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March 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 6

Inspiring a Nonreader

Two teachers work together to unlock the challenges that one struggling reader faces.

Jonah came to us in 5th grade refusing to read, write, or do much of anything. A major challenge in class, he sported an odd indentation on his forehead from regularly banging his head against his desk. He had been assigned to participate in a half-day behavior program; the other half of the day he spent with us.
Jonah's reading challenges seemed to stem from his writing difficulties and his reluctance to communicate what he understood. He had difficulty putting words on the page; when he did, letters were often missing or backwards. Moreover, he had anger issues and would explode and get into scuffles, kicking kids who bothered him. The head banging was just one way he dealt with his anger and frustration.
We first learned that Jonah was in our class during the spring ritual in which grade-level bands of teachers lovingly hand off their students to their colleagues and welcome new ones for the next year. The ritual always brought twin emotions of excitement and fear: Will we be good enough? Will the students trust us? Will they defy the odds and pass the standardized tests?
Our fears were well founded. These 5th graders were some of the toughest in the city. Approximately 90 percent of the 600 students in our elementary school in Washington State qualified for free and reduced-price lunch. Every year, our class included at least a handful of Jonahs, and most students did not arrive shiny, well fed, or ready for learning. They did, however, come through our doors excited, hopeful, and, in almost every case, bright. The armor that masks the potential of so many children—an armor brought on by a myriad of challenges—is a barrier that many teachers face every day in every state. Will we be good enough, indeed.

Collaborating to Understand

The first decision my teaching partner Kate and I made was to not preview the huge cumulative file that had followed Jonah over the years. We knew by the mere fact of his half-day status that the challenges were significant, and we wanted to give Jonah a fresh start. We believed that we could defy the odds suggested by his past performance.
Kate and I worked as a team, sharing 56 students in one large classroom. Although we were in no way superwomen, we had something that many teachers don't have: a true learning partner. Our power came through a collaborative practice driven by a desire to understand how learning unfolded for each and every child; through this understanding, we became open to the possibilities for their learning and our teaching. Our experience with Jonah illustrates how teachers can help one another unlock the challenges that struggling learners face.

Two Crucial Questions

Coming to understand the challenges of struggling readers begins with asking two guiding questions.

What are your beliefs about learning to read?

This is not an easy question to answer. An overwhelming amount of information is available on reading, much of it contradictory. Many prescribed curriculums prevent teachers from thinking about what they're asking students to do and why they're asking them to do it. An abundance of "teacher-proof" materials fuels the temptation to simply follow the curriculum; keep the pace; and test, test, test. The result? Teachers often feel helpless and hopeless when the promised results aren't realized, and students become further alienated from reading as a lifelong pleasure.
Drawing on our own experiences as readers, we decided that Jonah—and all struggling readers—needed to (1) read a lot about things that mattered to them and (2) learn how to navigate difficult text of all types. These two principles shaped us as teachers of reading as we made the dozens of crucial decisions about learning in our classroom.
When teachers get it right, we figure out what our students need to excel. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls this flow, when the students are so immersed in their learning that nothing else seems to matter. Teachers know when students are "in the zone." Kate and I would often stop and admire the students as they got lost in their books. Sometimes we'd take out our cameras to keep the images alive—of students reading under desks, in corners, sitting back to back. When you say, "OK, we mean it, we really need to stop reading and go to gym!" and students groan and ask for "one more minute," you know you've got it right. And yes, this was true, even for Jonah.

Are you solving the right problem?

When I ask teachers about their biggest challenge with struggling readers, they often reply, "My students won't read. They can't read. It's just easier to tell them what the book says!" Many experts on the reading process call this approach of summarizing the content for students "teaching around the text" (Keene & Zimmermann, 2007; Tovani, 2004). In these moments, feelings of failure can seep in. Reading, a subject about which teachers once felt so passionate, takes a backseat to a deep regret that their students don't care. Thoughtful teachers know they can't really make students do anything. Moreover, we have found that demanding compliance is especially ineffective with struggling learners.
That's why previous efforts failed for Jonah. The adults were solving the wrong problem. Multilayered plans for Jonah included a pull-out model for extra reading and tutoring, a typical intervention response. We discovered that Jonah was an intelligent and competent reader who was also depressed because of a chaotic home environment. A typical evening for Jonah involved locking himself in his bedroom to keep himself safe. He didn't see a need for reading, and he certainly didn't have a need to please the adults around him. In fact, the intense focus of well-meaning adults in school made the problem much worse. Jonah was hurting; as adults zeroed in with many demands, Jonah pushed back.

Honoring Students' Needs

When we think about engaging students, two ideas work together: We must know students well enough to tailor instruction, and more importantly, we must know students well enough so they give us the moral authority to challenge them (Lambert & Lowry, 2004).
Recognizing that students must give you moral authority before they'll respond to higher expectations is a game changer for teachers. Demanding improvement in reading through such extrinsic means as grades, rewards, or consequences—a strategy most reading programs employ—simply doesn't work over a long period of time (except for compliant students who would read anyway).
Students like Jonah make us search for the real cause of the behavior or learning challenge and create the conditions necessary for each student to be a lifelong learner. Recall the two principles we developed for Jonah: reading text that mattered to him and learning to navigate difficult types of text. Here's how these played out for him.

Principle 1: Students need to read a lot about things that matter to them.

If our students needed to read a lot of books of their choosing, then we needed to build in large blocks of time when students could do just that. We planned 90 minutes a day for literacy, but we also read all of the time, everywhere.
However, increasing time was not sufficient. Remember how Jonah's teachers had already tried increasing reading time with little success? The foundations of relationships and trust needed to guide any strategy—for Jonah and for all struggling readers. For example, instead of demanding that Jonah read more by offering him rewards, holding contests, or having him read a certain number of minutes each day, we used our relationship with him and what we learned about him to invite him into the world of reading. Here's what this looked like:
  • After spending hours thumbing through books, we chose the first read-aloud specifically for Jonah—Rodman Philbrick's, Freak the Mighty. We chose this book for two reasons: We thought Jonah could connect to the character, Kevin, who was physically crippled but very intelligent, and we counted on Rodman's skill of capturing a boy's heart.
  • During literacy workshop, we combined informal cooperative learning strategies, such as "turn and talk," with Calkins's (1994) read-aloud technique "Say Something." We'd stop in a provocative spot in the text, allow the students to turn and talk with a partner, and then let students offer up their partner's ideas to the class. We have found this to be one of the best ways to honor student voice: to have a partner share a friend's idea and watch that thought change the direction of the class discussion. This happened regularly for Jonah in those early days. We didn't have to tell Jonah he was smart; he witnessed the influence of his comments on the intense dialogue regularly unfolding in class.
  • Humor was always integral to our classroom's reading life, but we knew we needed to ramp it up. Jonah, like many struggling learners, brought with him anxiety, fear, and a deep lack of efficacy. Humor helped lower barriers to reading and invited Jonah to see himself differently as a learner. Kate and I incorporated humor by laughing at ourselves and inviting the kids to do the same. We read funny books and laughed until we cried. We created inside literacy jokes that only our kids understood. Jonah responded wonderfully to this lighthearted atmosphere that became not just a haven, but also a vision of a different kind of existence and of the different role that adults could play in his life.

Principle 2: Students need to learn how to navigate difficult text.

We have always stood on the shoulders of great literacy educators such as and Zimmerman (2007); Tovani (2004); and Routman (2003), and we have found that teaching comprehension strategies within a workshop format works well for all learners. The workshop model builds a strong and respectful community of learners that is essential for challenging reading work to occur.
So, how did the workshop approach work for Jonah? It was crucial to acquire the moral authority from Jonah to challenge him, and this wasn't easy. Some strategies—such as read alouds, letting students choose the books they wanted to read, and one-on-one conversations with students—were more successful than others.
Our first glimmer of hope was seeing five boys—Jonah in the middle—with their noses tucked into Gary Paulsen's Hatchet. After one of our read-alouds, the boys had chosen to read Hatchet together on their own. They read quietly, arguing points in the book, and predicting what really happened. Midyear, when we couldn't locate Jonah one day, we found him curled up in a closet reading Paulsen's The Winter Room. My eye caught Jonah's, and I winked. For him, reading became an escape—and we respected his need to escape, letting him read anytime, anywhere.
That year, Jonah read every Paulsen book published. After months of reading, writing, and laughter, Jonah began sharing the darker sides of his life in conversations and through his writing. It was only then, when we had earned that level of trust, that we asked him to do so much more.
For example, at first we asked him to write just one sentence in his journal. In time, we asked all the students, including Jonah, to write a page, and then two. Students commented on the books they were reading or wrote stories of their own. At times, we'd get resistance, but students knew we really wanted to read what they had to say so they typically did the writing we asked of them. It was crucial for us to read their work daily and write back to them because we expected them to answer us—it was an ongoing conversation on paper—and to continue to grow their skill.
We honored Jonah's needs and, in turn, he made us better teachers. The lessons we learned through Jonah have become foundational to our practice and have gone on to benefit thousands of struggling learners.
On their behalf, and on ours, we say, "Thank you, Jonah."

Calkins, L. (1994). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Keene, E., & Zimmermann, S. (2007). Mosaic of thought: The power of comprehension strategy instruction (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lambert, M., & Lowry, L. (2004). Knowing and being known: Personalization as a foundation for student learning. Seattle, WA: Small Schools Project.

Routman, R. (2003). Reading essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading? Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

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