Everyone can write. We can all learn to express our ideas clearly and completely. We can all tell stories. We can all make sound, well-reasoned arguments. We will not all find the same tools and processes equally useful and we will not all write our best work in the same time frame. Some writers need to think through the details of a piece before even getting started. Others, love the rush of thinking through the writing process. Some writers create neat, minutely detailed outlines, some scrawl a few idea on a page in a notebook and race off. Not all writers keep tidy journals. Some us leave notes everywhere-digital and on paper! Likewise, not all writers are born writers. Some children begin to think of themselves early on as “non-writers.” Often, there is considerable frustration, avoidance and emotional struggle around simply getting started on a writing task. As a classroom teacher, I saw many kinds of writers grow and learn and become better writers. There are many strategies I have developed over the years to help young writers—both advanced, ambitious writers, and frustrated “stuck” writers, gain confidence, competence, fluency and sophistication. I work with students on writing without fear, on rereading as the most essential writing practice, on brainstorming, revision, editing, sentence combining, sentence starters, word choice and essential vocabulary development. When readers are reluctant, avoidant, an overwhelmed by the demands of the classroom, my approach is non-aversive, playful and accepting of where students entry points are. We may play some word games, read materials that students enjoy, discuss students’ favorite activities or even have a session out of doors if the weather permits.
By middle school, some struggling readers no longer receive support in school. Once readers attain a level of fluency, they are often left on their own to get through both classroom material and in meeting the Common Core independent reading benchmark of reading twenty-five “just right” books per year. In addition, whole class book choices rise steeply in complexity in later middle school and high school. Some readers struggle to meet these challenges. The struggling reader will also find the increase in complex, domain-specific language in the various subject areas—history, science, even math overwhelming. My approach does not involve short cuts! Good readers are careful readers and good readers are attentive to new vocabulary. Some of us need more time on task to recall new words and verbal concepts than others.
I believe in facing our reading and writing challenges head on. We all have many years of experience learning to read and write. The confident reader and writer has many positive memories of past successes, while the struggling reader/writer has many past experience that remind her just how difficult the task at hand will be. The first step in the coaching relationship is always to break down these barriers to success and to think, not of how powerful a force failure can be, but how momentous a break-through, even on a simple homework assignment can be. Each new assignment, each new project is a growth opportunity! Daily practice in reading and writing helps build and retain the concentration and automaticity necessary for fluency and thinking-in-writing.
Organization/Executive Function: Often students who are not organized in their lives have difficulty completing writing tasks. Why this is, researchers are not sure. Sometimes, students have ADD diagnosis as well as writing and language deficits. Learning self-regulation skills, productive self-talk, task imitation, focus and perseverance is vital for such students. Not all people are emotionally responsive to the written word; this needs to be learned. Some kids are natural “doers” not naturally reflective or verbally responsive. Such students often love video games, comic books and action movies. They want to participate in life through large gestures. They express emotion through action. This can make for tough going in today’s classrooms. I work with such students with respect for their affinities, whether those are wrestling, hair and make-up, sports or motorcycles. Thinking and speaking about what makes us happy,alert and engaged readies us for working through more challenging tasks. I try to help students gain awareness of how they approach different activities—some with joy and some with dread. Often they realize what they dread is not so awful in the end, especially when they are validated, not shamed for their natural affinities.