I think I have finally figured out my hesitance when it comes to the term “Struggling readers.” It is not that we do not have these types of readers in our midst; children where every word read is a victory in itself, where comprehension is a slow, painful discovery. Where we count their success not in books, but in pages. We all have readers who struggle. Yet, for too long, we have declared all of of our under-performing readers to be struggling. We have let a label stop us from seeing the whole child. For too long we have taken this title and applied it to a whole group of students that may not be where they should be. We have labeled our students and then not gone beyond that, instead sticking to the term and everything it encompasses. Yet, this is not enough for the very students we teach, for within this term is a myriad of reasons why the students are not reading. Of why they struggle. Because the truth is they are not all struggling readers. There is so much more to them than that.
Some are resistant. They will fight us every step of the way, not because they can’t read, but because they won’t. They often start as struggling and in that very struggle is where their new identity comes from; reading is hard and so they will use everything they can to not engage in reading. They will abandon book after book because they have long since figured out that if they at least look like they are reading, we will not be quite as worried. They will tell us proudly that they hate reading, offering up the challenge as we start a new year. Being a kid who dislikes reading is not something they are ashamed of and they wear their hatred with pride daring every teacher to change their mind.
Some are lost. They used to love reading but lost that love a few years back. Sometimes through the very choices we have made as teachers, often times through a combination of many factors both within and outside of our control. It is not that they won’t read, they just don’t know how to fall back into it, how to find a great book that will bring them back to the reading fold. How to continue to grow as a reader rather than stand still. How to unslump themselves before their new habits of not reading become a permanent fixture of who they are as a person.
Some are confused. They think they are doing ok but continue to miss the point of the book. They struggle with meaning not because they cannot decode but because their mind for some reason cannot hold all of the information needed to make sense of what they are reading. Some of my most confused readers would tell you they are doing just fine, not because they are trying to trick you but because they truly believe it. They make as much sense as they can and then move on, wondering why others have not understood the book the same way they have. They read, even if reading for pleasure makes little sense to them when it is such a tiring process.
Some consider themselves bad readers. A label they have conjured based on grouping, interventions, or other things that we have used in our classrooms to help them achieve success. Oftentimes how they self-identify becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you think you are bad at something, well then you become bad at it. Finding out what is causing them to think this way is a must as we try to help them back to reading.
Some are still a mystery. We cannot seem to crack the code of why reading is hard and sometimes it is because they do not know themselves. Sometimes it is because they have so many things working against them that it is hard to know where they start, and yet, we try every trick in our book and we ask as many questions as we can, trying to help them uncover a better reading identity.
There are more facets to reader identity than these, by no means is this an exhaustive list, because we teach children and children are complicated. So while I wish there was one direction that could guide my instruction, that could help me make all of the decisions I need to make when I support my readers, there isn’t. And pretending there is does nothing to help me prepare. Does nothing to help me create an environment where students have a positive reading experience, no matter their self-identification.
Sure, we could label them all struggling, but it would not be enough to help them, to support them as they have a better reading experience. We must dig deeper into who they are. We must ask questions not just about their reading life, but their reading identity. We must create opportunities where they can re-frame the essence that they carry as a reader. Our instruction must go past that of “struggling reader” and instead see the bigger reason for why they are where they are. While our journey to create passionate reading environments sometimes seems like an uphill battle, we must remember this; all children can have a better relationship with reading, all children can become readers. But they must know themselves first, they must know what helps or hinders, what motivates or what distracts. And so must we. It is too easy to be satisfied be applying one label to a group of kids, but it is not satisfaction we should be after, we should be after understanding, because through understanding we can teach better. We owe it to the kids, whether they struggle or not.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.