When she received an email from a former student one evening, BYU English professor Dawan Coombs experienced déjà vu. The former student, a graduate of the BYU English teaching program, was desperate for help with the seventh-grade reading class she was now teaching.
“She said, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, and I feel like I’m failing my students,’” Coombs recalled. “I empathized with her because when I was a new high school teacher trying to teach a similar reading class 15 years ago, I felt the exact same way. So when she asked for help, I said yes — because this is what I really care about.”
Almost 70% of American fourth graders read below grade level, a deficit that usually persists through their secondary education. Coombs’ desire to help these struggling students prompted her to leave her teaching post at Provo High 15 years ago to pursue a Ph.D. in language and literacy education at the University of Georgia. Now as an associate professor at BYU, and with the support of the BYU University Public School Partnership, one of the oldest public school–university partnerships in the nation, Coombs collaborates with teachers and administrators to help support adolescent readers.
“We train secondary teachers to be science or history or English teachers, and they have a deep knowledge of their content, but we don’t really teach them how to teach reading. There’s an increasing need for secondary teachers to be able to support adolescent readers. My long-term goal is to create a framework for reading classes that will help teachers help their students develop the skills and confidence they need to become readers,” Coombs said.
Using a BYU Research-Practice Partnership Grant, she completed a pilot study last year at Orem Junior High with her former student and her colleagues, observing reading classes and strategizing on how to improve students’ literacy. She’s supported similar efforts in the Wasatch School District, where implementing research-based comprehension routines across disciples has helped dramatically boost students’ reading scores.
An important part of her strategy is helping students build a healthy reader identity, a concept that’s always been a central focus of Coombs’ research on adolescent literacy. As a teenager, Coombs watched her younger brother try to navigate school while struggling with reading. She saw how his reading challenges permanently shaped his sense of self.
"It’s very rewarding to see how much of a difference one caring adult can have in a kid’s life."
“Even in college on academic scholarship, he would still sometimes reach out at the beginning of a school year and say, ‘I don’t think I’m smart; I just got lucky.’ This perception of himself as a struggling reader was deeply embedded in his narratives about who he was as a student and what he was capable of as an individual.” Coombs became interested in how kids’ perception of themselves as readers shapes the way they encounter the world.
“What if you want to text message that person you like, and you have to run your texts through spell check because you don’t want them to think you’re stupid because you misspell words? Or what if you’re a struggling reader in a church where everyone is supposed to get close to God by reading the scriptures every day? We assume everyone can read, but if you struggle as a reader, that assumption makes many aspects of life more difficult—not just schooling.”
To foster healthy reader identity, Coombs looks for texts that interest struggling students. Many of the books kids are assigned to read in high school — “The Great Gatsby,” “The Scarlet Letter” — are technically on their reading level but aren’t written for an adolescent audience. Research shows that when students are motivated to read, the amount of reading they do increases, so their ability increases; as their ability grows, they read more.
Having many interests herself (besides reading, Coombs loves to be outdoors, running, hiking, camping and snowshoeing), she knows that choosing literature with the right topic can make or break students’ experience.
For example, in a reading class she co-taught with undergraduate students at Provo High School in 2015, Coombs used sports-themed literature to help students practice reading skills. They ended up calling the class “Sports English.” The majority of the students not only strengthened their reading abilities, they also began branching out and reading about topics other than sports. “If you give kids material they care about, it’s amazing to see how they start to do things they thought they couldn’t do,” Coombs said.
An array of engaging YA literature can captivate the interests of even the most reluctant readers, Coombs said. “My favorite YA books are the ones that help teenagers — sometimes seemingly against their will — to enjoy reading.” (Some of her tried-and-true favorites for cajoling reluctant YA readers include “The Serpent King,” “How They Croaked,” “Tears of a Tiger” and “The Inheritance Games.”)
Experiences like Sports English and her current work with local districts keep Coombs motivated to continue collaborating with schools.
“I do miss being in the classroom with students, and that’s why it’s fun to participate in these partnerships with the school districts and with teachers. It’s very rewarding to see how much of a difference one caring adult can have in a kid’s life.”
Dawan Coombs’ recommended YA reading
“The Labors of Hercules Beal,” by Gary Schmidt
“The Door of No Return,” by Kwame Alexander
“Starfish,” by Lisa Fipps
“Beneath the Wide Silk Sky,” by Emily Inouye Huey
“The Scythe” series, by Neal Shusterman
“Lovely War,” by Julie Berry
“There’s No Ham in Hamburgers,” by Kim Zachman
And anything by Ruta Sepetys or Jeff Zentner!