Improving Writing (and Reading) Part One

November 3, 2012


Currently, I am conducting workshops about how to improve student writing. In some cases, strategies for doing this have been developed to a high degree of sophistication; Reading to Learn and Scaffolding Literacy are two outstanding programs. One of their strengths is the way they integrate and relate the teaching of reading and writing. Both, for example, use special approaches to structured, explicit guided reading as a precursor to writing similar types of texts. Both approaches also seek to re-engage students by providing them with success in literacy rather than reinforcing and perpetuating literacy failure.

Whatever approach schools decide to adopt, there is no doubt that (re)engaging struggling and reluctant students is essential to success. Although this is a multi-faceted issue, in the next few posts, I will explore some of the research in three areas related to engagement and success:
• challenging a deficit approach to student improvement
• connecting teaching to the ‘real’ world
• the importance of wide reading for enjoyment.
In this first post, we will explore problems with the deficit approach.

A common way of approaching literacy improving is to identify student weaknesses and problems. Then, various school personnel set to remediating and fixing the student problems. This is the deficit approach. Some researchers have sought to challenge the assumptions underpinning this approach. Luis Moll and others, for example, have proposed the metaphor of community “funds of knowledge” and Pat Thompson the metaphor of “virtual schoolbags”. These metaphors were used as the basis of work carried out by Barbara Comber and Barbara Kamler (2005) in developing teaching methods aimed at ‘turning-around’ student failure and disengagement. ‘These positive metaphors’ the researchers say, ‘allowed [teachers] to see their students as resourceful.’ (p5)

Funds of Knowledge

According to the metaphor of ‘funds of knowledge’, all communities have resources that often remain invisible and under-valued in the school context, e.g. knowledge of mechanics, building, gardening, natural medicines, animal husbandry. Communities often have networks of practice that allow them to manage and solve such matters as care for the young and the old, financial assistance, transport, management of everyday life with meagre income and assets, organising and running large scale events (e.g. netball carnivals). According to Comber and Kamler, ‘if teachers knew more about communities’ funds of knowledge, this might inform teachers’ curriculum designs, build their respect for the community and thereby enhance children’s educational experience. Consequently, ‘an important first step [is] teachers learning to be ethnographers of communities in order to learn about the specific cultural resources of communities and how they functioned.’

Take two minutes now to write down everything positive about the local community in which you teach. Include such things as:
• available resources (human, knowledge and material)
• networks of practice.
Now consider:
• How did you go?
• What use could you make of the resources and practices that you’ve identified?
• What more do you need to do and/or find out?

Virtual Schoolbags

The second metaphor is that all children come to school with ‘virtual school bags’ that are full of various cultural and linguistic resources. However, only some children get to open their bags and make use of what is inside while many children’s knowledge, experiences and practices remain invisible and unused at school.

For example, a literacy researcher once told me about professional development that she and a colleague were conducting in a school. After a while the staff had become quite restless and inattentive. The presenters were forced to stop and discover what the problem was. “This is completely unrealistic and won’t work in our school”, they were told. So, knowing they were to return again in a week or so, they set the staff a challenge. “Who is the dumbest kid in the school?” they asked provocatively. With very little effort, the staff were unanimous in naming a particular student (let’s call him Josh). “Okay, our challenge to you is to find out as much as you can about Josh before we return. That includes visiting his home and speaking to his parents.” A week or so later, the view of Josh had completely turned around: the researchers were told that he was actually gifted and talented. His father was a jazz aficionado and Josh (in the time before ready-made blogging software and YouTube) had developed a comprehensive, on-line database about 1950s jazz, including biographies, discographies and the like. The problem wasn’t so much that he was dumb, it was that nothing at school connected with his life away from school, nor made use of his skills.

An interesting finding of Comber and Kamler’s work was that ‘Many teachers observed that when they reworked the curriculum to re-engage alienated students, their entire class became more motivated and committed to the newly negotiated approach. The turn-around effect extended beyond the ‘targeted’ students.’ (Comber and Kamler, 2005)

The success of this assets-based approach has also been demonstrated in other projects. One very interesting one occurred in the Central Community Development Center (USA) with their positive youth development program (Wright & Mahiri 2012). At the end of a real-life project involving disaffected and troubled youth from local schools, Pepe (a 13-year-old, second generation Latino boy) who could not even decode simple words such as date and age, was interviewed:

Dana (researcher): I noticed that, in the beginning, you didn’t read out loud at all, but then it seems now you read out loud. Why is that? Is that because you’re getting help outside of here, like at school?
Pepe: No, it was because of this project.
Dana: is it? Do you have a tutor, though, at school? [Pepe shakes his head no.] Do you read or write with teachers?
Pepe: No. Well, I write, but read? Not really.
Dana: OK. So, you say that it was because of this project that you read out loud more. Why do you think that is?
Pepe: Here, I learned to not be scared and [not to] hold in your voice – to just speak out.

As a result of their experiences, the researchers recommend that student success relies on:
1. create a safe space for learning.
2. using engaging team-building strategies.
3. using pedagogical approaches that identify and build on youths’ assets
4. employing youth literacy-development apprenticeships by adults and by young people.
5. connecting learning to the real world.

To get started on this approach:
What to look for: evidence of children’s capacities, interests, strengths and cultural investments
How to find it: speak to students, visit classes where s/he excels, watch him/her playing sport, visit home, make time to see parents after school
Then, think about how this information can be used to design ‘pedagogies to connect them to the literacy curriculum’.


Comber, B. & Kamler, B. (2005). Turn-around pedagogies: Literacy interventions for at-risk students. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association.
Wright, D. & Mahiri, J. (2012). ‘Literacy learning within community action projects for social change’. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 56: 2. pp. 123-131.

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2 Responses to “Improving Writing (and Reading) Part One”

  1. Literacy teaching so that it matters | The English Teacher Guru on November 12th, 2012 10:58 pm

    […] the second of three posts about engaging students in literacy learning. While this is a big topic, the first post focussed on the power of knowing students’ strengths and understanding the ‘funds of […]

  2. Engaging Students in Wide Reading | The English Teacher Guru on November 24th, 2012 7:55 pm

    […] the third and final post in a series exploring ways of engaging students in literacy learning. The first post emphasised the importance of understanding the strengths of students and the communities in which […]

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