This article is part of the guide, What Does Reading Well Look Like?
I can read. I am a reader.
On the surface, these sentences seem to say the same thing, but I would argue that they are distinctly different ideas. One is grounded in the mechanics of phonetically crafting words from the combination of letters on a page; the other is anchored in self-identity.
The skill of sounding out words is “reading” at the most basic level. Add in the understanding of those words, and that’s the next level. But not everyone who can read words and comprehend them sees herself as a reader—someone who seeks information through text, who can get lost in a story, who conjures up visual imagery while savoring a poem, who satisfies her curiosity by diving down the rabbit hole of her latest question/interest/passion.
Texts have tremendous power in our lives; they open realms, spark and extend interests, and add to our understanding of the world we live in. In order to tap into all of that information, get lost in those stories, explore the ideas of poets and dig deep into their curiosities, our kids must see themselves as readers.
Very young children don’t pick up a book and think, “Oh, I should learn to read.” On the other hand, I don’t think they pick up a book and think, “Reading is hard/stupid/a waste of time.” As pre-readers, they grab a book because they have an interest in it—the cover, the memory of it being read to them, the pictures. In the case of some of the latest board books, children may simply be drawn to the textures added on each page. At that point, children are intrigued, curious, and wanting to explore.
What happens, then, as the years go by and they come to believe that reading is a skill beyond their grasp or a challenge they may never conquer? With some kids, once their confidence gets rocked, it can be difficult to recover.
Confidence is a multi-faceted construct. It’s all about believing that even if you can’t do something now, you will be able to do it in the future. As Carol Dweck and others like her would say, you can’t do it yet; a growth mindset removes the limits of your current abilities. That growth mindset must eventually become internalized, but it often starts with a gentle nudge from someone who cares.
Sometimes self-confidence and the belief in one’s self as a reader gets waylaid by a less than ideal reading environment, such as parents who don’t read at home or classroom instruction in reading that centers on worksheets rather than rich texts. Hurdles are also created by adults who tell kids they “cannot” read a text because it’s “too” something—too easy, too hard, too much of the same. As kids get older, other obstacles enter the arena, such as peers who think reading isn’t cool or assigned novels taking precedence over student choice in reading.
(It’s also true that some children struggle as readers due to the way their minds and bodies process the intake of information. I’m excited about research in those areas and the potential for support for those students, but that’s not my focus here.)
What’s the secret sauce that allows students to see themselves as a reader?
In this day and age of data, reading ability is one of those things that many educators and administrators want to quantify. I understand the desire to do so; data allows for clear decision making, gives teachers and schools a way to measure progress, and satisfies school boards (as long as the trend continues upward.) But I would contend that data is only one piece of the puzzle.
Reading comprehension should be viewed on a multi-faceted continuum that takes into account the student’s skill level in decoding words, their willingness to take on a text, and their exposure to the content. When readers approach the page, they bring their own schemas and personal experiences to that work. Their interests play a part. Consider:
- A kid who is a dinosaur expert will likely have much higher comprehension in a challenging book about dinosaurs than she might if she attempts to tackle a difficult biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- A student who spends many fall weekends in a deer stand in the woods with his uncle should be allowed to attempt to read an above-his-level novel that centers around hunting.
- A person who can phonetically “read” a medical report full of jargon will find that her comprehension ramps up exponentially when a beloved family member faces a medical challenge.
Trusting one’s ability to tackle tough texts can impact so much beyond just the books kids read. When students believe in their abilities to dig in and figure out challenging vocabulary and concepts:
- They can take on standardized tests with more confidence.
- They level up instinctively when making book selections, thinking, “I’m interested in this book, and it looks a bit harder than what I usually read, but I’m going to give it a try.”
- They experience growth in reading steadily—and naturally.
Being a reader takes risk, whether it’s picking up a book in a new series, taking on a longer chapter book or exploring a different genre. Confident readers take on that risk and bounce back with resilience when the book is not a great fit, doesn’t hold their interest, or when they sense that they are not understanding what they read. They know that the problem isn’t “them” per se. They can ask themselves if perhaps need more time before they’re ready for that book. Or if they need to build some schema before taking it on. Or maybe the book simply isn’t interesting. They separate the difficulty of accessing the texts from their identities as readers.
When kids don’t have confidence in their reading ability, they lack trust in their comprehension as well. It’s a vicious circle. They don’t feel confident when reading, and so comprehend less. They comprehend less, and so their confidence suffers. And just as confident readers are capable of separating the difficult texts from their self-identification as readers, non-confident readers have the opposite issue. Each struggle convinces them more and more that they are not readers—and never will be.
Teachers who get it will set kids up for success, building in work to enhance fluency and taking time to engage in conversations that deepen comprehension. Perhaps most importantly, these educators strengthen their relationship with each student in order to gently open a learner’s mind to more difficult or more complex stories or different genres. They may encourage students to take a step back from choosing the “big books” in the library in order to look smarter and to instead choose books that will increase the likelihood of solid comprehension.
Students need a support system to bolster self-belief. In my practice, the students who grow the most in reading ability are those who spend their days in a classroom that focuses on creating a literacy community. They read books and then talk about them. They are free to recommend books to each other, and to the teacher. They see themselves as contributors, participants, and most importantly, as readers.
To remind yourself of what it’s like to be a reading learner, challenge your own self as a reader. It’s amazing to me how I feel when I take on a poem or novel that pushes my envelope. I have come to embrace the discordant thoughts and feelings when I’m enjoying a rich classic or powerful modern piece of poetry. I notice how I have to slow down to digest the words. I pay attention when I see an unfamiliar word (and actually stop to figure out exactly what it means.) This kind of reading is both exhilarating and exhausting. It may not be the perfect beach reading, but it keeps my heart focused on how kids feel when they are pushing themselves in stories that are slightly beyond their current independent reading levels.
I know we have to keep our eyes on the data, but let’s put our energies into the stuff that truly works. Build relationships. Listen to kids. Find connections with —and for—them. Develop safe and strong reading communities. Read to kids. Read with kids. Read for kids. Model for them how to make choices that help them grow, but understand when they return to an old favorite like it’s a security blanket. In time, they’ll take those risks. I promise.