Reading Should be Hard – or – How to Help without Helping too Much

I recently read an article on the internet that fascinated me but was hard reading. I mean I had to go back repeatedly to reread sentences or to refer to the beginning of the paragraph to refocus on the topic. There were also words that were used uniquely, causing me to pause and think harder.

This was not a poorly written piece, on the contrary, it was full of great ideas and fluid. But I got about 2/3 of the way through and found myself distracted, giving up before I reached the conclusion of the piece.

It made me feel bad, giving up like that. I really did want to understand the whole message, but I had gotten discouraged. You don’t often run into challenging reading on Face Book (yup…) and I guess I had forgotten what it was like to have to work at reading.

Then it dawned on me…

I wonder if this is how my struggling readers feel about reading, all the time!

Coincidentally, I had just read an article in Mind Shift discussing how to promote a growth mindset in readers. In other words, how to help readers not give up.

Their message? Reading is a “complicated experience.” It is hard! And nothing is more discouraging to a struggling reader than thinking it is supposed to be easy to read.

Fortunately for me, I already know how to read, so I can get away with ignoring an occasional  Facebook-related challenge. But struggling readers…how can they learn if they give up?  And how many times had I observed students who avoided reading at all costs.

Schwartz presents several ideas for guiding students in facing their own challenges with reading. My favorite, of course, involves words. Here it is, with my own take on how to “not help” your students too much.

First of all, students need to acknowledge what’s not working for them. Poor word knowledge is the most common reason for reading not working with middle grade readers, but students are frequently unaware what a huge role their lack of vocabulary plays.

Second, your students need to see that all readers, even good ones, run into this challenge.

Thirdly, a reliable tool and process for approaching unknown words, needs to be part of their repertoire.

How do you provide these opportunities as a “non-helper?”

Recognizing the source of the challenge:

Provide high interest reading with hard words in the text. Ask students to read aloud to each other or to you then ask comprehension questions that would require knowledge of the difficult words. Ask them to tell you what makes them struggle to answer. Let them work at identifying the source of the challenge and the specific words. Then replace the hard words with easy synonyms. Ask what kind of a difference it made and why. This only needs to be done once to get the point across, that word knowledge matters.

Learning that good readers have to work at it too:

Show students that you also struggle with comprehension when words are hard. Model what you (and most readers) do:

  1. re-read the sentence
  2. use contextual clues to figure it out (talk through how you do it)
  3. look it up
  4. use a technique for remembering it

Providing tools with a rational for their use:

  1. Prove to them that most people don’t remember a word after one introduction, by playing Hot Lead! This activity also only needs to be done once to get the point across.
  2. Introduce the idea of keeping track of new words: a journal with 3 columns on a page headed word, meaning, picture/example, for review.
  3. Provide an easy digital “look up” tool such as a tablet or phone (they do not need to be connected) with a downloaded dictionary such as Merriam Webster’s Learners Dictionary

And remember…

Let them struggle and succeed, review and question…then celebrate the learning!!

Want to make it fun to find hard words? Try Word Find as described in my blog The 5 Most Important Characteristics of any Vocabulary Instruction – Plus 1 more.

 

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