Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Transforming Substance into Significance, Part 9: Teacher Expertise—Writers & Coaches

Sufficient research exists to make the following claim: the most significant school-based factor influencing student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. An effective teacher increases a child’s achievement. An ineffective teacher decreases a child’s achievement.

This seems like common sense, but perhaps we remain unaware of the magnitude of difference the classroom teacher makes. Educational researcher Robert Marzano (2003) uncovered the teacher’s significant influence: nearly 70% of a school’s influence on student achievement results from the teacher’s effectiveness. It’s worth reiterating: the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the most significant school-based factor influencing student achievement.

What does this have to do with teaching writing? For students to optimize achievement and reach their potential as writers, we need effective writing teachers.
What, then, makes a writing teacher effective? Four areas of competence emerge:
  • effective writing teachers can produce quality writing themselves
  • effective writing teachers can coach other writers to improved results
  • effective writing teachers can accurately assess writing and identify elements of excellence and potential improvement
  • effective teachers teach writing using sound instructional methods in effective combinations
Let’s examine each area.

Teachers as Writers

“In most other fields of endeavor, those who instruct are required to have a minimum level of expertise,” claims author and teacher Gloria Houston (2004). “In the teaching of writing in the English-speaking world, that has often not been the case, so teachers feel frustrated…Teachers who do not know how to write are required to teach writing…[Teachers] want to do well, but they often do not know where to begin” (p. 1).

Can you relate to this? With rare exception, the teachers I know have experienced the frustration Houston describes. We want to teach students to write well, but we lack the knowledge that would make us confident writers ourselves.

Allow me to illustrate via my own experience. I grew up in a literate environment. My mother loved the public library, and she took me to it often. As soon as I was old enough, I had my own library card. Throughout elementary and secondary school, teachers generally praised my writing. (I was pretty good at snowing my teachers with essay responses that didn’t necessarily answer the question they had asked.) When I entered college, I passed the entrance assessment and bypassed all basic level writing courses. I majored in English and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. From all appearances, it should have been safe to assume that I knew how to write well.

But assumptions do not always match reality. As I began my teaching career, I engaged my students in frequent writing tasks, but I quickly realized that analyzing the themes in great British and American literary works did not equip me to teach fourth grade students how to write well. Saying things like, “You know, like Shakespeare does in Hamlet,” didn’t seem to have any effect. I muddled along with the textbook’s suggestions for several years but always felt I lacked the knowledge to really help students improve their writing. What should I have them consider once the rough draft was complete? What specific direction could I provide for clarifying and strengthening their writing? I was the teacher Gloria Houston describes: I wanted to teach writing well, but I did not know where to begin because I lacked content knowledge. I did not know how to craft my own writing beyond the draft stage.

Which brings us to a critical component of successful instructional writing programs. High quality programs include a comprehensive professional development component—training that equips teachers with the knowledge and know-how to develop their own writing capacity. By improving the writing abilities of teachers, we can overcome the frustration Gloria Houston describes and increase our instructional effectiveness.

Teachers as Writing Coaches

The single most important, most effective, and most valuable instruction a developing writer can receive is coaching by a caring expert. Coaching is a person-to-person activity, a chance for a writer to interact about his work with an interested individual. Good coaching provides strategic help, personal support, and individual challenge.

Increasing coaching increases learning. Marzano (2003) found that students who had teachers that consistently provided timely and specific feedback scored anywhere from 21 to 41 percentage points higher on standardized tests than students who had teachers that failed to provide such feedback. Neurologist and classroom teacher Dr. Judy Willis (2006) offers a likely explanation for this dramatic impact: “One of the most successful strategies for engaging students’ brains in their lessons comes from personal connection and accountability” (p. 82). Through frequent coaching, teachers connect with individual students, hold them accountable, provide an opportunity for student questioning, and optimize learning and achievement.

But what does it take to be a great writing coach? Research suggests:

  • in-depth knowledge of each phase of the writing process, especially revision
  • knowledge of what completing a specific writing task involves
  • knowledge of how to guide a young writer from one phase of writing to the next
  • an attitude that is “supportive, honest, critical, but always encouraging” (Lukeman, 2000, p. 17)
Simply creating the time and space for coaching may be a writing teacher’s greatest challenge. Yet when we look at the achievement difference coaching makes, we must conclude that coaching is the most important aspect of teaching writing.

What would you see in an instructional writing program that emphasized coaching? First, the professional development component would include instruction and practice in coaching young writers. Second, the number of major writing projects would be sufficiently limited to allow for multiple coaching sessions as the student completes each project. Third, clearly defined assessment standards would provide unambiguous direction for determining a student’s strengths and for directing the student in improving the writing.

Behind every developing writer, there needs to be a caring coach.

Up Next: Teachers as "Critics" and Successful Writing Instructors. That posting will be the final one in this series on writing instruction. Postings with insights from the recent Neuroleadership Summit will follow.

Houston, G. (2004). How writing works: Imposing organizational structure within the writing process. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Lukeman, N. (2000). The first five pages: A writer's guide to staying out of the rejection pile. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Willis, J. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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