Reading Should be Hard – or – An Effective Way to Not Help Your Students

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 and I guess 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 by Katrina Schwartz in Mind Shift discussing how to promote a growth mindset in readers.

The 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 knew how to read, so I could get away with ignoring the 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 with hard reading.

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 background in words 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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. talk through how to use contextual clues to figure it out
    3. look it up
  3. Provide an easy digital “look up” tool such as a tablet or phone (which do not need to be connected) with a downloaded dictionary such as Merriam Webster’s Learners Dictionary
  4. Let them struggle and succeed…

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.

In what ways are you helping your students develop a growth mindset? Please share below!

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