Understanding Adolescent Struggling Readers

Adolescents with academic reading difficulties, often labeled as struggling readers, make up a big percentage of American schools. As teachers of adolescents, we can sit around and try to figure out why that is or we can accept that it simply is and get to the business of doing what we can. I opt for the second part.

Why? Well, while I can speculate on all kinds of reasons why adolescents might have academic reading difficulties the truth is I can’t go back and change their past. So blaming anyone, at all, is not going to help students improve. I can only work with what I can control, and I can control how I respond to the students in front of me.

reading difficulties

But one of the things I think is critical to working with adolescents with academic reading difficulties is understand them as people and as readers. I think it’s important to let go of any assumptions I might have about their motivations and desires and to simply learn from them who they are and who they want to be. And the best way to illustrate this is to share with you the story of a young woman I shall call Alisa.

The Story of Alisa

Alisa was an 8th-grade student in Mrs. Baker’s science class (all names have been changed) when I met her. Mrs. Baker and I noticed that Alisa was not doing well in completing lab projects. Mrs. Baker went over the directions for a lab before she assigned students to groups. Once students went into their groups, we noticed Alisa always did the same thing. She sat off to one side of her group and observed the lab. She did not speak to her group, and she did not attempt to help them complete the lab. Alisa wrote down answers to questions about the lab as they were discussed by the group, but she never offered up her own ideas. She never asked Mrs. Baker or her lab partners for help. During the course of the year, Alisa failed every single lab assignment.

What would you think in this situation?

I’ll tell you honestly what Mrs. Baker and I thought. We thought Alisa was unmotivated. We thought she didn’t care about her work and wasn’t interested in learning or improving as a reader. We had written her off.

We could not have been more wrong.

Mrs. Baker and I tried and tried to figure out how to help Alisa, but in the end nothing we tried worked. It was all the standard stuff. We tried giving Alisa more individualized attention. We made sure we talked to her during the labs and tried to get her to ask questions. We got nowhere, and we were frustrated.

But you know what we didn’t do? We never asked Alisa to share her perspective with us. We just kept trying to figure out which best practice would turn her around, and the truth is there was no single best practice that was going to make a difference as long as we didn’t take the time to understand what guided Alisa’s decisions.

Want to know a secret? Ultimately, there was nothing Mrs. Baker or I could do to help Alisa. Teaching Alisa more skills would not help her. Giving Alisa an easier lab to do probably would not have helped her. Spending more time with Alisa’s group would not have helped her.

However, don’t despair. There’s a key element that can work.

We want our students to be engaged, and so do they.
We want our students to be engaged, and so do they.

To understand how to help Alisa requires two things. First, you have to know how Alisa viewed the situation. After observing Alisa repeatedly not participating in, and failing, the labs, I sat down with her to talk about what was going on. Alisa claimed that the labs were going very well and that she was in fact learning. I, of course, was confused. So I showed her the most recent lab assignment which showed her grade of 60% – an F. I asked her to explain to me how the labs were going, and how she was learning, if she was always failing them.

Alisa’s response was eye-opening. She told me she did not understand the directions for any of the labs. She claimed she listened when Mrs. Baker reviewed them, but this did not help much. She did not believe that asking anyone for extra help would result in increased comprehension.

Alisa’s strategy when she got in her lab group was to stand off to the side and pay attention. She explained that she did the best she could to learn anything. She even considered a 60% to be a very successful grade! It meant, she said, that she had learned over half the material. Alisa recognized her struggles with reading and was proud to learn anything she could.

Alisa’s response taught me a very valuable lesson. I had assumed she was not participating in class and not interested in learning from the labs. I was dead wrong. Where I saw evidence of failure, Alisa saw evidence of hard work and success. Once I saw the world through Alisa’s eyes, I could better understand and interpret her daily interactions with texts.

The second thing to know about working with Alisa then is that helping her with reading is not about doing things to her. It’s about doing things with her. Mrs. Baker could do a number of things to Alisa in terms of providing her with more instruction, assignments, and different texts. However, without understanding Alisa’s point of view she would never make much progress.


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