BYU professor shares research so educators can better teach students to read
Brigham Young University English professor Dawan Coombs began her pathway of working with secondary education teachers to support adolescent readers when she got her first job teaching at Provo High School after getting her bachelor’s at BYU.
While teaching at Provo High, Coombs said she saw many students who struggled with reading and wanted to help them, but she realized she didn’t know how to teach them reading skills. “When you learn to become an English teacher, you’re taught how to teach literature, but you’re not really taught how to teach reading,” she explained.
So, Coombs went back to school to get her master’s in reading and literacy at the University of Utah and her Ph.D. in language and literacy education at the University of Georgia. When she graduated, she took the job as a professor at BYU because it allowed her to teach while continuing her research.
Her research focuses on two things: identifying how to help students engage with reading and developing reader identities. She explained there are skills students need to practice in order to understand the varying texts they encounter at school. These skills that help students engage with reading, such as summarizing and comprehending a text, can be practiced with any form of literature that a student is willing to read, Coombs said.
Developing a healthy reader identity — what Coombs described as helping a student see themselves as a reader — is essential for them to utilize these skills to engage with reading, she said.
According to Coombs, students can better develop a reader identity when teachers expand what they consider literature or proper reading material. If a student is struggling with reading, offering a book that interests them, such as a sports book or something else not commonly seen as classic literature, can become a motivator to read and learn because they become invested in what they are reading.
As students begin to learn these skills through literature they enjoy, their skills can be transferred to different genres. Coombs’ research analyzes the question, “How do we value what it is that kids are doing in their lives and help them see how some of those skills can transfer to the type of reading that we need them to do for school?”
A student could be skilled in assembling car radios, or be interested in science or baking. So a teacher may teach a student to practice skills such as summarizing and comprehension through an instruction manual or a cookbook, for example. As teachers expand their definition of literature, Coombs believes, students are given the chance to form a healthy reader identity and gain the confidence and motivation to practice essential reading skills that will later be transferred.
Coombs taught a class at Provo High with some preservice teachers and implemented her research to see how it would affect the students.
Her research with the Provo High class focused on using high-interest literature — which for this class was sports literature since the students liked sports — to develop comprehension skills, understand how to make predictions about what they will read and figure out the next step when they did not understand a passage of text. “So, we could teach them the skills with literature that they enjoyed, and then by the end of the class, most of them were reading things besides sports literature. They just developed some confidence and competence in their abilities as readers so that they could transfer some of those strategies to other texts,” Coombs said.
Teaching and implementing her research in secondary schools ranges from Coombs giving training conferences to teaching middle school classes alongside another teacher. Much of her collaboration with schools is through BYU’s Research Practice Partnership with five nearby school districts, three of which are in Utah County.
She works with schools based on what they need and what specific questions they have. She stresses the importance of recognizing that students read different texts in each school subject, meaning reading competency is a school effort, not an English teacher effort.
“What the research will tell you is you can make a difference with one teacher, but your English teacher can’t fix all the reading problems,” Coombs said. “What you need is a principal on board who’s committed to literacy development within their school, who can help get buy-in across the disciplines, so that the science teachers also see themselves as the best people in the building to teach kids how to read scientific texts.”
She gave examples, saying science teachers should be teaching students how to read texts like scientists; history teachers should be teaching students to read the way a historian would approach primary documents; health teachers can help students understand how to approach nutritional reading and facts; and English teachers should teach students how to read and understand literature.
If they are trying to teach students how to summarize, each teacher should ask themselves what that means in their content area, what do students need to summarize in that subject and how can they tailor the strategy to help meet the needs of their students.
Coombs continued, “So, when you get a principal on board who gets this out into the different content areas, then kids are getting more practice reading across the content areas. Teachers aren’t just lecturing, they’re helping kids learn how to become readers. So they’re practicing these strategies in every single one of their classes, not just the English class.”
She is currently working on two projects to implement and further her research on adolescent reading. One project is supporting Wasatch School District with research it is doing to improve secondary English language arts scores.
The other project is at Orem Junior High, working with one of her former students, Mattison Hingano, who gave her a call in the winter of 2021 to ask for help in a seventh grade reading class. Having gone through the same situation when she was teaching at Provo High, Coombs offered her listening ear and suggested they work together on research to help the students.
Hingano and Coombs work together with the students on their comprehension, reading confidence, summarizing and other reading skills. Coombs and Hingano collaborate over Zoom, then Hingano implements their research in her classroom.
“What we are trying to do at Orem Junior is fill in gaps in teacher knowledge as well as identify approaches that help motivate students and allow them to develop the skills they need to succeed as readers in the secondary setting,” Coombs said.
Echoing that, Hingano explained she has benefitted from the support of not only Coombs, who brings in the research, but also from the school administration, those creating lesson plans for her and others in the school and district who help her and Coombs propel forward this research to help adolescent readers. “There’s lots of different puzzle pieces to make this work,” Hingano said.
Coombs’ research on reader identity is a key part of their work in Hingano’s classroom. They have found that a combination of developing reader identity, implementing reciprocal teaching, using high-interest literature and pairing the students in reading groups with others they are comfortable with has improved the students’ confidence in reading and improved their comprehension scores.
Hingano has observed that allowing students to read something they enjoy with people who have the same interests has helped grow their confidence to practice essential reading skills like comprehension and summarizing, and has also affected their behavior.
Hingano explained she had a group of students who were not behaving in class, but she knew they were very interested in sneakers. So for the books the students could choose from for their reciprocal teaching groups, Hingano included a book about sneakers, which the group of students chose. “It’s been really fascinating to watch because ever since we started reading together as a group, the sneakers book, I’ve had very few behavioral problems,” Hingano said. “Even though some of them don’t view themselves as good readers, just that motivation to read, because it’s something that they liked, has increased.”
Coombs’ and Hingano’s long-term goal is to create a curriculum that all teachers can use to help them learn how to correctly teach a reading class, or help students struggling with reading, which is a teaching skill college may not have prepared them for, Hingano said.
The same way that students are gaining confidence through the implementation of these different research strategies, Hingano said now that she and Coombs have been working together, “I finally am starting to feel confident on the curriculum that we’re using, or that we have planned. … It really makes a difference because the more confident you are as a teacher, and the more confident you are teaching it, then the better your kids understand it.”