Have you ever been really shocked by a student’s performance on a test?
Jill always seemed to be on top of things. She asked good questions while we read through the chapter, and she used the new sticky-note method we talked about in class last week.
Or maybe you were not surprised at all.
Robert just isn’t ever engaged in what’s going on. He is super social with everyone when we aren’t doing work, but as soon as we start he seems to shut down. I told him to let me know if he was having trouble with the content and I could help him, but he never said anything. It’s pretty clear that he just doesn’t care.
These students may struggle with reading comprehension. Jill demonstrates the traits of a “good reader,” adopting practices she has been taught are good reading practices in order to be seen as a good student. Robert knows that he struggles with reading comprehension but doesn’t want to be seen by his peers as a poor reader, so instead he silences himself.
Dr. Leigh A. Hall, associate professor of literacy studies at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education, conducts research on struggling adolescent readers. Her work emphasizes the importance of reader identity and provides insights that can help teachers work with their students.
Struggling reader identity
Reading identity refers to how a student, or any reader, sees their reading ability as well as what this ability means in different contexts. In the classroom, students know who the “good” readers are just as easily as they know who the “bad” readers are. Teachers often teach students what “good” reading skills look like: They include things like rereading confusing texts, looking up definitions of unknown words, and using comprehension strategies. These are all great strategies to improve comprehension; however, just as the ability to jump, shoot, and dribble doesn’t necessarily make a good basketball player, these strategies don’t necessarily make a “good” reader.
So while a student may be able to exhibit these skills and strategies, he or she may still be struggling with reading comprehension. Dr. Hall identifies struggling readers as students who are identified to be reading at least one year below their current grade level, do not have a learning disability, and are in need of additional reading comprehension support by classroom teachers.
Dr. Hall’s work on adolescents challenges research and theory suggesting that struggling readers typically avoid reading, are unmotivated to read and may not care about learning. Instead, Hall’s research suggests that struggling middle school readers like to read and would like to become better readers. She has found they tend to express continued interest and excitement in school despite their largely negative history with it.
Understanding students’ reading identities can give a teacher some insight to the decisions students make in their reading. It’s also important to understand that some students make decisions about reading in an attempt to influence how others do or do not identify them as readers. For instance, one of the struggling readers Dr. Hall studied made use of as many of the “good reader” skills as she could in efforts to show herself as a good reader and smart student to her parents. Other students Dr. Hall studied avoided engaging in activities they thought would result in others publicly identifying them as poor readers. As a result, they were often silent and appeared withdrawn. While it is easy to interpret this type of silence as a lack of motivation, some students use silence as a social and learning strategy.
The strategy of silence
It is often thought that students who struggle and sit quietly may not care about their education. However, Dr. Hall’s research suggests that struggling readers may use silence as a way to protect themselves, to promote a desired identity, or to learn material.
Two of the struggling readers Dr. Hall studied used silence as a way to protect themselves from being seen by their peers and teachers as poor readers. These students often worked alone and rarely spoke up during discussion about assigned readings. They also did not make use of reading comprehension strategies for fear that it could identify them as poor readers. While these students understood that their decision to remain silent could negatively influence their learning, they believed that not being publicly seen as a poor reader was more important.
Another struggling reader in Dr. Hall’s study did not identify herself as a struggling reader at all; she saw herself as a good reader. Instead of being concerned with what her classmates thought, she was focused on her parents seeing her as a good student and good reader. This student identified her grades, an A- average, as an indicator of her ability. She worked silently to get her work done at school so she could tell her parents that she didn’t have homework because she got it all done in school. She identified this as a way to demonstrate to her parents that she understands what she is learning.
Despite their silence, the students all said they paid attention and did their best to learn content from their peers and teachers. This learning came in the form of observations of peers during lab-type lessons or listening in during class discussions. They also stated that they wanted to learn more and become better readers, but found the potential of being labeled a poor reader too threatening. Ultimately, these students sacrificed their academic development in favor of social status.
The influence of reading identity, and the desire to promote or hide that identity, plays a very important role in adolescents’ literacy development. If a teacher can get to a place of understanding that identity, he or she may be able to better understand the actions of the student and be better equipped to help the student grow.
Tips from Dr. Hall
- Try to avoid statements about “good” or “bad” readers.
- Teachers have a huge influence in how students form their reading identities. Using these types of simplistic binaries ignores important nuances of reading. For instance, a student may be able to easily read and understand informational texts, but still struggle to interpret word problems in math. There are many different types of readers, not just “good” and “bad” readers.
- Give students more adjectives than “good” or “bad” to identify themselves as readers.
- Recently, Dr. Hall asked her students in a graduate class what types of readers they are. She told me that none of them reported being good or bad readers; instead they referred to themselves as immersive readers, hungry readers, and so on. Using this type of language with adolescent readers could help them develop more rounded reading identities.
- Make your classroom a safe space for students to engage in learning and creating who they want to be.
- If students are concerned with being seen as poor readers or poor students, they may engage in acts of silence that hinder their learning. A safe environment for students will help to break down defenses students may be employing to protect themselves in exchange for honest engagement and learning. It can take time to build the trust needed with adolescents to make changes and move forward.
- Normalize the idea that everyone struggles with texts.
- Students often believe that if they struggle to comprehend something they are reading it is because they are not a good reader. But the simple fact is that everyone struggles with some texts. Having students focus on and discuss points in the text that they found confusing can help normalize the idea that everyone struggles.
- Provide time to read.
- Adolescents often request more time to read in class; why not give it to them? Show your students that reading is important by making reading time a priority in your classroom. It can be in the form of free-choice readings or reading an assigned text. Try to find a way to balance both. Allowing free choice of texts within your discipline is a great way to encourage students to explore books that are related to what you teach.
- Provide more challenging texts.
- When given a choice of texts, some students may opt for a simple read, but on a topic of interest to them. However, they don’t want “easy” texts to be all that they have access to. Students want to be challenged. They want texts that they would not have thought of, and they are looking for their teachers to provide suggestions.
- Improving reading ability is a dialogue.
- When some professionals think about reading, they think about the text as a standalone item. This view presents reading as a process of decoding, extracting information, and nothing more. However, individuals are much more complicated, and literacy and identity are deeply intertwined. Improving reading ability cannot be found solely in the teaching of reading comprehension skills and strategies. Instead it has to be focused on the individual as a unique, complex person and that person’s relationship to texts. Ask your students how they want to improve as readers. Show them how you are helping them meet their goals. Let them know how you can help them in ways they never imagined. Have a conversation about reading and watch them take control over their development.
Dr. Leigh A. Hall’s research addresses issues relevant to literacy, middle school, and teacher education. Her work considers if and how students’ identities as readers influence the decisions they make when reading, and how teachers can use information about students’ identities to inform their practice and improve students’ reading comprehension.
In addition to conducting research on adolescents, Dr. Hall has studied how book clubs can help pre-service teachers understand how students’ identities, as well as their social and cultural backgrounds, impact the decisions they make with text.
A full biography can be found at the School of Education website.