A couple of days ago I was given the name of a struggling student I’ll be providing with reading interventions during the coming year. I haven’t met the boy yet, but I know he’s a fifth grader and so I anticipate that along with his difficulties in reading will come a great deal of other emotional baggage that has accumulated over the years. I expect that he’ll be dreading the beginning of school (though he has no idea that his homeroom teacher this year is one of the best in the business). He’s probably expecting to be pretty quickly discovered as a failure and is perhaps already making plans on how to avoid the difficult work headed his way by either clowning around with his peers, claiming sickness or excessive bathroom breaks, or simply melting into the background and becoming invisible.
Working with older students who have struggled with reading is always more difficult than the younger ones because they come as damaged goods. Their self-concept has been torn down and unevenly grown over with scar tissue. They still want desperately to do well, but they no longer believe they can.
I’m reminded of something I learned about working with this type of student from a wonderful friend of mine, Sherry Boone. After I relayed to her a story about a successful tutoring session with an older struggling student and my effusive praise for him on his progress, she gently chided me for my overt enthusiasm. She explained that it’s not just what we say, but how we say it that matters more. When I was excitedly saying, “You did it! You figured out that big long word!” my underlying message was conveying not just excitement, but also surprise. He was hearing, “You did it! And I didn’t think you could! I’m so excited because you surprised me with your progress.”
Instead, if we praise a student calmly, the message we send is more reassuring: “You did exactly what I knew you could do all along! I’m not at all surprised that you made progress because I’ve been expecting it.” In our work with older students, we have to work twice as hard on their attribution theory or, in other words, to whom these students attribute their success. Too many times, kids who struggle with reading see themselves as helpless regarding school. They can’t seem to do anything successfully, and if they do they tend to attribute it to luck. “Oh, I just guessed at that word. I didn’t do anything intelligent or strategic or intentional. It was a lucky guess.”
Our job as teachers is to combat this attitude and give the struggling reader control over reading so that he can begin seeing himself as the type of person who knows what to do once a difficult reading situation is encountered. And once empowered, they will no longer feel the need to be invisible in our classrooms.