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The Reading Coach

Discovering the
Writers Within

This year, my columns, devoted to strategies for effective writing instruction, parallel a growing emphasis on writing in all classrooms. Teachers are asking "How do I prepare students for assessments and help them view themselves as writers?"

It's a fine balance. Skill-based instruction is important, but we also must include the essential element of motivation. From the start, convince students that writing is worthwhile (do you believe that?) and that their oral vocabulary and reading experiences give them tools to express themselves. Their skills will grow.

“Writing is hard because it is a struggle of thought, feeling and imagination to find expression clear enough for the task at hand." ~ Carl Nagin

Before "crossing i's and dotting t's," explore great writing. Prove to students that each has something important to say. The National Council of Teachers of English identifies writing's primary role as "an opportunity for students to learn about themselves and their world and communicate their insights to others." That's the secret to making the skill instruction work.

Make your first assignment a writer's autobiography. Instead of the dreaded "what I did on summer vacation," have students write a paragraph (for the youngest writers) or two or three (for ages 7+) about their lives as writers, their experiences, likes and dislikes.


Print Resources:
Writing Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques, Burke, Jim. Boynton/Cook, 2003.
Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools, Nagin, Carl/The National Writing Project. Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Online Resources:
The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing Revolution, The Report of the National Commission on Writing. 2003.
National Council of Teachers of English Position Statement.
Make the Write Impression, Ed World Lesson Plans.


Reviewing those always gives me a clear picture of the students' present attitudes and of what to teach. Above all, encourage frankness. One of my students wrote an incredible persuasive piece on why writing "wasn't cool." Although the student's intent was to describe his distaste for writing, the result was that he tapped into his voice and created a strong composition.

Review each autobiography to identify what students don't know. Resist the temptation to blindly turn to that first writing lesson or mark every error with a red pen. Instead, create a checklist of obvious needs for each of your students, and then look for patterns. You don't have to solve every problem today. First, light the fire of ideas. Compare your findings to grade-level standards and choose what to teach first. Let "student gaps" be your first guide; curriculum is only valuable when it fills those holes.

Begin where your students are and you'll be amazed how far they can go.

About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller uses her library science degree from Florida State University as the foundation of her work. With more than ten years experience as an independent literacy consultant working with teachers, parents, librarians, and non-profit family-friendly organizations, she has conducted research initiatives and best practice studies in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy and volunteer tutoring. She currently is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators.
Cathy's freelance writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,, Education World, Family Network, the Reading Tub, The National Education Association, and BabyZone. She also reviews children's books at Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. Her signature is her passion for connecting children and families to positive, powerful experiences with reading; she believes there is a book for every child.
Cathy lives with her husband, Chuck, eighteen-year-old son, Charlie, and lots of friendly, ferociously read books in Huntsville, Alabama. Visit Cathy's Web site at The Literacy Ambassador.

Updated 3/19/2012