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June 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 9

Coaching Students to New Heights in Writing

By working with a coaching partner before writing, students can develop well-thought-out essays that articulate their ideas.

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Coaching Students to New Heights in Writing- thumbnail
Phillip's voice trembled with emotion. Frustrated and on the brink of despair, he demanded, “What does a good psychology essay look like, anyway?” At the end of grade 11, Phillip had yet to produce a high-quality piece of academic writing. Bright, articulate, and motivated, Phillip was wrestling with the intellectual challenge of integrating the different cognitive processes that writing demands.
Many students face the same challenge as Phillip, a fact that encouraged us to use Costa and Garmston's (2002) work in Cognitive Coaching to explicitly address cognitive aspects of writing. Although their work is most commonly used in adult-to-adult professional interactions, we believed that student-to-student coaching would be beneficial as well (Versaw, 2003).

Cognitive Coaching and Writing

Cognitive Coaching is a model for conversing about planning, reflecting, or problem resolving. It provides opportunities for structured thinking that allows an individual to achieve clarity of purpose and develop an action plan. The coach uses mediation strategies to explicitly support the other's thinking. We believed that Cognitive Coaching's structured approach to planning would improve student writing.
Many students seem to have difficulty integrating the mechanics of writing—sentence structure, grammar, spelling, word choice, and paragraphing—with the need to gather content, develop a position or argument, identify an audience, and organize thoughts. Our hunch was that coaching at the prewriting stage would provide students with a structure for cognitive and organizational planning in a psychologically safe environment.
Vygotsky (1986) compared writing to having a “conversation with a blank piece of paper” (p. 181). Because no audience is present in the act of writing, immediate feedback is unavailable. No one is there to give assistance or redirection when a thought has gone astray. The flow of written language depends on the writer's internal dialogue. According to Vygotsky, such “inner speech” is vastly different from oral or written expression. Within our minds, we employ a condensed and abbreviated syntax. In contrast, written speech “must explain the situation fully in order to be intelligible” (p. 182). Coaching can give students an immediate audience and instant feedback, helping them see where they need to more fully explain their ideas.

Our Methodology

The International School of Kuala Lumpur enrolls approximately 1,350 students who represent more than 50 different nationalities and perhaps as many as 100 different linguistic groups. Our students are the children of the diplomatic and international business communities in Kuala Lumpur. The majority are multilingual and speak a native language other than English at home. We started our Cognitive Coaching writing program with a middle school humanities class. The first students who participated were four highly capable 8th grade students whose written expression did not yet match their sophisticated oral language or reflect their ability to analyze and discuss complex, abstract issues.
We began meeting with students for an hour each week in October 2004. After several weeks, we offered a formal extracurricular activity called “Cognitive Coaching for Writers.” The activity was open to all 8th graders. To our surprised delight, 14 8th grade students and 2 middle school teachers expressed eagerness to participate. Eight nationalities were represented, and there were only two native English speakers. Two students had been identified as highly capable, four were recent graduates from the English as a second language (ESL) program, and one had identified special needs (Asperger's syndrome). Participants agreed to coach another student and to be coached.

Strategies and Skills of Coaching

We began by telling the students that the purpose of coaching is to support the thinking of the person being coached. We stressed that the coach needs to avoid praise or criticism and that it is not the job of the coach to offer advice or solutions. In our coaching sessions, we focused solely on planning for writing using three reflective listening strategies: pausing, paraphrasing, and probing.


Pausing comes from the work of Rowe (1986), who gave us the concept of “wait time.” By using judicious pauses, we deliberately slow down the conversation, facilitating deeper and more sophisticated cognition. Pausing on the part of the coach sends three crucial messages to the person being coached: (1) Neither of us is expected to come to this conversation with right answers, (2) Both of us have permission to take time to think, and (3) Let's delve beneath the surface of this issue.
Initially, students found pausing awkward, but as they came to understand the purpose of coaching, their comfort with silence increased. At the close of one of our early coaching sessions, Elizabeth, a participating student, wrote in her reflections,When Mr. Powell was coaching Yalun, there was a time when Yalun paused for about 15 seconds. Typically you would not be comfortable with that kind of pause in a normal conversation because it would imply that the person maybe didn't hear the question or wasn't concentrating on the topic. But in Cognitive Coaching, long pauses aren't such a big deal because it just means that someone is compiling their thoughts into words.


Paraphrasing can serve three purposes: (1) to clarify and acknowledge, (2) to organize and summarize, or (3) to shift thinking to a more abstract or more concrete conceptual level (Costa & Garmston, 2002; Lipton & Wellman, 1998). We provided students with guided practice in paraphrasing and, for homework, sent them out to paraphrase the words of friends, family members, and teachers.
Most of the students found paraphrasing challenging. Sonali wrote in one of her reflections,Today, I learned that paraphrasing is harder than it looks. I used to think it wasn't that difficult . . . but it gets harder with more serious topics and higher-level thinking.
As students had more practice with paraphrasing, their insight into its power increased. Rowland wrote,I think paraphrasing works like a bridge between two people's thoughts when they are communicating and probably . . . helps the bridge to become wider and thicker.


Probing is the process of asking questions that prompt specific cognitive activities in the person being coached. For example, the person being coached may be asked to recall information or clarify a point. Probes may also stimulate thinking at the highest levels of Bloom's taxonomy, which includes such skills as prediction and evaluation.

The Coaching Map

Beyond teaching the students the three specific coaching strategies, we also gave them a coaching map for text generation, which we adapted from Cognitive Coaching's “Planning Map.” Students used the five-step map to structure their discussion during coaching sessions. We'll follow two hypothetical students, Alice and David, through a coaching session to show how the process works.

Clarify Goals

The coaching map begins with asking students to clarify their goals. Specifically, students are called on to analyze the question or writing prompt they have been given, define their intended audience, and think about how the audience may affect what they write. The dialogue that follows shows how a session might begin:<EMPH TYPE="5">Alice: What question are you going to write about?<EMPH TYPE="5">David: I'm answering the question, “Why does persecution exist?”<EMPH TYPE="5">Alice: So you're interested in why people persecute each other. What do you think the question means?<EMPH TYPE="5">David: I guess it's asking me to think about why people persecute others. Like what motivates this kind of behavior?

Identify Success Indicators

In the second stage, the students being coached identify success indicators—attributes of high-quality writing that they would like to include in their work. Typically, student responses to questions about success indicators fell into two categories: (1) components of good essays that they were trying to improve in their writing (such as a powerful introduction, use of evidence, or a meaningful conclusion that includes personal insight), or (2) statements that reflect their own intellectual and emotional reaction to the quality of their written expression (“I can feel it in here [gesturing toward self] when I get the connection between ideas right. It's exciting”).
When Alice asks David how he'll know whether he's successful, he might reply, “I'll know if my essay is organized. I sometimes tend to go off-topic.”

Anticipate Approaches

The third step invites students to “anticipate approaches”: decide what content the essay will focus on; identify themes, premises, and connections; and formulate specific arguments that support the thesis. This dialogue shows how Alice and David work through this step:<EMPH TYPE="5">Alice: What are some of your ideas about persecution?<EMPH TYPE="5">David: I think it's part of human nature. And we see it in the book we're reading about Ferdinand and Isabella and their edict against the Jews.<EMPH TYPE="5">Alice: How does that connect to other examples of persecution?<EMPH TYPE="5">David: I've been thinking about how you see persecution in the more modern world too, like in the time of Hitler. It didn't go away after Ferdinand and Isabella.

Prioritize and Organize

Once the writer has discussed a possible way to approach the topic, the discussion can naturally move into the fourth stage, in which students prioritize and organize their thoughts. This region of the map asks students to think specifically about the structure of their essay.
Now that Alice and David have talked about his ideas, she might ask him how he's thinking of organizing his ideas, and he can sketch out a plan:I think I'm going to talk about human nature first, and then relate to the example of Hitler, and then talk about persecution in the book. I'll include a personal connection with the reader in my conclusion.Our original map didn't include this stage, and students complained that the coaching sessions provided such wide-ranging reflections about the essay topic that when it came time to compose, they had difficulty narrowing their area of focus. Adding this stage helped students develop more focused essays.

Reflect on Coaching

Finally, the students being coached reflect on how the coaching conversation has supported their thinking. David, for example, might say, “My ideas were blurry before, but now they're more concrete. I have a plan to write a more specific, organized essay.”
This final step supports explicit metacognition (thinking about thinking) and promotes the gradual internalization of the process so that the students can move toward self-coaching.

Becoming Better Writers

Although our effort to use coaching to support student thinking about writing is still a work in progress, the initial results are positive. Teachers reported an improvement in the writing of all 14 students, and all but one student gained two stanines on the International Educational Research Bureau (ERB) Writing Assessment Program (WrAP). We also perceived that these students developed increased self-confidence as both writers and thinkers. In addition, the students reported that both the verbal and nonverbal communication skills they learned in the coaching activities were transferable into their personal lives.
The coaching strategies we used with our students are consistent with the research on teaching cognitive strategies in writing for both regular students and those with special needs (Englert et al., 1991). At the end of the semester, Erland, an ESL student, wrote,For me, Cognitive Coaching is the gateway to writing effectively. After every single coaching session about an essay or other piece of writing, I feel confident I have the thoughts to write a fluent piece of high-level writing. Coaching helps my thought so much. With it I write about 120 percent better than without.
Given the success of Erland and others in our small sample, we believe that coaching can provide a powerful means of supporting students' thinking as they integrate the logical analysis required for essay organization with the divergent and often creative cognition required for content-area thinking.

Costa, A., &amp; Garmston, R. (2002). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for renaissance schools (2nd ed.). Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Englert, C., Raphael, T., Anderson, L., Anthony, H., Stevens, D., &amp; Fear, K. (1991). Making writing and self-talk visible: Cognitive strategy instruction in writing in regular and special education classrooms. American Educational Research Journal, 28, 337–373.

Lipton, L. E., &amp; Wellman, B. (1998). Pathways to understanding: Patterns and practices in the learning focused classroom (3rd ed.). Sherman, CT: MiraVia.

Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 42–49.

Versaw, J. (2003). Thinking ahead: Applying the planning conversation map in a third-grade classroom. In J. Ellison &amp; C. Hayes (Eds.), Cognitive coaching: Weaving threads of learning and change into the culture of an organization (pp. 231–248). Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.

Vygotsky, L. (1986) Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

William Powell has served as an international school educator for the past 30 years in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Indonesia, and Malaysia. From 1991 to 1999, he served as chief executive officer of the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and from 2000 to 2006, he was headmaster of the International School of Kuala Lumpur.

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