Coach students as they practice writing

icon of basketball player. text asks teachers if they keep students from practicing badly.

As with any skill — from baking to basketball — even if someone practices diligently, that person’s skills won’t improve if they practice incorrectly. Part of writing teachers’ duties is to make sure students practice writing correctly.

We must teach students what to practice and then supervise their practice so they practice the right procedures the right way. Such supervision isn’t about correcting papers; it’s about coaching writers.

Where coaching pays highest returns

There are four places in the expository writing process where coaching students as they practice does the most good.

When students are preparing a working thesis

The working thesis is a one-sentence summary of the main point the writer plans to make in his/her document. It sets the direction in which all the rest of the writer’s work will point. If the working thesis is vague or convoluted, the writer is in as bad a position as a basketball player who doesn’t know which basket to shoot for.

Teachers need to coach students through the process of using teacher-provided working thesis statements until they can be weaned to create their own. Depending on the student, the weaning process could take months.

The more students are encouraged to depart from standard thesis-and-support writing, which teachers tend to call "creative writing,"  the more  students need to decide in advance what point they want the writing to make.  Not having a target generally means hours of wasted time, which tends to turn students off writing. 

When students are preparing a writing skeleton™

The writing skeleton™ is a list of three or more  sentences each of which describes one reason for believing the working thesis to be true.  Coaching students through the writing skeleton™ process is crucial to their success as expository writers.

Preparing a writing skeleton™ resembles scientific research: There’s a hypothesis — the working thesis — to be proved or disproved. But before scientists start work, they first determine what will be sufficient evidence to prove the hypothesis. Similarly, as expository writers start the writing process,  they need to decide what will be sufficient evidence to make it appear plausible that the thesis is correct. (Standards are higher for science than for English class.)

If writers don’t already have evidence to support their faith in their working thesis, in their writing skeletons they make a guess as to what sort of evidence they will find when they do their research. If the writers have evidence, their writing skeletons summarizes that evidence.

It’s very difficult for teens and even adult students to grasp the need to figure out before they do any research what kind and amount of evidence they will need to prove their case. They require coaching to help them realize that it’s much easier and quicker to find specific types of evidence to prove/disprove their working thesis than to write on broad topics.

When students are rippling to identify sources

Ripple strategy is a tool that helps writers figure out where to look for the evidence their working thesis indicates they must find. Just as ripples surround the point at which an object such as a pebble enters a body of water, so ripples indicate rings of potential sources — sources are people — increasingly distant from the writer.

The central ring represents a writer’s personal experience if it’s relevant to the working thesis. The next largest ring represents people writers knows personally, such as family members, co-workers or classmates, who could be approached for evidence on the writer’s working thesis.

Ripples still further from the center represent people a writer could approach through personal contacts, such as a cousin’s boss or a neighbor’s son. Further out are people the writer has heard of but has no personal links with as yet. These may be experts with the most relevant information.

Finally there is the far-out ripple, that of published information.

Students need to be coached through the process of identifying sources and approaching them not just for a writing assignment but for success on the job in twenty-first century businesses.

When students are repairing their documents

After students have drafted their texts, they enter the repair stage. The first part of text repair is to make sure the draft substantially matches the plan. This means students check to see if they overlooked some essential point or piece of evidence they meant to include. If students have planned well, there should be no need to major revisions.

The second part of the repair work is to edit the document for surface errors. I teach my students to do this via single error editing and Individual Mastery Plans. I have students edit their draft documents three times, each time looking for just one of their three most serious habitual errors.

How to coach writers in practicing correctly

You have two primary ways of coaching students. One way is by creating checklists from strategies. You can give students a checklist or have them create one that they can use to tick off completion of tasks. Note, however, that this won’t work unless you’ve taught strategies thoroughly so students are comfortable using them.

The other way — and the one that I find more effective — is coaching by walking around.

When students are doing one of the four tasks listed in this post, walk around the room looking over shoulders encouraging, asking questions about what students are doing and why they’re doing it that way, and suggesting one student talk to another who solved a similar problem.

In your walking around, you want to help students discover the first point in the writing process where they could have done something differently and produced a better outcome. Telling students, "If you’d done X earlier, you wouldn’t be in this mess now," probably makes you feel better, but telling them is never as effective as helping them to discover it for themselves.

Coaching eventually comes down to helping someone discover on their own something you’ve already spent hours teaching them.

Should you give up teaching for coaching?

One of my standard lines about teaching writing is that it requires coach’s mindset rather than the traditional teacher’s mindset.

I’m having to rethink whether that’s still an appropriate line.

A tweet sent me to Karen Vogt’s post “Coaching: A New Frame for Teaching and Learning”  at the Next Generation Learning website earlier this week.

By the end of the third paragraph, it was clear to me that the author and I had distinctly different concepts of what is meant by coaching.

Vogt writes:

I have understood coaching in a very basic way—the coach is not an expert like a mentor or distinguished professor; the coach spends more time asking questions and listening than providing solutions and advice.

To me, that sounds more like a counselor than either a  teacher or a  coach.

When I hear the word coach, I think of someone who is (1) expert at doing some activity and (2) expert at enabling others to learn to do that activity. In other words, I think of coaching in terms of hands-on skills rather than content learning.

I suspect that more people understand coaching as I define it than as Vogt defines simply because sports are more popular than personal development courses.

That said, however, I will have to watch my language carefully in the future if the concept of coaching is undergoing change.

A second point Vogt made gave me something else to chew over.

She asks:

How can educators reaffirm that learners are not deficient; that it is instead their prior learning opportunities that have been deficient?

My first reaction is to stand up and cheer: There are way too many students whose educational problems are the result of having been to school.

My second reaction would be to rephrase that sentence like this:

How can educators reaffirm that learners are not deficient defective; that it is instead their prior learning opportunities that have teaching that was deficient?

I’ve had many college students whose skills were deficient although the students themselves were not defective. The students had had opportunities to learn those skills in the past; however, they often had misunderstood what they were taught in elementary school—and teacher after teacher failed to to catch the misunderstanding.

Vogt has some other observations that those of you who teach “content courses” may find stimulate your thinking. If you have a couple minutes, take a look at her article.