More than Lack of Skills or Motivation

Sarah looked at me and said, “Mrs. O’Reilly called my mom last night and said I have an F in social studies.” It was January, and I had asked Sarah, a sixth grader at Miles Middle School, to tell me how her year was going. “How do you feel about that?” I responded. “I would like to do better, get better grades,” she said. “I just don’t understand the stuff we have to read in class. I try to focus, but it’s just so hard. I can’t follow what’s going on [in the book].”

Sarah is not alone in her struggles. Many adolescents have academic reading difficulties and it is more common than not to have students who have not mastered the skills needed to comprehend texts at their grade levels. The majority of adolescent likely struggle with (a) making inferences, (b) integrating information they read into their lives, and (c) critically analyzing and evaluating information from text.

You already knew this.


A number of reasons indicate why adolescents may have problems comprehending the texts that they are expected to read in school. First, they may have cognitive difficulties that can influence the extent to which they can understand a given text. For example, some struggling readers may have problems decoding words. Others may perceive comprehension as a word-calling activity. They may be able to say the words, but they do not recognize that they must make meaning from them in order to understand a text. Finally, some may not know how to (a) set explicit goals for reading, (b) note how text is structured, (c) identify main ideas, or (d) apply strategies to understand the text when comprehension fails.

Motivation can also play a role in struggling readers’ ability to comprehend text. Adolescents with a long and negative history with reading in school may believe that they will have little success comprehending a text. Therefore, reading is not worth their time and effort. Thus, when teachers give reading assignments to struggling readers, the students may respond by engaging in behaviors designed to keep them from reading.

Of course, around here we all know I am big on identity theory. One of the most useful theories under the umbrella of identity theory (I think) is called discursive identity. Discursive identity is about how people label us. We send out signals through our actions and language, people interpret those signals, and then (if it makes sense) they categorize or label us.

For example, consider that Michelle, a seventh-grade student, would like her classmates to view her as being intelligent and a good reader. Michelle already has in her mind ideas about what it means to be identified as smart and as a good reader. If she wants to, she can actively work to help her peers believe this about her (or at least make sure they don’t think the opposite!).

In her language arts class, Michelle feels confident about her abilities to comprehend the literature that she is required to read. In class, she constantly volunteers to share her ideas and tries to answer her peers’ questions about text. Michelle believes that doing so will send the message to her teacher and peers that she is intelligent and understands what is being read and discussed in language arts.

Now, you might wonder, is Michelle really thinking all of this?

The answer is yes, it is totally possible, particularly if being seen as smart and a good reader is important to Michelle. In my conversations with adolescents, I have learned that it is normal for some of them to try to manipulate how they are seen and positioned in school. And they are willing to expend a great deal of energy to make their visions a

But back to Michelle.

When Michelle enters her biology class, the context changes. In biology, Michelle feels confused by what she reads in her textbook. She often does not understand the assignments or discussions that are connected to text. She volunteers to talk about readings only if she is 100% sure that she knows the answer which means she rarely speaks. Michelle does not ask questions when she is confused because she believes that doing so might suggest that she is a poor reader and not very intelligent. In biology, she may not be able to suggest she is smart and a good reader, but she hopes to at least avoid being labeled as dumb and a poor reader.

Understanding the discursive identity that Michelle, or any student, is trying to promote can help explain the behaviors that they engage in when expected to read text. Regarding struggling readers, discursive identity theory can help teachers make sense of student behaviors and potentially alter their instruction to be more supportive.

Viewing the actions that struggling readers make through the lens of discursive identity allows us to recognize that struggling readers are complex persons who have multiple goals. Discursive identity refutes the idea that struggling readers do not engage with text because they are unmotivated or do not care about learning. In addition, the theory provides the means for teachers and researchers to examine the multiple ways in which struggling readers potentially care about reading and learning, along with a better understanding of the issues that are important to the readers. By understanding how struggling readers view text, perceive themselves, and want others to perceive them, teachers can more likely respond to students’ needs.