouldn’t have to show my students how to take notes.

I shouldn’t have to teach my students how to make a logical argument.

No one taught ME how to read a text book.

No one taught ME how to write a lab report.

No one taught ME how to make an argument.

It’s __________’s fault (TV, poverty, the family, culture, NCLB, RTTT, etc).

Sounds pretty depressing, huh?  Well, let’s talk fun for a moment.

One of the fun things that I got to do over spring break was reading − lots of it.  Besides reading The Two Towers for the nth time, I also read a fantastic book called Real Reading, Real Writing Content Area Strategies, by Donna Topping and Roberta McManus.  I’ve skimmed this book in the past, and I’ve used one of the recommended writing strategies, but I so wish that I had read it cover-to-cover before now.  I would be teaching differently today, if I had.

Along with providing a heaping variety of tools for improving the reading and writing skills of students in content areas like science and social studies, the book also starts with a valuable discussion about teaching philosophy in general.  It addresses the important and frustrating statements with which I began this post.  Most of us have heard these statements.  Many of us have made these statements.  Real Reading, Real Writing comes right at this attitude with a big YEAH?  So what?  What are YOU going to do about it?

The authors ask you to face some hard facts:

  • Many students don’t learn like you do.
  • The methods that worked with you don’t work with them.
  • They don’t know how to put the pieces together, even when they have the pieces.
  • They aren’t getting what you are doing.

The authors state, “It’s so much more comfortable to brand someone else as the culprit than to look inside and see what we could be doing to make the situation better.”  I love this!  Stop whining, buck up, and start doing something about it.  The authors then provide a realistic strategy and usable tools for moving past the frustration for both teachers and students.

So, what’s a science teacher like me to do when my students can’t read or write at acceptable levels for success in science?  The authors suggest that teachers replace their testing posture with a teaching posture by adopting a coaching strategy.  Well, I’ve heard this before, and it sounds all well and good.  And anyway, isn’t coaching cheating?  The authors raise the same objections, as well as many others.  However, they break down the arguments and provide many practical tools for taking on this strategy.  The authors come across as reasonable and sensible voices in the call to teach reading and writing across the curriculum.  For me, it is finally more than a vision.



“We must not just tell but show our students what it is we want them to do, how we − the mature adults − read and write in our specific content areas, and how we strategically control ideas and information within them.”  Again, I’ve heard this before, but who has the time?  I have all this content to cover, right?  The authors − one of whom is a middle school science teacher, so the book has a strong focus on science teaching − acknowledge this problem and address it head on.  They acknowledge that teaching reading and writing WILL take more time.  At first.  Then, you and your students will be able to proceed more rapidly through your content, with greater success in terms of learning, for the remainder of the school year.  In fact, one author can pinpoint the day of the year when she and her students will be able to put learning into overdrive.



The authors suggest a three-prong approach to teaching the players, I mean, the students:

  • Involve students in the process of the game.
  • Model how to do what the game requires.
  • Present strategies for playing the game successfully under a variety of conditions and variables.

They describe what this looks like in a REAL school, including a generous helping of conversations between REAL teachers and REAL students.  They show how teaching your students to read and write, while teaching all the science you are obligated to teach, is not only possible, but also rewarding.

This book gets beyond answers to the questions of which technique, which initiative, or which trick-of-the-trade will make the difference.  Rather, the authors address real questions like, “Are we guiding our students to write and speak appropriately for the tasks at hand?”  All fads/initiatives/etc must be evaluated in the light of real questions like this.

As I wrote this last paragraph, I realized that it too sounded rather theoretical and pie-in-the-sky.  So, what can I do on Monday to help my students do better in my class and in future coursework?  Actually, I have already started.  This past week, my students and I began the final quarter of our year with some new approaches to learning.  I created some practical reading tools using the models in Real Reading, Real Writing.  I introduced topics in new ways with sensible tactics to engage students before, during, and after content delivery.  I had fun!  My students responded positively, along with some groaning about having to do more real work for themselves.

As I said to my students, you are probably wondering why we didn’t do this at the beginning of the year.  Well, I simply didn’t know how.  I’ve heard the theories (in the everyday usage of the word), and I’ve been part of the school initiatives.  However, until now I’ve rarely heard any practical approaches or sensible voices in the push to improve the literacy of our students.  I wish I had, and I wish I had started this year with these tools in hand.

Nevertheless, I’ve told my students that we’re going to do a lot more reading and writing between now and the end of the year.  I’m going to do what I can to get them ready for next year and beyond, when they MUST read complex texts for learning ON THEIR OWN.  There is the side benefit that they will be better prepared for their state-mandated ACT test in a few weeks, but I made it clear that this is NOT the reason we are doing this.  This is for their future.  This is for their REAL learning.


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