Swimming Without Water

This weekend my family and I went to our weekly swim date at the Y. Unfortunately, I left my trunks at home, so I was relegated to sitting on the sidelines. As I sat back and watched my wife play with the kids in the pool, I wondered what it would be like to teach someone how to swim without water.

That’s weird, right? Why would anyone try to show someone how to swim without actually being in the pool? Yet this type of instruction takes place every day in classrooms. Instead of taking authentic literature and creating a reading lesson that fits with it, students are handed worksheets or a disconnected text that uses contrived language for students to work on, sometimes before they were even taught the concept. Many literacy programs purchased through district acquisition do not allow for reading and writing to occur in their native environment.

Students need to be able to wade into language and play. This require lots of books in classroom libraries to try out their developing reading skills and have fun. Richard Allington found through observing successful schools for a decade that students should be actually reading and writing 50% of the school day. He emphasizes the word actually because he doesn’t include the before and after activities associated with reading, although they can be important. This means that a lot of the activities in science, social studies and mathematics should also be incorporating reading and writing.

Kids learn how to swim in the water. Swimming instructors don’t lecture out of the pool; they bring the kids into the water to model a skill, guide and give feedback, and then allow the students to try it on their own when deemed ready. They are side by side with the students, sometimes taking their hands and making the motions for them. The students are not spending a lot of time talking about swimming with each other. They are not watching a video the previous night about swimming and talking about it the next day. They are not watching someone else swim the majority of the time with only a little bit of time to practice. The students are swimming.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

13 thoughts on “Swimming Without Water”

    1. I agree with you Fran. Reading and writing are so connected. Seems redundant to say that, but necessary.

      I am lucky to work in a building where the teachers provide engaging and authentic writing activities for their students regularly. But this didn’t happen by accident. We used the Reading-Writing Connection PD series by Regie Routman. As one of my staff members stated, “This is the most powerful PD I have ever taken part in.” One of the best activities was agreeing upon literacy beliefs as a staff. This drove a lot of our practices, because we all owned them.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts. I have been having an internal conflict for the past month. Do I get them in the water, or do what the administration expects? Reading your post and knowing that I am not in it alone–there are others who think like me in the world–gives me strength.


    1. Angela, I am glad this post was helpful for you. I think Dr. Allington’s comment below was directed toward you, which by the way is very cool.

      How is it going now for you, almost one year later?


      1. It was a fast year for me. I don’t even remember making that comment, and most definitely didn’t see the response from Dr. Allington which I agree is very cool. I am getting excited about my plans for the upcoming school year and am looking forward to being in the same classroom for a second year. Now that I think about it, this is the first time I have spent two years in the same position since 2008. I am excited about the progress that I will be able to make.

        How are things going for you?


  2. For too long folks looking at beginning readers have assumed that teachers teach kids how to read. For some kids that is true and the role of an expert teacher for those kids is essential. But some and, perhaps, many, kids largely teach themselves to read. You probably know kids like this and can only wonder about how they manage to acquire reading? As it turns out there is a small body of research on what is called the “self-teaching” hypothesis. This body of research (See the work of David Share especially for papers on this topic) indicates that when beginning readers read more they develop reading sub-skills such as phonemic awareness, sight words, vocabulary, and such even though no adult is offering lessons on these skills. We’ve known for at least 50 years that self-teaching plays the largest role in vocabulary acquisition once kids begin school. That is, kids who read more learn the meanings of many more words than kids who read less or who read little. Much of the difference in volume of reading that beginning readers do seems linked to the reading lessons they get and the reading environments, both at home and in school, that they live in every day.

    As educators we have the choice about the reading environments we create for our students. Even in high-mandate schools, where the reading instruction is confined to some scripted program, teachers can work, if need be, around the edges to create literacy-rich environments for their students. But this often involves teachers using their own wits and funds to create large, multi-level, multi-genre classroom libraries for their students to use. It also involves reading a bit, at least, of a book every day to kids to engage them in the ideas that a variety of books has to offer. It also involves creating a classroom environment where every child finds a new book every day (or with older students, every week). This new book is a book they cannot wait to read and can read accurately, fluently, and with understanding. I’ve been in many such classrooms in every kind of school in most states in this nation. So I know they do exist and I know how kids successfully become real readers.

    So, no matter how supportive or unsupportive your principal is every teacher can create classrooms that create readers. It is just that some folks must be more imaginative in their vision of what a good and effective classroom reading program looks and feels like.


    1. Dr. Allington,

      I have been waiting to reply to your comment for some time. I guess I wanted to get it right. First, I am honored that you would even take the time to read my blog, let along share your thinking on it. Your work has guided much of my decision-making as a literacy leader in my school.

      I find the research you mention by David Share very interesting. As an upper elementary school teacher, I was a strong advocate for reading aloud to my students, as well as giving them lots of time to read. I carried this same philosophy with my children when they were born. My wife and I read aloud to them every night, even to this day. My son, who is now finishing kindergarten, is reading chapter books. We didn’t do anything special, other than read to him – a lot. My daughter is exhibiting the same habits as her brother did at this age. Again, my wife and I have done nothing that would be deemed “special”. We just surrounded them with lots of engaging books, and then read these texts to them often.

      The research you reference plus my experiences as a parent and teacher leads me to believe that associating pleasure and connectedness with the act of reading increases the chances that children will be proficient readers themselves when they grow up. I am sure much research has been done in this area already, but it shouldn’t hurt to investigate this concept a little bit more.


  3. Matt,
    I really enjoyed reading this blog. Your ideas flow very well together, and you’re right, we don’t create as many authentic experiences as we could. Death by ditto is something schools are known for but there are many teachers out there that create enriching experiences for their students, and there are parents who do it at home as well.
    Thanks for sharing your swimming experience.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Peter. I think sometimes we as adults get in the way of ourselves when teaching students how to read. We want to affect the outcomes of student learning by applying rigid and standardized activities in our instruction. In the end, we may suck the enthusiasm out of reading in favor of our desire to control the results. You are right; there are many teachers and adults out there who do what’s needed so well. I am fortunate to have many of these individuals in my own school.


  4. Yes! You don’t learn to swim just by listening to someone talk about swimming, by doing worksheets about swimming, by answering swimming text-book questions from the swimming-text-book chapter… Wonderfully stated. #GoReading! #GoWriting!


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