Writing Teacher vs. Writing Coach: You Make the Call

Posted by Rod Burnette on

Do you spend hours marking errors on a set of writing assignments only to see those same errors again on the next assignment? And the next? Does it frustrate you so much than you’ve considered throwing in the towel? Don’t change your career; just alter your job description a bit! Instead of a being writing teacher, consider becoming a writing coach.

I love analogies, so indulge me if I seem to digress. My 12-year-old son Beck plays golf competitively. Even if you know nothing about golf, I’m sure you know that every sport involves a variety of different skills. A player who masters these skills enjoys success in his or her sport. Writing, too, involves a variety of different skills. A student who masters these skills enjoys success in his or her writing. 

At each of Beck’s golf lessons, his coach chooses some area of the game as a focus. It may be putting, chipping, or hitting the ball off the tee. Then he focuses even more. If Beck is working on his tee shot, his coach watches a few swings and makes one or two adjustments. By focusing on these little details, Beck is able to improve his tee shot. Perhaps it’s still not perfect, but his coach will tweak a little something else next time. 

Imagine what would happen if the coach watched Beck play 18 holes of golf and then told him everything he had done wrong during the entire round! Beck would be frustrated, he would have learned nothing (except that he’s a lost cause), and he would probably not play any better the next time. 

Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? What coach would do that? Yet, that’s the approach we typically take as writing teachers. We assign an entire essay and then tell students everything that’s wrong with it (and possibly point out a few strengths). Students are frustrated, learn nothing, and fail to improve the next time.

As writing coaches, we must allow students to focus on just a few aspects (no more than six) of their writing in each assignment. Let’s say one of those focus skills is using a variety of sentence beginnings. Teach students about that skill. Show them some good examples. Then lead them to revise with that skill in mind. Then when you assess the papers, evaluate only for that skill and the handful of others selected for this assignment (such as effective topic sentences, transitions, or voice). There may be subject/verb agreement errors in the paper; but if that wasn’t a focus for this time, let it go for now. (But make yourself a note so it can be a focus for next time.) 

Sounds crazy, right? But does Beck’s coach say, “Great job with your tee shots today, but your chipping is really bad” when Beck wasn’t even working on chipping? No, his coach evaluates the tee shots and saves the chipping feedback for another lesson. I’ll bet it drives the coach nuts to see other bad habits and not correct them all at once, but he knows that improvement comes from mastering some aspects of the game rather than floundering at all of them. Eventually, if given the chance to focus, mastery will come in each area.

As writing coaches, we must also remember that every student may not need to focus on the same skills. While one student may need to focus on parallel structure in this week’s assignment, another might need to focus on avoiding sentence fragments. If Beck’s back swing is flawless, his coach doesn’t focus on it anyway just because his other students are struggling with it. Coaches differentiate very well.

An amazing side effect of coaching is that students feel a sense of accomplishment. They believe they can do something right even if everything’s not perfect. Further, they become more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. After years of focused lessons, Beck can now tell his coach what his trouble spots are, and he can tweak his game himself in many cases. Imagine a student saying, “Overall, I think this paragraph is pretty strong, but I’m struggling a little with my pronoun references.” 

Students regularly toss around such statements on the playing field of the writing coach.


Post by Dawn Burnette.

Dawn is a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught middle and high school English since 1990. In addition to English, she is also certified in gifted education for grades K-12. She is the author of Daily Grammar Practice as well as numerous other publications for teaching language arts. She received the NCTE High School Teacher of Excellence Award for 2005 and was a 2007 finalist for Georgia Teacher of the Year. Dawn teaches professional development courses and has presented at countless conferences.


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