Silence as Success



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.

Last week, I shared how some students use silence as a form of protection or at least the image of it. In my previous post, I shared how Sarah and Alisa used silence to protect themselves from being seen as poor readers.  However, there was another student, Nicole, who seemed to rely on the use of silence to suggest to her parents that she was a good reader and a good student in school.

Unlike Alisa or Sarah, Nicole did not display any concern about what her peers and her teacher thought of her reading abilities. She explained to me that her overall goal in school was to communicate to her parents that she was a good reader. Nicole explained that one way to accomplish her goal was to receive straight A’s on her report card.According to Nicole, receiving high grades would and a good reader. Nicole said:


I know I’m a good reader. I couldn’t get good grades if I wasn’t. When I get them [good grades] my parents know it too. They know I’m smart and that I get it [comprehend text].

I hung out with Nicole in Mrs. Hardin’s 7th-grade math class. My observations of Nicole during her mathematics class showed behaviors that were similar to those used by Sarah and Alisa. Like Sarah and Alisa, Nicole was usually silent when texts were read and discussed. She appeared to read the assigned texts, and she often completed her assignments in silence. When she finished her assignments, she either read a book or talked to her classmates about topics that were unrelated to the class.

Nicole told me that she was often quiet because she wanted to complete her readings and assignments in class. According to her, doing so would indicate to her parents that she was succeeding in school. She said:

If I finish in class then when I get home I can say, “I did that in school.” Then my parents know that I understood it. I have to be smart to finish this stuff in school. If I talked to people it would slow me down and I couldn’t get my work done. So I only ask questions if I really, really have to.

Nicole’s grades seemed to support her idea that being quiet would help her do well and promote herself as intelligent and successful to her parents. Throughout the year, Nicole maintained an A- average in Mrs. Harding’s class. She explained that she was able to get this grade because the answers to the assignment questions were right there in the book and she only had to write them down.

Although Nicole may have believed that she was successful, my conversations with her suggested that she did not always comprehend and remember for long what she had read. For example,  I asked Nicole to explain what she had learned from reading a recent chapter on problem-solving strategies. The chapter explained and modeled how students could use such strategies as drawing a picture and reading carefully to comprehend text and compute algorithms. Nicole said that the chapter on problem-solving strategies taught her the following:problemsolving

I know I read it and did the problems. And I got an A on my assignment so I must have understood something right? But I don’t remember—I don’t remember what it said now. I know it said how to solve problems, but I don’t know how it said to do them. I think it said to just read the problems. Yeah—if you read the problems you will know how to solve them. Reading problems helps you get them right.

Nicole did not seem bothered that she could not remember what she had read, and she did not seem aware that her explanation of the reading was incorrect. When I asked what she had learned in mathematics that year, she shrugged her shoulders. She said that the class “did stuff with fractions and we read a bunch of stuff. We read something about geometry.”

As you can see, Nicole provides another layer as to why some students with reading difficulties may choose to remain silent. For her, it was about doing what needed to be done in school to promote a specific reading identity at home. In the next section, I show how each Nicole, along with Sarah and Alisa, used silence as a way to help her learn in addition to protecting or promoting her identity as a reader.


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