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February 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 5

Building Stamina for Struggling Readers and Writers

Readers can get into a Catch 22: To improve requires much practice, but it's hard to get motivated to practice without success.

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It's human nature to avoid the hard things in life. There's little pleasure in "sticking with it" when the payoff seems paltry. And when it comes to building literacy skills, the relationship between putting in the practice it takes to build skills and the success that feeds the desire to practice presents a paradox—even a Catch 22. To get better, students need a lot of practice and exposure to reading and writing. Putting in that practice demands sustained effort or stamina. A key motivator for continuing to practice (thus building stamina) is experiencing some success—but success is hard to come by without putting in the practice. Students who don't experience much success in literacy often become locked in a negative feedback loop. Getting them to practice and build their strengths becomes increasingly difficult.
Consider Lena, a 3rd grader who reads at home every night. Lena frequently calls out, "Ooh, I've read that!" at the mention of a title. Reading is a joyful task for her; she's in a positive feedback loop in which reading a lot improves her ability, which in turn leads her to read more.
Julia, however, finds reading arduous. Decoding requires so much attention that as she reads, the words don't evoke images, activate schema, or connect to prior knowledge in a way that's satisfying. She avoids reading and abandons more books than she completes. Julia has entered a negative feedback loop.
How do we help students like Julia build stamina? By creating opportunities for success early and often and constructing a new narrative for their self-perception as capable learners. I'm not advocating that we lower our standards or praise everything students do to build their self-esteem. There's a huge difference between making something easier and making it easier to learn. The latter doesn't preclude experiences with rigor or even failure. Rather, it gives students strategies they can use to learn and grow from challenges and establishes conditions that let them feel safe in taking risks. It promotes a growth mindset. Making it easier to learn shifts the focus from completing a task to developing a self-extending system for learning—while completing that task.
Let's examine three methods of intentional teaching and learning to build readers' stamina and encourage a greater volume of reading, thereby increasing opportunities for success. I share here suggestions—for teachers, learners, and learning—that I've seen help underachieving students build greater resilience as readers and writers.

Considerations for Teachers: Scaffold the Process, Not the Just the Activity

Teachers often use scaffolds to support their students. Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) defined scaffolding as a process "that enables a child or novice to solve a task or achieve a goal that would be beyond his unassisted efforts" (p. 90). Although Vygotsky never used the term scaffold, his Zone of Proximal Development (the "distance between a child's actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the higher level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance") is a related concept (Vygotksy, 1978, p. 86).
This research and writing on scaffolding has had a tremendous influence on pedagogy. However, I believe a common misinterpretation of the role of a scaffold has occasionally created more dependence than independence for some learners. A scaffold is intended to be a temporary structure. In practice, too often it has become a catch-all way of offering help with a task rather than encouraging independent problem solving.

A Tale of Two Teachers

Consider two classrooms. Before inviting students to silently read "The Raven," one teacher writes on the board words that might be difficult for students to comprehend (quaint, entreating, obeisance, decorum) and their definitions.
In another classroom, a teacher introduces "The Raven" by reading the first two stanzas aloud. She asks, "What's the mood of this poem? How does it make you feel?" Students respond with, "Sad. Scared. Kinda spooked."
She continues, "Poe wrote this a long time ago, in a style we don't talk like today. Are there any words he used that you don't know?" Students call out several words. Without defining the words, she invites students to read the poem with this strategy: "When you're reading and you get to a tricky word, think about the style and mood of the poem to help you make your best guess about what Poe is trying to say. Even if you don't know every word, slow down and reread. Think about the context to create a picture in your head." She goes on to model an example.
Clearly, these two teachers took different scaffolding approaches. Which class would you say came away better equipped to read "The Raven" and similar texts? When deciding on scaffolds that will help students build stamina for extended literacy engagement, ask yourself whether this scaffold
  • Encourages stamina to stick with a complex text.
  • Allows students an opportunity to struggle a bit and still find success.
  • Invites problem solving or requires continued support.
  • Allows for transfer of a strategy to other texts/tasks.
  • Eventually fades or becomes obsolete with experience and practice.
If we shift our goal from merely having learners complete a task to helping them build a strategic system while working on tasks, we can choose better scaffolds. Students don't lose stamina simply because they struggle. They lose stamina when they struggle with no strategies or hope of success.
One of my mantras is "whoever does the work, does the learning!" If we do all the heavy lifting for students in reading complex texts or writing, they begin to lean on that support rather than learn from it.

Considerations for Students: Sit in the Driver's Seat

For students who struggle with stamina in reading and writing, the end of the journey can seem too far away. They often give up when completing a task seems beyond their ability. They feel defeated before the journey begins. We need to help them focus on their driving more than on their destination.

The Tale of One Driver

Jafaar is writing a response to a reading in social studies. Before he puts pencil to paper, he must make dozens of decisions. What will he say first? How will he describe what he's thinking? How will he organize and sequence his ideas? While writing, he often pauses midsentence to think of the precise word he wants to use. He may have to consider the spelling or the verb conjugation. When he finishes a sentence, he rereads to monitor for cohesion with other sentences or contemplate the clarity of his idea, and then decides what comes next. Jafaar realizes that he has far less writing on his paper than his peers do. He's not feeling successful in reaching the destination.
So much of the writing process happens in the space I call "between the words"—in the thinking and decision making that learners often give themselves little credit for. Jafaar is quite strategic but isn't aware of it. He's so focused on the distance to the destination that he cannot see how successfully he's navigating. Teachers have an opportunity to change the narrative for learners like Jafaar.
I love sharing with students the metaphor of the brain as a car and the student as the driver. Teachers can use this metaphor to help students appreciate all the decisions and actions they take as writers and to raise their metacognitive awareness. For that car to go anywhere, the driver needs to make lots of decisions, many of which aren't even conscious. Compare adjusting the seat and mirrors to how people prepare themselves and their tools to start writing. Just as the driver decides when to turn, slow down, or stop, writers make important decisions about word choice, structure, and when to shift to a new point.
Students are empowered when they understand they are the ones driving their brains and their learning. We can then make the analogy between the long distances one often has to drive a car and the stamina required to complete a longer writing journey.
Educators might want to become familiar with the work of neuropsychologists who are making the study of the brain's structure and function more accessible and applicable to our pedagogy. We don't need to know the details of this research, but it's important to become aware of its implications and share them with students.

For the Learning: Show a Tangible History

There's a lot of buzz these days about the concept of grit and mindset. Duckworth (2016) describes grit as "the combination of passion and perseverance." But we can't just ask our students to muster grit—it needs to be cultivated. Duckworth leans on Carol Dweck's (2006) work on a fixed mindset (a belief that intelligence or ability is predetermined) versus a growth mindset (a belief that abilities are developed through hard work). Dweck contends, "The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even … when it's not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset."
Herein lies the Catch 22. Many struggling readers lose their "stick-to-it-ness" during challenging times because they haven't experienced the success that lies at the end of the hard work. They experience the hard part, but don't see the growth part. We have to make that growth visible to our struggling readers, help them refine their definitions of success so they don't merely compare themselves to others, but see the trajectory of their own learning. I've found two effective approaches for accomplishing this: delivering the right feedback and providing evidence.

A Tale of Two Feedback Efforts

Words matter. If we choose them mindfully, the words we use to give learners feedback can empower them to persist.
Amani's teacher knows word problems in math have been difficult for her, so she checks in frequently to encourage her. Each time she stops by, she offers some support: "You're doing great. Keep it up." Yet Amani finishes only about a third of the assigned problems by the end of class.
Zharra is also struggling with word problems, unsure whether she should add or subtract. Her teacher, Ms. Phelps, offers this support: "I see you know how to pull the numbers out of the word problem to make your equation. That helps you to start. So now, which signal words do you see [on the anchor chart] that were used in the problem?"
Zharra reads the problem again and says, "In all." Ms. Phelps responds, "Signal words signal us to choose an operation. What operation will you choose?" When Zharra answers "Addition," rather than confirming, the teacher asks, "How do you know?" Zharra replies, "All means everything, so I put all the numbers together."
Praising Amani's effort might make her feel good in the short term, but won't sustain her persistence as she becomes more confused. In contrast, Zharra received more actionable information to help her problem solve—not only on this problem, but on all the others.
Conferring with students about their process after a lesson can also foster the growth mindset they'll need to develop grit. Inviting them to reflect on what was difficult and how they faced it and reminding them that struggling was part of their new learning can help students tap into those reserves the next time they feel themselves losing stamina. Questions like these help focus on the learning process or strategic thinking:
  • What was the most challenging part of that lesson?
  • What did you do to face that challenge?
  • How did you feel at first? How do you feel now?
  • Did any previous challenges help you with this one?
  • What can you take away from this challenge to help you next time?

A Trail of Evidence

Some kids hear us talking about their growth, but they can't visualize it. Hearing it is one thing, seeing it is another. Teachers proclaim how important the process is, but displaying finished pieces of student work, or grading an assignment emphasizes product. This can give struggling students mixed messages about what we value. Instead, to emphasize the process, we should also try to publically share evidence of students' progress and celebrate effort. For example:
  • Use "look-fors." When responding to student writing, I often suggest that students use "look-fors"—notes that direct the reader's attention to intentional moves a student has made in their writing ("I would like you to notice that I used sensory words to describe my setting and dialogue to develop my character"). Such notes help make the invisible process that went into creating the writing more visible to everyone, including the writer herself. Rather than comparing one student's writing to another's, the audience—including the student—can appreciate the learning that the writer accomplished to create the piece.
  • Showcase process. I recommend posting drafts, mark-ups, edits, and revisions alongside the finished piece of work to spotlight using the writing process. This celebrates the ‘messiness' of writing that often discourages our underachieving students, many of whom believe that good writers don't need to revise, but just know what they want a piece to say.
  • Make it count. One of the simplest ways to show growth is to measure and track volume. If we're working on writing stamina, I might ask students to count up the number of words written in a set number of minutes and track their progress over time. Tracking some measure can help build fluency for reading sight words, automaticity for math facts, or other skills in which students' fluency impacts their stamina.
  • Reflect with portfolios. Student portfolios can create a tangible learning history for students if students revisit and reflect on the portfolio with a growth mindset goal. For example, students can showcase pieces of work on a bulletin board labeled "I Used to ___, Now I ___." They can spotlight areas of growth in their thinking and learning, backed up by tangible evidence.

Preventing the Paradox

I recommend trying these methods with all student readers and writers to encourage stamina and a growth mindset. It's crucial, however, to be even more purposeful when we see students caught in a negative feedback loop that inhibits their stamina and ensnares them in the Catch-22 of a fixed mindset.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89–100.

End Notes

1 To further explore the connection between education and neuroscience, visit Edutopia's collection of articles, videos, and other links.

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