By Kate Schoedinger
Confidence building is every teacher’s primary task when it comes to struggling or reluctant readers. Middle school students who lag behind their peers are keenly aware of their reading level. As a reading specialist in a 7th and 8th grade middle school, I strive to create a comfortable environment for students working to improve their decoding, fluency, and comprehension skills. Confidence acquisition is the building block to competence.
Our school serves 800 students in two grades. The students I see are two or more grade levels below and have one or more goals in reading on their IEPs. But, as a reading specialist in a school that schedules silent reading time every day, teachers also invite me to classes for book talks. Book talks profoundly influence students’ literacy. Students love to hear excerpts from novels. The power of choice positively affects students’ success rates across all subjects and serves as the cornerstone for engaging reluctant readers. The greatest source of book choice is from students sharing among themselves. Proficient readers have a solid understanding of what they like to read, what they want to read, and what they want to share about their reading.
Regardless of level, every student has moments of reluctance as a reader. I purposefully acknowledge this because middle schoolers believe that everyone but them reads texts once through with 100 percent comprehension. Reluctant readers need to experience immediate and authentic success in order to promote ongoing reading, but such successful moments are often fleeting. Teachers can multiply these moments by reading fabulous excerpts and celebrating what students do well, such as decoding tough words, acknowledging main ideas, details, or inferences, and making connections.
I choose excerpts that crack kids up and my favorite author is Sigmund Brouwer. No kid can resist this wedgie scene from Thunderbird Spirit:
I had to do something to punish this fan. Just when I thought my body would pop like a balloon from anger, I saw it. Where his jacket and black T-shirt had lifted to show some skin, I saw the top of the guy’s underwear.
I grabbed it with one hand. Then with the other. And I pulled as hard as I could. I didn’t stop yanking upward until his underwear almost reached his shoulder blades.
He screamed and yelled and squirmed. Dakota held him to keep him from turning over and swinging at either of us. And I kept pulling, even when my arms felt so tired I almost had to let go. Right about then, the security guards got to the penalty box. (p. 6)
Seemingly incongruent for my job, I love to hear students exclaim, “I hate to read!” To me, this is just a reflection of many years of basal readers, novels that align to curriculum or assessments, and never getting to choose what they want to read. Reluctant readers, when asked, often cannot remember a book they liked. I encourage them to think about a book read to them or a picture book they may have looked at as a younger student. If they can’t come up with anything, I ask them what they like to do when they’re not in school. Matching students to books is my superpower, and I am known affectionately as the “Reading Concierge.” My other nickname is “Author Stalker.”
I believe wholeheartedly in bringing authentic literacy experiences to students. To date, we have had full-day presentations and workshops from Wendelin van Draanen, Sy Montgomery, Andrew Clements, Obert Skye, Sigmund Brouwer, Katy Grant, Kate Messner, Greg Tang, and Ed Bloor. We’ve also Skyped with Tim Green. In a school that celebrates the rigors of reading and writing, it is a joyful experience to have authors share their challenges and successes as writers with our students.
Reluctant readers don’t realize that proficient readers struggle, too. Proficient readers have internalized strategies for monitoring their comprehension, so their struggle is manageable with tools at the ready. Reluctant readers are paralyzed and intimidated by navigating text during their packed academic day. Strategies that build confidence and lessen the heart pounding anxiety are critical.
Building confidence calls for scaffolding. Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is a skill that students need to develop, and practicing with some thinking strategies can help. Students can use a “Somebody-Wanted-But-So” (S-W-B-S) chart to jot what is happening in a text using short phrases. Asking students to write full, complex sentences or paragraphs is too challenging. When working with students who have comprehension goals, I begin by asking them to state their thinking aloud, and I scribe for them. Quickly, students are able to complete the S-W-B-S charts independently.
Another strategy I use to build confidence with reluctant readers is known as “One Word-One Phrase-One Sentence” (1-1-1). With this strategy, students write down what a passage is about in one word, then in one phrase, and then finally in one sentence. This strategy is not threatening or intimidating for reluctant readers.
Vocabulary acquisition is often another roadblock for reluctant readers. A favorite strategy for building the vocabulary muscle is having students complete an ABC grid about a passage, chapter, or novel and seeing how many letters they can fill in.
With the necessary confidence, here’s to hoping that our reluctant readers will be sharing their favorite books with their peers soon!
Brouwer, S. (2008). Thunderbird spirit. Victoria, BC, Canada: Orca Book Publishers.
Kate Schoedinger, MEd, has been a classroom teacher and reading specialist in Bedford, N.H., since 1984. She also teaches at Saint Anselm College.