Be the change, Reading, reflection, Student-centered

How Many Readers Have I Hurt?

image from etsy

Every year I share the story of my husband and how he hated reading for most of his life with my students.  I used to share it because it was unfathomable to me; how can anyone hate reading?  But in the past few years, I share it so the students know that hating reading and feeling like a bad reader is not a box that should define them.

Yesterday, as I told the story to my 7th graders, head nods all around as I explained how my husband would rather ride his bike than read a book.  He knew he was a slow and bad reader, so why even bother when the world has so much else to offer?   I asked the students; why is reading hard?  Why do we think we are bad readers?  One boy raised his hand and said, “I was told I couldn’t read a book because it wasn’t at my level…”  More head nods, and I cringed a little, pretty sure I have told students something similar at some point.  But still I asked them, “What else has happened to you?”

One shared the story of being told to read other genres to break out of their preference, another of the five finger rule and how it was enforced.  A girl told us of how easy books were not allowed, only the ones deemed “Just right.”  Stories of forced books, worksheet packets, and reading logs arose and my mortification grew because I know I have said and done all of those things.  But these kids were telling me how harmful it had been, not helpful as I had thought every time I said it.

I wonder how often our sage reading advice hurts rather than helps?  I wonder how often our great intentions damage what we are trying to build?  I know that students need guidance when it comes to growing as readers, but are levels, forced books, and “just right” the way to do it?  In our helpfulness are we instead creating reading boxes that our students cannot break free from?   I told my students that I would never define them by their level and that the books they choose to read need to be just right for them.  Just right at this time in their life.  Just right for what they want to do.  That can mean many things and it can change through time.

I end with the story of how my husband realized at the age of 35 that he was not a bad reader.  He was a slow reader, yes, but that did not make him bad.  He realized that had he had more choice, more books, something else in his younger age who knows what would have happened.  The past is out of his hands but the future he controls.  So as he slowly makes his way through books, he is becoming a reader.  I tell my students that they have control of the label they give themselves and to not let that label hinder them.  We have all been “bad” readers at some point, we chose what to do with that label.  It is my job to help them with that, not give them more boxes to hold them back.

I am a passionate  teacher in Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.



12 thoughts on “How Many Readers Have I Hurt?”

  1. Allowing our students to provide us with feedback is such a powerful motivator for change. Like you stated, we may have the best intentions, however it is not often that we consider how it changes the perception our students have of themselves. I’m going to share this post with my ELA friends.

    Thank you for your transparency.

  2. This is interesting to me. I think the issue may not be a teacher encouraging a just right book or the five finger rule, maybe teachers need to talk thought the way to become a reader by reading texts that are appropriate and make students partners in those choices, rather than rule followers. I have had too many students in jr. High who don’t read well becaus they have had too much freedom to choose books that don’t help them grow. I am all for freedom once students become independent readers, but they need leveled guidance, too. This reminds me a little bit of when my kids want candy for breakfast and I have to teach them healthy choices. Thank you for sparking a thought process this morning.

  3. Speed of reading does not define the depth of thought. Too many of us are boxed in by inaccurate assumption that reading level equates intelligence. Give your slow and reluctant readers audio books, it can open an entirely new world for them! There is too much potential lost by denying honors and AP courses to the Einsteins of our time!!

  4. Thank you for a cautionary tale of “A Good Fit Book.” A slippery slope as we launch balanced literacy and the Daily 5. One of the reasons our read alouds are not leveled. Give kinders a chance to delve deeper in their thinking and understanding. Yesterday’s read The Invisible Boy just one example.

  5. I have similar responses to students in math when I ask them if they are a good math student. They don’t think they are which is sad!

  6. Great thoughts! I too have been guilty of this on more than one occasion, telling students that something is “too difficult” or “too easy” all with the intention of setting the proper challenges but now that I look at it through this lens, maybe in a way that discouraged more than anything else.

    I just read this great article at WSJ:

    and the first thing I thought about was my reading class in high school. The whole goal of the class was just to sit down and take time to read whatever book we wanted without interruption. I remember signing up for the class because I thought it would be easy, but it turned out to be one of my most anticipated classes; the opportunity to lock down and read free from distractions and worksheets.

    I definitely look forward to re-evaluating my approach to reading with my students after this reflection. Thanks, Pernille!

  7. There are no bad readers, just different kinds such as slow readers. Very important to get that message out to kids! I will keep in mind to not ‘box’ them into a level to keep their kindled interest up.

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