A Writing Lesson that Works

A Writing Lesson that “works” for English Language Learners:  Finding their voice

By Debbie Arechiga

A writer goes through a remarkable journey in their lifetime.  Writing begins with the earliest forms of written representation whether it is scribbles, marks, or partially formed pictures, and over time, progresses to eloquently written prose.  Composing text is one of the more cognitively demanding tasks required of our students.  The task involves cognitive, physical, linguistic and content skills.  Yet, at the same time, the writer has to consider the audience and purpose of communication. The spoken word is often fleeting and is always in a state of revision; we repeat, rehearse, change thoughts quickly, self-correct often without conscious attention, use the same words over and over, use words incorrectly often without knowing, and the list could go on!  Yet, the written word is permanent in that it represents a writer’s thought at a certain moment in time.  Certainly, a writer can make changes but in the early stages, the effort of going from thoughts to forming a word and then a complete thought takes so much energy that changing the form is not a reasonable expectation.  So what does all of this mean for how we approach writing instruction with our English Language Learners?

  1. If learning to speak a new language is a trial and error process then learning to write in that new language will evolve in much the same way.
  2. Commit to the process:  Celebrate the writer’s attempts and encourage every step of the way.  In other words, teach the writer, not the writing!
  3. Believe that the writer is capable of performing the writing task through your actions and words.  Demonstration is the most powerful tool for learning something new!

As a literacy consultant I am blessed with the opportunity to demonstrate lessons in teachers’ classrooms.  I want to share a writing lesson that I have taught with great success in classrooms where students haven’t yet found their voices as writers. So many of our students find writing a daunting task especially when trying to overcome the “writing as you speak” stage of writing.  To learn the craft and feel comfortable as a writer takes a lifetime.  Our English Language Learners deserve writing experiences where they can observe and interact with a teacher demonstrating writing techniques and have the tools to make attempts with this skill under the guidance of supportive teachers.  Too often, we expect too much…  too soon.. with minimal support.  The result is a classroom full of passive learners, afraid to take risks, confused and frustrated about the process.

This lesson was developed in response to the common questions received in dialogue with teachers about this topic.  How can I help my students write with more detail?  What is the secret to helping students develop topics more fully and write with more voice?  My students write with the same boring sentences… what do I do?  While reading Georgia Heard’s book, Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary Classrooms,  it occurred to me that our students, especially our English Language Learners, need to dig into their feelings and experience emotion in order to discover their voice as a writer.  This lesson is an adaptation of one of her ideas found within this book: Four Room Poem:  Writing to an object.

It is obvious as I walk into the room that students will have opportunities to engage in their learning. Students are seated in small groups next to writing partners so to encourage the language of writers – talking through ideas – so crucial to getting ideas on the paper.  I walk around the room handing out various objects one at a time from my shopping bag.  I pose a few questions:  “When I hand you this object will you take some time to feel it, smell it, and describe it to your partner.” The motivation is high and the room is buzzing with quality talk about the sights, smells and feelings of their objects. Every object is different ranging from small toys, school tools to home necessities. It only took me about 15 minutes to gather enough objects laying around my house for this lesson – it’s amazing how quickly something useless can be used for something purposeful!  “You have noticed that I have placed an object on your desk and I bet you are wondering why… Today, you are going to write to an object.  I post the objectives written from the first person perspective so that each student can take ownership for their learning today.

I will plan and draft a descriptive poem about an object.

I will express my own thinking and ideas by participating in partner discussion.

This may sound odd talking to something that is not real like a person but you will quickly discover that there are many ways we can talk about and write to an object.  I have placed a paper divided into four squares on your desk, please take your paper and number it into four rooms like mine…  We will be writing something different in each of these rooms.  I have an object in this bag yet I am not going to show you because I want you to see if you can guess what it is through the use of my words on the page.  As writers we must learn to show and not just tell.”  Using one student as an example,  “Rather than just tell me that you have a necklace, we will write in specific ways to show others what makes this object unique.  In the first room I demonstrate for the students how I am going to write a description of my object by telling you what I see, feel, or smell.

Room #1 - Description
Round like an orange

As I write more words I mention how I can compare my object to something else like by telling you that it is round like an orange. “Maybe some of you can compare your object to something else. Now Writers, will you talk with your partner and describe your object by telling them the color and size of your object. Maybe you can think of a word that describes how it feels when you touch it.”  As I walk the room I help students use their language of description and quickly put it on the paper.  One of the ELL students grins with confidence when he realizes that he naturally used a simile with his words, “flat like a pancake”. I always carry around some sticky notes so that I can quickly write down some language that a student uses that will help them “hold” that idea for their writing.  I call these sticky notes, “vocabulary holders”.    I move on to Room number two where I model for students how to write the action to best describe what their object does.  We have a short conversation about verbs and I ask them to underline the action word(s) once it is written down.

Room #2 - Action
Bounces high in the air
Rolls on the ground

In room three, students talk to their object.  I ask students to think about some questions that they would ask their object or maybe there is something important that your object needs to know.  The students find this task appealing and a bit funny.  I demonstrate my thinking as I write down my conversation with my object.

Room #3 – Talk to your object
Why do you spin so fast? 
Why can’t I hit you all the time? 
You better watch out for those rackets.

I ask students to take some time to talk to their object.  This exercise really helps bring out their true voices as a writer.  By breaking the task into four separate rooms, students are able to focus on one craft of good writing at a time – in the first room: description, in the second room: using precise verbs, the third and fourth room: writing with voice using emotion and feelings.

In the fourth room, I ask students to consider a memory, wish or a feeling that they have about their object.  I model three different possibilities.  If I were wishing something I might say, “I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.”  My feeling would be, “I am thrilled when you help me win a game.”  Can you think of more feeling words than sad, mad and glad?  We generate a few different feeling words. If I were writing a memory about this object I would say, “I remember when I first learned to hit you with my racket.”

Room #4 – A memory, wish or feeling
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.  
I remember when I first learned to hit you with my racket.

By this time students have figured out my object and I remind them of all of the words I used to “show” them rather than “tell” them that I had a tennis ball.  As I walk around the room I remind students that they might start their writing with phrases like “I wish.. or I remember…”  Supporting writers with language probes helps our English Language Learners find the proper syntax for communicating their ideas. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-07 at 12.17.38 PM

The energy in the room is growing. Students are all abuzz about their writing – very excited to share their writing.  The lesson could easily culminate for the day after the completion of their plans but I take the opportunity to show the visiting teachers and this group of students how to take their four rooms and write a free verse poem.  In your classroom you may divide this lesson over two days.

“Writers, now that you have four rooms where you have spent time writing to and about your object, let me show you how to take your great ideas and create a free verse poem.”  This class has discussed elements of poetry and they understand that all poetry does not need to rhyme.  “My job as a writer is to take a look in all four rooms and decide how to put these ideas into a coherent piece that makes sense and communicates my ideas.  Lets see…. (I begin to think-aloud to show my students how I think about how to organize my ideas.) I am going to start with the third room where I talk to the object.  I like the idea of starting with my questions.  I begin to draft…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?

I think I will write my description of the object from my first room next…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Round like and orange,

You notice that I can decide if I want to put a capital on every line to begin and what punctuation I will use.  You have a lot of freedom when you write free verse poetry because as the author you determine the form and flow of your piece.  I think it makes sense to put in my action words next…

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Round like and orange,
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,

As a writer I constantly reread my piece to listen to how the ideas flow together. Let’s read it together… What do you think?  I think I am ready to finish with my feeling and my wish about this object.  Which should I put first?  The class likes the idea of ending with my feeling so I draft…


Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Round like and orange,
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.

I am going to finish my piece by naming the object at the end of the poem.

Why do you spin so fast?
Why can’t I hit you all the time?
Round like and orange,
Bounces high in the air,
Rolls on the ground,
I wish you wouldn’t go out of bounds.
I am thrilled when you help me win a game.
A tennis ball. 

In the debriefing with several teachers after the lesson, they are amazed at student’s output.  We discuss what makes this lesson work for all learners.  Some key ideas surface:

  1. Motivation occurs when students have opportunities to write with purpose and have some knowledge of the topic! (in this instance, writing to a concrete object.)
  2. Engagement with the writing experience occurs through ample opportunities for talk with their peers and feedback from the teacher.
  3. Writers need four variables in place to feel successful – knowledge of some content; vocabulary to express their ideas; structure to guide and help break down the task; and an ease with conventions, initially, to help ease the flow of ideas.  All four variables were met in this lesson.

The beauty in this type of lesson is the writer can carry what is learned or experimented with today toward future writing experiences.  You can compare this idea to that of a seed that scatters and spreads to sprout in new places.  For example, students have a better idea of how to paint a picture with their words using attributes in a narrative piece.  Students can think in new ways about how to end a piece with a memory, wish or a feeling.

Debbie Arechiga spent almost 20 years in Tucson, AZ  as a classroom teacher, teacher mentor and staff developer before branching out as an independent consultant with Tools for Literacy.   She has been a presenter at many national conferences and is recognized by those who have worked with her as a true practitioner in the field of literacy. In 2005, she received her masters in the Art of Teaching from Grand Canyon University.  Debbie is recognized for her abilities to help schools and districts make rapid strides in student achievement with children of poverty and children learning a second language.  She just recently published her first book, Reaching English Language Learners in Every Classroom: Energizers for Teaching and Learning. 

Students Won’t Read? Start with Their Beliefs

By Dave Stuart, Jr.

For reading in any course to matter as much as it can, the students have to 1) do the reading, and 2) do the reading actively, with care (e.g., asking questions, looking up new terms, taking notes).

Many teachers — myself included — encounter a few common situations in which kids don’t naturally do this with the reading we’d ask them to do:

  • They do it, but barely. Caleb was a locker reader. He’d show up to school each morning, get out the assigned world history reading, and scramble through it during the ten minutes before his first hour class started with me. He did it, but not with care.
  • They don’t do it, but they pretend they do. (Often called “fake reading.”) Kids like Caleb end up in this category when there is no consequence or reward attached to reading. By giving frequent, low-stakes quizzes to my students, I’m able to push Caleb into the “do it but barely” category, and when I slack off on giving quizzes, Caleb and his peers slip into this one.
  • They don’t do it, and they don’t pretend that they do. All kinds of things can cause this, but you know what I’m talking about.

I often see teachers and edu-authors respond to these scenarios by calling for curricular change — Less reading and more doing! Less teacher-selected texts and more student-selected ones! I can empathize with and respect these approaches, but I think they are often founded on foggy notions of what actually makes a young person 1) do the reading, and 2) do it with care. Before we jump to radical shifts, we need to better understand what’s happening in our learners.

These are the five things that determine whether or not a child will 1) do the reading and 2) do it with care in my classroom, and in yours.


Does the child believe I am a good teacher? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do what I ask. So if I say, “Hey, work really, really, really hard on your reading,” she’ll be more likely to do that if she thinks I’m a good teacher. Or if I instead say, “Hey, here’s why I’d like you to read this text, and here’s how I’d like you to read it, and now let me teach you how to read in that active and purposeful way that we’re after,” then she’ll be more likely to do those things.

What I’m trying to illustrate with those two examples is that teacher credibility isn’t a magic bullet — it’s only as powerful as the teaching behind it. The most credible teacher in the world who just tells a kid to “work, work, work” isn’t going to get as much long-term flourishing potential out of that kid as the moderately credible one who is exceptionally clear about the What-Why-How of every reading assignment.

There’s no escaping the need to be a fundamentally good teacher. Ditch the distractions and start investing here and now.

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Does the child think of herself as the kind of person who reads things like this? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do it. Daphna Oysermanhas a beautiful term — “identity-congruent behavior.” People like doing identity-congruent things — things that line up with their sense of who they are. A good line to use here is, “People like us do things like this.”

Belonging, like all the five beliefs, is hugely malleable, and it shifts based on where we are and who we’re with. This is good news: even if a child hates reading in history class, she need not hate it in English or science.


Does the child believe that she can get better at reading through her own effort? If she does, she’ll be more likely to do it, especially when her teacher does a good job gradually ramping up reading demands as the year progresses. It’s not just about effort here — it’s about smart effort. Strategic effort. This is where the teacher comes in: “Hey, I’ve read a lot of things. I know how to do this strategically. Let me show you.”


Does she think she can succeed at this? Or here’s an even more important question: can she? The teacher has the tough job of deciding where the line is between challenging and worthy and too hard and a waste of time. In the early years of my AP course, the students read through the whole college-level textbook over the course of the year. It was too much and it was too hard and it was not worthy (because the text wasn’t written in the straightforward, helpful teaching fashion that my ninth-grade students deserved). So, what happened? A lot of kids fake read.

As I learned which content mattered most in getting my kids to mastery of the course material, I started assigning smaller chunks each night, and then I started using excerpts from various texts.

Administrators: This is why you need to do all in your power to let teachers do the same work, year after year. You’ve got to give them the conditions within which to get wise about the work. I understand that it’s difficult and requires out of the box thinking.

Teachers: This is is why we must work so hard to focus, despite the ceaseless distractions that permeate our lives. There aren’t shortcuts — it’s just sustained engagement with the work.

We must make success challenging and manageable.


Does she think this matters to her life? The value belief is my favorite because of the diverse paths through which human beings come to value things. Some are motivated by grades, others by the entertainment value of reading.

What we want is for them to value learning, to value mastery, to value every day of their lives so that they won’t let an assignment become wasted. “Yes, I don’t particularly care about the topic of this week’s AoW, but I care about learning, and I know that Mr. Stuart wouldn’t have given it to me unless he thought it was important, so I’m going to apply myself to this.” Kids who think like that don’t fall into our three problem categories: they do the reading and do it with care because they believe it matters.

The Gist

Before you change the curriculum, analyze the five key beliefs. That way, you’ll make better and more effective changes.


Bio: Dave Stuart Jr. has been teaching English and world history for more than a decade. His blog on teaching, DaveStuartJr.com, is read by over 35,000 colleagues per month. His new book, These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most, aims to help teachers accomplish more with their students by focusing in on six key areas of practice.  Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/davestuartjr.

Media Literacy vs. Fake News

By Meenoo Rami

For most of us, since the election of 2016, we start each day with fear, an almost out-of-body experience predicated on “What else can go wrong?” We stare our screens in horror as each day brings more bad news than the day before. Our body politic is unwell, we are unable to have a civil dialogue, to disagree. We are being further divided by trolls on the internet. As author Michiko Kakutani writes in her new book, The Death of Truth describes our contemporary civic life as “as people locked in their partisan silos and filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines’. As educators who have taught 1984  and Animal Farm to countless students, we are even more keenly aware of danger flags that make people susceptible to lies, misinformation, and further divide.

The Washington Post estimates that our president lies on average about 9 times a day.  In these times when truth depends on your filter bubble, it is more important than ever that we teach our students to be critical thinkers. As we look ahead to the new school year ahead of us, the imperative to furnish our students with media literacy skills is stronger than ever. Our students need us to help them gain the skills to analyze, evaluate, and critically examine endless amounts of information that can be easily accessed through the phone in their pocket. If we fail to seize this moment for critical thought, and guarding against anti-intellectualism sentiment that is strong in our country, then we fail our students. We fail them in becoming sharp, independent thinkers who are engaged in the work of caring for the world.

From flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, to armies of faithful ones committed to gospel according to InfoWars, or Breitbart, there are endless examples of lack of understanding of science or inability to adhere to logic creates waves of misinformation that pull others in its tides. Here are two examples to share with students if you want to begin a dialogue about “Fake News” and the peril of forgoing doing one’s own research and fact-checking.

The first example comes from NFL team Seattle Seahawks, when the defensive end for the team Michael Bennett was accused of burning the American flag, while the coach Pete Caroll looked on with glee. The image was photoshopped, yet some chose to believe the lies that a flag burning took place in their locker-room. The  two images are included below for you to share with your students. You can also ask students to identify other examples of “Fake News” that spread via a social network but were later debunked.

Screen Shot 2018-07-23 at 11.02.06 PMScreen Shot 2018-07-23 at 11.02.23 PM

The next example comes from India. In India, nearly 13.7 Billion WhatsApps messages are sent everyday. With cost of smart phones falling and data becoming cheaper, it has become a hub where the second most populated country gathers and chats. During the election cycle it is normal for a typical person to receive 1000 WhatsApp messages encouraging them to cast a vote for a specific candidate or party. When the largest democracy relies on learning about candidates in this way, things can go wrong very quickly as they did in the recent election cycle. The New York Times recently reported that, “Right-wing Hindu groups employed WhatsApp to spread a grisly video that was described as an attack on a Hindu woman by a Muslim mob but was in fact a lynching in Guatemala.”

The work of teaching young people to be independent and critical thinkers is not small or easy, but it is the work of our present times.

How do we begin this work of Media Literacy? Here are some examples and places to begin:

Let me know your thoughts on this post and please share your resources for teaching media literacy in the comments below.

Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive, is a national board certified teacher who taught students English in Philadelphia for ten years, at the Science Leadership Academy and in other public schools in the city. The founder of #engchat, an international Twitter chat for English teachers, Meenoo is a teacher-consultant for the National Writing Project and an instructor in Arcadia University’s Connected Learning Certificate Program. Meenoo has also served as a teaching fellow with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she led the portfolio to help teachers refine their practice through collaboration. Currently, Meenoo works as Manager for Minecraft Education at Microsoft where she helps educators, districts, and organizations reimagine game-based learning for classroom practice. Follow Meenoo on Twitter @meenoorami.


Shared Experience: A Link to Text

By Kira Cunningham

As a classroom teacher, summer was always my time to let ideas for next year’s units percolate.  Paddling down the Colorado River, I would be thinking about the materials, picture books, and activities that would bring topics alive for my culturally and linguistically diverse group of students.  One thing I wish I had known in those summers was the power of the following three instructional strategies. While not completely new, these tweaks to instruction make an important difference for English language learners (ELLs).  Two years ago, I was privileged to watch a first grade team enact these tweaks. Their classes contained many ELLs including Karime and Aldair, two students who had just arrived in the United States from other countries.

Launch and develop the unit with shared experiences

“…To learn what things mean, then, and what language means- to create meaning – requires immersion in experience.”   (MacDonald & Molle, 2015)

Frequently we plan a culminating experience, such as a field trip to a local mine, to provide an opportunity for our students to see the ideas of a unit in action.  Rather than saving that shared experience for the end of the unit, position these visual and first-hand experiences at the beginning of the unit. When we launch units with shared experiences before launching into content instruction, language learners have “Velcro” to which they can attach new language about the content.  The language and conceptual understandings built during these shared experiences are what students will encounter and use in content-area texts they are reading and writing. As Pauline Gibbons noted in her book English learners’ academic literacy and thinking:  Learning in the challenge zone (2009), “Effective writers…know something about the subject they are writing about.”  

Let me share what that looked like in first grade:

In March, Karime and Aldair’s classes were beginning a science unit in which they would learn how an organism’s physical characteristics help it survive.  By the end of the unit, the first graders would research their own animal, write a book, and craft a multimedia presentation to share with kindergartens and at a community celebration of learning.  To apprentice students into that literate practice of scientific research and writing, they began the unit researching and writing together about trout, a native Colorado species.

To provide all of the diverse learners in their class with equitable access to the content, the first grade team launched their science unit with videos of trout, a song that served as an anchor text, an analysis of many photographs and diagrams of trout, and a field trip to the fish hatchery.

For Karime and Aldair, chunks of language for this unit began to stick to the images and experiences they had.  Fins, gills, on the head, up and down, mouth, black and white, swim in the water, they have gills to help them breathe– the language they would need to successfully read and write in English began to have meaning in context.

As educators, we develop our students’ subject knowledge in many visual and experiential ways.  As your unit ideas percolate this summer consider the tweak of launching and continuing your units with:

  • Field trips
  • Virtual field trips
  • Videos
  • Hands-on investigations
  • Analysis of key photographs, illustrations or diagrams

Encourage students to tap into their home and community knowledge about content in any language.

Students’ families and communities hold a wealth of knowledge and experiences.  As students are developing their deep understanding of a content area topic, encourage students to tap into those resources to add to what they learn at school.

On the translated permission slip for the fish hatchery visit, the 1st grade teachers encouraged adults at home to talk with their children about fish, fish body parts, and how fish survive in their habitat.  The next day, Karime came to school bursting! In Spanish she recounted everything that she and her mother had talked about. I was aware that through that home interaction in Spanish, Karime now had even more hooks for new words and ideas in English.

You can encourage students to tap into home and community knowledge by:


  • Sending home a translated newsletter inviting adults to talk about a content area topic with their children in any language.
  • Sending home copies of compelling images related to the topic and inviting students to talk with adults in any language about what they’re learning.
  • Be sure to follow up at school and provide opportunities for students to share what they learned.


Link the oral language of shared experiences and home/community knowledge to text experiences in the classroom

Students’ work with text takes on new meaning in the context of shared experiences and background knowledge.  As educators, we can help students connect ideas from experience and oral language to text, continue to help students build content understanding through reading, and help students learn about writing the discipline-specific text types by noticing how the authors of mentor text use and organize language.

During the visual and first-hand exploration of trout, Karime and Aldair’s teachers built labeled anchor charts (and labeled body parts in the fish song), read aloud mentor texts and helped first graders notice that the authors wrote multiple sentences about the same body part and organized them on the same page.  Those sentences often described what the body part looked like, where it was located, how it was used, and why trout needed it. As all of the students in the class wrote multiple, related sentences about each body part, so did Karime and Aldair (with the help of sentence frames).

You can help students link oral language to text in the following ways:

  • As you review experiences you have had as a class, attach academic language and text to it.  Add labels, create anchor charts, or participate in shared writing about the experience.
  • Cue students to make connections between shared experiences and text.  For instance, when preparing to read a scientific text about rainbow trout, ask students “Since this book is about trout, what words and sentences might we expect to find?”
  • Help students be aware of the language choices made by authors of the type of text students themselves are expected to write.  Leverage mentor texts and notice and name what the author is doing as a writer.

In these three ways, we can plan units that set ELLs up for meaningful connections to text in the content areas.  Now let those summer ideas percolate!
Gibbons, P. (2009).  English learners’ academic literacy and thinking:  Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

MacDonald, R. & Molle, D. (2015). Creating meaning through key practices in English language arts: Integrating practice, content, and language. In L. C. de Oliveira, M. Klassen, & M. Maune. (Eds.) The Common Core Standards in English language arts for English language learners: Grades 6-12 (pp. 39-52). Alexandria, VA: TESOL International.

MacDonald, R. (2017, January). WIDA Focus on STEM discourse: Strengthening reasoning, strengthening language.  Retrieved from: https://www.wida.us/get.aspx?id=2095

Paugh, P. & Moran, M. (2013).  Growing Language Awareness in a Classroom Garden.  Language Arts, (90)4. 253-167.

Kira Cunningham spent 10 years as a classroom teacher and two years as an English Language Development teacher in Colorado elementary schools.  She is currently a Professional Learning Specialist with WIDA, focusing on supporting educators who work with English learners in K-12 classrooms.  Kira lives with her husband in Durango, CO and enjoys paddling, hiking, and biking as much as possible.


by Cathy Amsbaugh

It is mystifying and frustrating when an evidently capable student doesn’t meet grade-level expectations. All too often I also hear that one of those students is bored and it raises my hackles. I’ve made a lot of assumptions about why an individual student doesn’t seem to engage in classroom content or gets lower test scores than expected, but my guessing hasn’t helped me help kids. This year, I tackled the research and professional advice on underachievement, especially regarding high ability students.

When working with parents or teachers who are concerned by a student’s lack of achievement, it is important to start with common understandings. Underachievement occurs when there is a gap between a student’s ability and achievement. If an IQ score indicates high ability, it does not correlate perfectly with high achievement. There are other factors that influence achievement, such as personality traits. Being conscientious contributes to achievement independent of IQ. It may sound obvious, but performance on high-ceiling achievement tests are the best predictor of future achievement.

When a student’s measured ability is consistently different than their achievement, it can be due to a disability, student motivation, a lack of executive skills, or even perfectionism. I’m sure sometimes it can be caused by conditioning. Consider the habits and attitudes a student can develop if he has spent years getting top grades with little effort.

The truth is, there are many individual causes of underachievement. However, I think most of those causes can be categorized in two ways: those who want to but can’t and those who don’t want to. It’s important not to assume either of these cases without serious investigation. It’s also important for teachers not to take it personally if it’s the latter. Everyone wants that sense of accomplishment that comes from hard work. If a student is avoiding hard work, there’s a reason and the teacher can help. Here are the actions that may be effective in supporting the student:

Conversations about student achievement can be tricky. Teachers may feel offended when a parent says their child is bored at school. Parents may feel judged if a teacher indicates their child resists challenging work.

Parents: It’s okay to advocate for your child at school. If you observe that your child is doing work that is too easy, or isn’t engaging with content, talk to the teacher and offer your support.

Teachers: It’s okay to advocate for your student. A student’s primary source of value acquisition is the home. Talk with parents about chores, how the child is expected to contribute to the work of the household, and ways parents might model the hard work they do outside of the home. It’s helpful to children to hear parents talk about the satisfaction they feel from the contribution they make in their workplace both to the nature of the business and how their work makes the world a better place.

Always keep challenging

If you know a student is capable of more, support him to do more. Some students may need help with time management, guidance in recognizing the skills they have to be successful, or technology to make a component of the task more accessible (for example, text to speech). Other students need to have choices to make the content more interesting or meaningful to them. Choices in reading materials, subtopic to research, or product of learning can make a big difference to a disengaged student.

It’s natural to feel wary of offering content challenges and choice to a student who has been performing poorly in the classroom. It seems students should meet a certain standard before going beyond. However, if there is already data to show the student has higher ability, what’s the harm in offering challenge? It’s unlikely the student’s grades will decline.Screen Shot 2018-07-02 at 11.31.32 PM
Build a growth mindset

Kids need to know that everyone can get smarter. Those with a fixed mindset tend to think assignments are for proving what they know. They sometimes believe that the kid who has to work hard isn’t as smart. Those with a growth mindset are more open to the learning that comes from classwork and are willing to tackle a challenge.

Teachers need to explicitly create a culture of learning in the classroom by focusing on a growth mindset. Teach about how the brain learns through growing new synapses when a person works on a challenging task, even if mistakes are made (and even if those mistakes are not corrected!). Give specific feedback and genuine, but modest, praise. Students should understand that it is their effort that moves their ability to the next level.
Above all, focus on the relationship

We know every student responds better when they feel understood and cared about. Recognizing a student’s interests and abilities is a big step in that direction. Challenging and supporting children is what teachers do. We can’t give up just because a student resists.

It’s worth repeating: if a capable student’s grades are suffering, we take very little risk in trying to understand why and providing support, yet we have the potential to make a lasting impact on the child’s attitue, engagement and success in school.
Cathy Amsbaugh is currently a gifted specialist working in Summit School District, where she began her teaching career as a 5th grade teacher. She is a board member of TMIRA and a member of the International Baccalaureate Educator Network.

Delisle, J. R. (2018). Doing poorly on purpose: Strategies to reverse underachievement and respect student dignity. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Dweck, C. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Rimm, S. B., & Rimm, S. B. (1995). Why bright kids get poor grades: And what you can do about it. New York: Crown.

Siegle, D. (2013). The underachieving gifted child: Recognizing, understanding, and reversing underachievement. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.