Tips for Addressing Struggling Readers

Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen how struggling readers are interested in learning the content presented in texts. They may also understand why teachers want them to apply comprehension strategies when reading, as well as to recognize how seeking additional help from their teachers and peers could help them learn more. However, it appears that struggling readers may refuse to engage with texts and reading instruction if they believe that doing so would compromise the identity that they are trying to protect or promote. Such decisions do not signify that struggling readers are unmotivated or do not want to learn. However, their decisions suggest that struggling readers may place a higher priority on how they are seen as readers than on learning from texts.

So, what do we do about this? First, I suggest keeping in mind that struggling readers’ decisions with texts may not always be caused by a lack of motivation. Sarah, Nicole, and Alisa all showed interest in reading, learning, and succeeding in school. Their efforts to learn from text were not always as successful as they would have liked. However, to classify them as uncaring, unmotivated, or unwilling to learn does not seem fair to the students or capture the depth of their situation.

Second, struggling readers may want to improve their reading abilities and learn the curriculum. However, they may determine that the identity they are trying to promote clashes with the behaviors that teachers want them to engage in when reading text. Students like Sarah may believe that they have to continue their inability to learn the content for which they express an interest in learning rather than risk exposing themselves as poor readers to their peers. For example, when forced to choose between asking for help with text and exposing her perceived “true” identity, Sarah always opted for the latter.

Third, struggling readers may try to find ways to learn content that remain unrecognized by teachers. Alisa, for example, tried to pay attention to the work that others around her were doing during labs in an effort to learn science content. Although she often received failing grades in her science class, Alisa did not view herself as a failure. Instead, she recognized herself as a somewhat successful student who managed to learn at least some of the content despite her regular struggles to comprehend text. On the surface, however, Alisa’s actions would likely not suggest to teachers that she was motivated to learn.

Finally, Nicole’s case suggests that not all actions of middle school students are contingent on what their peers or teachers think of them. For Nicole, her actions in school helped promote her identity at home. She said that she would speak to others about text only if she had to and if not doing so would prevent her from accomplishing her goal. Unlike Sarah and Alisa, Nicole did not perceive interactions with her teachers and peers as a potential threat for uncovering her weaknesses. Instead, she seemed to view such interactions as being obstacles that could prevent her from promoting an identity at home.

Even though each student had her own unique ways of responding to text, they all used silence to protect or promote an identity and to learn at least some of the content.  Their commonalities suggest that struggling readers may use silence as a tool to obtain one or more goals that are important to them.

Motivated to ReadUnderstanding the identity that a struggling reader is trying to promote can allow teachers to clarify actions that they observe in the classroom. Knowing whether a student is trying to promote a specific identity in or out of the classroom can help teachers (a) become more responsive and (b) better understand why a student may not be reading or asking for help with text. Teachers can use several approaches to better understand students’ action with text.

First,  talk with students about the actions you observe in the classroom. If students do not seem to be participating in conversations about text, rarely ask questions, or do not appear to be reading, it is critical to ask why they are not involved. Asking students to explain their rationales can provide insight into their motivations and goals. Through such discussions, you can help them think about ways in which they might engage in new behaviors with text without fearing that they will be viewed in an unfavorable way.  Talk with students and negotiate new behaviors that they might undertake.

Second, students who are trying to protect or encourage a particular identity may construct their own ways to learn from text. Such actions may not always be successful or may not match what you want students to do. Talk with students about how they are trying to learn from text and recognize that, to some extent, the students’ methods may have helped them learn something. When helping students apply new behaviors to text, consider how students can continue to use previous behaviors with which they are comfortable.

Recognizing that the choices struggling readers make with text may not be linked solely to their cognitive abilities can also help you perceive the students differently. For example, although Sarah, Alisa, and Nicole were quiet in their classrooms, their silence did not mean that they were uninterested, unmotivated, or unwilling to learn from text. Instead, their silence demonstrated a willingness and a drive to learn whatever small amount of information could be attained while protecting their dignity as a student and as a reader. Struggling readers may want to learn from text, but their desire to be perceived or not be perceived in a certain way may take precedence. Recognize their difficulties, recognize what they wish to achieve, and work with them to help them do it.