When They Get It (But Can’t Quite Say So…)

As an MTSS support coach, I’m constantly reminded that students at the losing end of the achievement gap are very rarely deficient in their ability to take an academic interest in a subject.  But when a student’s reading and writing gaps are so far behind grade level that traditional assessments bar them from demonstrating their actual knowledge level, the system very quickly limits their options.

Which is why I’m setting aside pop culture musings this month to tell you about “Jason”.  Jason has always been perfectly willing to do the assigned reading, and even does a nice job of catching up on things if he’s absent.  He listens attentively when teachers explain concepts to him and he talks, quietly but passionately, about his favorite subjects in school, namely history.  

He also has recent NWEA reading scores as low as the 10th percentile.  While his writing scores fluctuate and often show partial proficiency, the more technical aspects of writing elude him.  He doesn’t “think like a writer.” His PSAT scores, for whatever they’re worth, also show him to be behind the benchmarks needed to be successful at grade level.

This year, after a season of MTSS support last year, we encouraged him to follow his passion and sign up for IB World History.  Not the traditional path such a student would be encouraged to tread.

Jason is passing the class, but the pattern of his grades suggests that those reading and writing skills continue to mask his true knowledge in the content area.  His history teacher sent him back for some MTSS support on a major essay recently, and it struck me immediately just how vast the divide between his content knowledge and his ability to articulate it were.  

His writing weaknesses are typical of writers lagging behind their peers in high school.  Understanding how a true measure of what he knows about the class was almost lost in the skill gap makes his writing struggles worth a closer look:

Audience Blindness

Typical paragraphs in Jason’s paper opened with topic sentences like “Germany was extremely poor” and “Hitler was chancellor of Germany.”  While there were some useful tidbits of information in each paragraph, what was completely and utterly absent was any sense of context: Uhh…when was this, again?  How are those things related?  Why are we talking about this?

The problem expanded beyond just some missing dates. He presumed that his readers had read the same research he had–and therefore only really needed a loose outline of historical events to prove that Jason understood the same things the reader already knew.  

When I read such passages aloud to him (like another example where he referred obtusely to “gangs” Hitler put to use in government work), he was immediately able to recognize that the context was absent and needed.  Adding it in was not a problem–he just hadn’t known it was necessary.

Temporary Engagement

Jason’s teacher had also pointed out some vague points that needed clarification.  Jason and I quickly realized that his approach to research, unfortunately, had left him unprepared to revisit his sources.  As in…he no longer had them. When I asked about the article where he’d gotten a fact about the role of “Hitler’s right hand men” in order to elaborate on their varied roles, he suddenly looked deeply troubled and muttered “I should’ve used Noodle Bib.”  

We recovered the articles, eventually, but here was a simple research habit he hadn’t practiced enough to internalize.  Resources, once drawn from, were disposable in his mind. Not because they weren’t of value but because he thought he was “done” once he’d pulled a few facts from each.

Talking the Talk…errr…Writing the Write?

A lack of content-specific jargon is actually pretty common for many students, but the average upper-classman has at least learned to “up one’s game” when it comes to something like a history research paper.  Jason, however, was somewhat content with generalities like this one, which he had used as part of his conclusion: “Everything is good Army good , Industrialization is good and there trading is as well . There unemployment rate is good. (sic)”  I made a point of chatting with him about tone, of course (maybe not the best idea to use such upbeat colloquialism to talk about the rise of the most vile regime in history!).

But more importantly, we had a talk about what passed for academic writing language.  “Good” is a perfectly fine sort of thing to say about all those elements of the German recovery when you’re reviewing for the test with friends.  “Everything recovered nicely and the country got back on track. Things sort of went sideways from there–next question!” But an academic needs to be precise and think always about causes and effects and relationships (All of which you can find great writing advice about on this site, perhaps most especially from my fellow MTSS coach Hattie Maguire’s work).  

Revising Practice (and Revising Our Practice)

The revised (but miles from finished!) version of Jason’s paper is light years ahead of the cross section of the first draft I’ve outlined here.  Whatever his shortcomings, Jason is perfectly capable of revising based on clear feedback. While his phrasing will take longer to come around (remember that low reading level–the vocabulary he’s drawing from is behind that of his peers), the ideas grow sharper the more he has the chance to talk through his work aloud.

Providing such extensive support is hard for a single teacher, especially in a content area course where full Writers Workshop is unlikely to be practiced.  For students like Jason, though, it’s the only way for teachers to discover the knowledge they possess despite other skill gaps.


How do you help your inexperienced writers and readers to express their knowledge of content accurately?  Let me know on Twitter @ZigThinks or find Moving Writers on Facebook.

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