Want to Know Why Readers Struggle? Ask Them.

When we first meet a reluctant or struggling reader, sometimes our first impulse is to act in service to this reader. We are teachers. We want to help, and we know a great deal about how to do that, after all. So we act on what we know, and sometimes, what we know does help. But all too often, it doesn’t.

All too often, what we know gets in the way of finding out what we need to know. Perhaps when we meet reluctant or struggling readers, acting shouldn’t be our first impulse. Perhaps questioning should be. In my work, I’m finding that assessment often helps teachers put what they know aside long enough to get to know the readers they serve, and what’s learned is often unexpected.

For example, two years ago, I was asked to lead a large literacy initiative inside a local school district. Many children were presenting as struggling readers, and what was worse? Very few revealed interest, let alone joy for reading. As planning began, quite a few people stepped forward with potential solutions. Many of them seemed to conflict with one another:

“We should train all teachers to conduct guided reading effectively,” someone suggested.

“No, our kids get a ton of that kind of support. As a result, they read fast–but they sure don’t comprehend well,” another teacher countered.

“I think we need to foster of a love of reading,” someone else mentioned. “These kids don’t love books. They aren’t reading at home. They need to learn about who they are as readers, and they need to pick books that are about things they are interested in.”

“They also need to be reading at their ‘just right’ level,” the librarian murmured.

“But it’s important to consider complexity,” an administrator reminded everyone. “Kids can fall in love with a lot of different kinds of texts, and I agree–this is really important. They often have to read things they don’t love though. And those things are hard. We’re doing them a disservice if we don’t help them develop the skills they will need for that kind of reading.”

And so on.

We all know a great deal, and our varied experiences can create blinding bias. It’s hard to see the reader from behind our expert lenses. Assessment empowers us to do this better, and we need to do it better. We know too much, and we are very passionate about what we know.  Not a single bit of this can serve the readers we’re eager to help unless we seek answers to these questions first:

  • Why is this particular reader struggling?
  • Why is this particular reader reluctant?

What we learn by asking those questions and pulling on varied data—including what emerges from our conversations with readers—must guide our interventions. Not the conference we went to last week. Not the book that’s waiting for us on our bedside table. Not the promising practices that experts are promoting.

I think these things matter, don’t get me wrong. But unless evidence is guiding our hunches about why readers struggle or why they are resistant, we can’t possibly know how our growing expertise might help them best. Quality assessment matters, and we don’t know enough about it, especially when it comes to reading. Myself included. I have a strong feeling that talking with readers about their experiences might provide important data, though.

 

 

 

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