T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Philosophy Meets Literacy Through Positive Coaching
When I show high-school science students (or their teachers) how to
design effective nonfiction ("technical") text, they often end up
with a lesson not just in linguistics but also in philosophy--
about writer responsibility. One way to see this is to tap the
distinction (another philosophical move!) between positive and
The Coaching Framework
People who coach others to improve their performance, in sports or
business, for example, distinguish between positive and negative
Negative coaching is probably better known. Sometimes called
compliance coaching or deficiency-based coaching, this approach focuses
on fixing the performer's key behavioral problems. In a simple case, the
coached person is asked to list their three greatest weaknesses and then
set about repairing them.
Positive (or "inspirational") coaching focuses instead on encouraging the
performer to cultivate and extend their most successful behaviors. In a
simple version, the coached person is asked to list their three greatest
strengths and then set about further enhancing them. One practical example
appears within the very successful Harvard Negotiation Project: disputing
parties are urged to look beyond their different positions to find and develop
their common underlying interests [Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to
Yes, New York: Penguin Books, 1981].
Empirical studies in diverse domains (MBA executive performance,
treatment adherence by medical patients) show that positive coaching
yields more desired behavioral change than does negative coaching
[Anthony I. Jack, et al., "Visioning in the brain: an fMRI study of
inspirational coaching and mentoring," Social Neuroscience, 2013,
DOI 10.1080/17470919.2013.808259 ]. This is partly because negative
coaching, for obvious reasons, tends to heighten stress and anxiety
and decrease self-confidence. That combination undermines emotional
and cognitive change, just the opposite of the desired goal.
Positive coaching, on the other hand, boosts confidence (a big issue
for many student writers), along with emotional and cognitive
plasticity: people are more willing to try new techniques, more able
to execute them, and hence more likely to actually build on their
strengths. Brain scans even reveal a physiological basis for the
psychological differences between these two coaching styles.
Coaching Meets Literacy
Awareness of these differences can help anyone who wants to promote
the kind of nonfiction literacy development relevant to science
classes and the new Common Core State Standards. That's because
positive coaching supports literacy growth in two ways:
(1) Attitude Change:
It encourages students to view nonfiction writing not as an
inspired leap of creativity that is hard and rare, but instead as a
design process that virtually everyone can (gradually) learn.
(2) Skill Building:
It enables students to actually try drafting and revising
techniques that they may have ignored or avoided before. This
partly happens by talking about their writing in engineering, not
literary terms--prototypes, constraints, feedback, usability.
And partly it happens by practicing with customized scaffolds.
Two responsibilities of nonfiction writers (mentioned in CCSS)
call for such positive coaching:
Iterative text revision.
Why are these two obligations often confusing or stressful for
First, most people do not pursue either behavior spontaneously.
These actions have to be learned, and for most folks, that means
that they have to be coached.
Second, both audience awareness and iterative text revision demand
cognitive and emotional sophistication, which even many working adults
lack. They are not narrow technical moves (although technique is certainly
involved) but broadly philosophical--they call for informed insights
about what nonfiction writers owe their readers (in the "real world")
and why. In school, students write for one person (their teacher).
They already know what the teacher likes, and they know that the teacher
is not relying on their text and has no true need for their content.
In life, however, people write nonfiction text mostly for strangers.
Those strangers really do need the content and really are relying on
the text to meet that need. So outside of school, revising a text until
it becomes audience-adequate is vital for reader success--a key
The Positive Response
Positive coaching offers a sound pedagogical and personal response to
the challenge of building responsibility in student writers.
For audience awareness, positive coaching promotes enhanced emotional
sensitivity and more openness to the needs of others. This encourages
students to actively help their audience use what they write. New
nonfiction writers need empathy to appreciate how their audience will
struggle with inadequate (in format or content) text. They also need the commitment
to make text usability their own duty. Finally, students need persistence to patiently
pursue effective writing as a goal, to improve
their performance because others depend on it. Such empathy, commitment,
and persistence all depart from adolescent self-absorption and most
"no real audience" school literacy practice--a refreshing new
For iterative text revision, positive coaching opens people cognitively to
personal innovation and experimentation. From this students can gain the
willingness to try new writing tools and techniques--most modeled on
engineering practice--to meet the challenge of their new audience-oriented
responsibilities above. Teachers (and other mentors) can foster adoption
of these new techniques, gradually, by sharing skill-building
literacy-support scaffolds already posted freely online, for example at: