Silence as Protection

The next few posts will look at the role of silence in relation to students with academic reading difficulties. I’ll be sharing what I have learned about why some students chose to remain silent and limit their interactions with texts in class.

If you work with students who have academic reading difficulties, you might have noticed that they are often silent when it comes time to talk about texts in anyway, shape, or format in your classroom. It is easy to assume why they are silent, and honestly these assumptions make sense. You might think they haven’t read the text (and you could be right). You might think they are uninterested (and you could be right). You might think they didn’t understand what they read (and you could be right).

But at the core, one reason why these students are silent is to protect themselves.  Student use silence as a way to prevent their teachers as peers from perceiving them as poor readers. They don’t want you to know that they have reading difficulties. In their mind, it is very important they avoid engaging in any activities that might allow anyone to discover their reading difficulties.  Sarah explained:

I’m nervous that people will find out I can’t read. If I ask questions [about texts] then someone might hear me and figure it out. When I do ask questions I have to pay attention and see who’s around ‘cause if there are people around I won’t ask for help—not even Mrs. O’Reilly [Sarah’s teacher]. Someone could go around the school and tell everybody and people will start making fun of me.

There’s a couple of things to note about Sarah’s statement:

1. She trusted her teacher. Sarah told me she liked Mrs. O’Reilly and knew her teacher was there for her. However, her fear that others would hear her talking to Mrs. O’Reilly, and confirm she couldn’t read, overrode any trust she had in her teacher.

2. At no point in her life has Sarah been made fun of for her reading abilities that she could recall. However, she explained to me that she worked very hard to prevent such a terrible thing from happening.

Remember Alisa?  She also said that it was not possible to fully participate in class if she wanted to protect herself from being seen as a poor reader:


I ask a lot of stupid questions. Like I used to ask questions, but people told me I’m supposed to know the answer to them. So then I look stupid and like I don’t know what’s going on. So I quit asking. I know I have to ask if I want to learn. But if I ask then I look bad and like I can’t read. So I have to make a choice. This [being silent] is what I do.

This issue of being seen as a poor reader also played over into how both girls applied reading instruction. Over the course of an academic year, both girls were in classes where their teachers worked very hard to teach them comprehension skills and strategies. Presumably, Sarah and Alisa could apply such strategies on their own to help them comprehend text but without suggesting to anyone that they were having reading difficulties. Using strategies during silent reading shouldn’t be an issue like participating, right?


Both girls explained they rarely applied any of the comprehension strategies to their reading assignments. Their decision not to apply strategies to text did not seem to be based on how well they understood the strategies or the extent to which they wanted to comprehend a particular text. Instead, they indicated that applying the strategies could potentially suggest to their peers or teacher that they were poor readers.

I know – how does this make sense, right? How would anyone know what you are doing when you read?

Well,  Sarah explained that using comprehension strategies would cause her to read at a slower rate and complete her assignments at a slower pace than if she did not use the strategies. Although Sarah acknowledged that using comprehension strategies might help her improve her text comprehension, the benefit of doing so did not seem to be as important as preventing other students from recognizing that she had comprehension difficulties. According to Sarah:

I’m already behind as it is. They [the other students] don’t need to know that. These things [comprehension strategies] will just make it worse.

s silence did not mean that they were uninterested in learning. Both girls stated repeatedly that they liked school and were interested in their classes. However, their decision to remain silent appeared to jeopardize their ability to learn. I asked both girls to discuss the tension that seemed to exist between wanting to learn content versus potentially allowing people to identify them as poor readers.

Alisa said that although she wanted to learn, she did not want others to know when she cannot learn:

If people knew I couldn’t read that would be embarrassing. I’d rather not learn.

Sarah also concluded that she wanted to understand the text, but she did “not want them [other students] to know about me.”

Sarah and Alisa appeared to recognize that their decision to remain silent meant that they had to sacrifice learning to achieve their goal of protecting their identity. However, not all struggling readers may believe that they have to remain silent to hide something from their classmates. In my next post, I will discuss how Nicole used silence to help promote a specific identity about herself at home.



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