Five Ways to Help Readers Manage Frustration

1. Frame it positively.

I notice that all too often, readers assume that unless they are reading fast, reading accurately, and making perfect meaning from text, they are failing. Several weeks ago, as I was guiding high school readers through an incredibly complex passage, we began by unpacking this fallacy.

“So, reading hard stuff is kind of like seeing a live performance of Shakespeare,” someone in the room suggested. “The language might kind of wash over you, and a lot of it will even go over your head at first, maybe. But the more you hang in there with it, the more sense you’ll make of it. It’s not like you need to know every word or phrase to pull a lot of meaning out of it.”

I thought this was a solid analogy.

2. Coach readers to recognize it when it happens, assess the degree to which it’s happening, and notice what seems to be causing it. 

Several weeks ago, as teachers began preparing for a lesson study that featured the use of complex text, concerns about frustration emerged early in our work. This frustrationscale opened a conversation about cognitive dissonance and the importance of struggle.

Engagement and entertainment are very different animals, and while fun can weave its way through all kinds of learning experiences, I often wonder how we can help more learners enjoy the struggle that learning often is.

I’ve begun helping readers recognize what productive frustration feels like and notice when the level is getting too high. Reflecting on what has caused them high levels of frustration and naming their needs is critical here. So is responding to them. This is the perfect place to focus on self-advocacy.

3. Let them see you struggle too.

As I’ve read with high school learners this winter, there were several experiences that forced me to publicly confront text that I struggled to comprehend. There were even a few moments of floundering with fluency. I was grateful for them. The readers who were watching me realized that I truly do struggle as a reader as well. I just don’t let the tough stuff scare me off. I keep going. I make meaning where I can and offer little power to my inner perfectionist.

4. Create a shame-free learning environment.

My devotion to collaborative learning and total participation strategies was established early in my teaching career. I’m not a fan of raised hands, although it’s still my default, especially when I feel pressed for time. I’m working on it. I’m not comfortable with cold-calling either, though. All too often, this practice shames learners.

Tomorrow’s post will feature specific strategies I’ve been using to promote rich conversations about tough texts in classrooms. One of the most surprising documented findings from several years’ worth of work with over 800 readers now: when the text is hard for everyone, everyone seems far more willing to participate in making meaning from it. This has been my consistent finding in K-12 classrooms across five school districts that are very different from one another: when everyone struggles, everyone seems willing to struggle. Happily.

5. Scaffold text types, length,  and levels of complexity with intention.

As I’ve reflected on the lesson studies I’ve conducted with readers, this factor seems to have played an important role in engaging and sustaining the stamina of readers. When I open shared reading experiences with brief complex texts and speak honestly about how difficult it is and how messy our meaning-making will be, readers dive in. When that same text builds background knowledge for the concepts, dilemmas, ideas, questions, or themes we will pursue throughout the lesson or unit, this supports extended comprehension over several texts and enables powerful connections between them.

When the text is very hard, the passages remain short and we read much closer. Reading this way is an adventure, not a punishment.

We need to help struggling readers fall in love with text too, though. Choice is important. So is time for pleasure reading.

Three weeks ago, I presented high school Chemistry students a six paragraph passage on risk levels for combustion in grain mills versus elevators. Readers dove into the first paragraph, demonstrated re-reading behaviors, and annotated the text. All engaged in the conversation that followed. Meaning was made, and it was made independently. Then, I asked them to “finish” the piece. Things unraveled from there. They finished the piece quickly. Very few demonstrated persistent re-reading behaviors, and only two readers annotated the text. As you might imagine, the conversation that followed was far less productive or meaningful.

Maybe it makes more sense to present readers complex text one chunk at a time, assess their abilities to make solid meaning from the small piece first, and then add on paragraphs one at a time, as readers show us they are ready to handle them. If we begin early in the year and work this plan with intention, it’s likely that most readers will leave with far greater reading capacity at year’s end.

Should high school readers be able to handle multi-paragraph text independently?

Sure.

But the work of a teacher isn’t tangled up in that question. Teaching is about identifying what kids need and tolerating our own frustration long enough to investigate and test potential solutions.

The struggle is a gift.

Leave a Comment