An image that has stuck with me this week has been that of a conversation with my eleven year old sister right after first semester report cards were released. She came home with all her papers, and was so excited to show me how well she had done the previous semester. We poured over her report card as I praised her efforts and she explained to me what some of the letters meant (S=Satisfactory E=Excellent etc..). I teased her about the C she was currently pulling in band, “That’s only because I don’t practice,” she informed me. She promised me she’d be better this semester. Honestly, I wasn’t too concerned. I’m more impressed that she can get sound to come out of a flute (a feat that I never could accomplish. Yay, brass instruments).
Included in her packet of papers was also the results of her MAP testing and Dibbles test. I hardly payed any attention to her MAP scores. I remember that the were fairly high and that I congratulated her on them, but beyond that I was unconcerned by them. The part that struck me was when I picked up her Dibbles results. She told me not to look at them. I was confused. This girl has been a voracious reader most of her life. During the summer I we make biweekly trips to the library to satisfy her reading needs. Sometimes we even have to make an extra trip just so that she can have something to read over the weekend when the library closes.
I asked her why she didn’t want me to look at it. “I’m a bad reader.” How had this idea gotten into her head? As I began to look over the results I realized where her insecurity had come from. Her comprehension and understanding scores were well above or at where she “should be” in her grade level. While her scores for fluency and speed sat very well below.
The probably here was not that she was a bad reader, but that she could not read the words per minute that she was expected to read. Ever since she started reading this has been an issue for her. She often stumbles over words and has to focus on them longer to understand them. When she reads aloud her brain sometimes gets ahead and she struggles to pronounce the words correctly. As a young reader I had the same problem. I’ve always hated reading out loud because my mouth can’t keep up with my brain.
The problem is that this doesn’t make her a bad reader. In fact, I don’t believe that anyone can be a bad reader. Yes, one may struggle with words or be a slower reader than others, but with practice that improves. If you are continually told you are bad at something it damages your self-confidence and your love for doing it. My other sister is a sophomore this year, and it takes her a long time to read a book. She spent most of the summer focusing on the second book in the Red Queen series. Yet, these books are the first books that she has actually strove to finish for several years.
I wonder if the pressure that we put on young readers does not ruin their love for reading. My brother, a junior last year, finished the first book he’s read in a long time for a class. I remember when he was in grade school he could read several books, as long as they were books that he enjoyed and could understand. These are just the things that I see in my own siblings, I can relate several stories about classmates and peers who somewhere along the way developed this idea that they were bad at reading.
Why do we do this to our students? Why do we set a timer and make them read words on a page as fast as they can? What does it tell us? That they are slow readers? That they need more practice? That should be what it tells us. Not them. It should tell us that we need to encourage these readers more. We need to help them practice their reading skills on the books that they enjoy. We need to help them find books they can enjoy. I would hate to see my little sister’s love for reading crushed because she struggles a little bit. I would rather work with her to help improve her out loud reading skills.
I love volleyball, but I wasn’t very good at it when I started. It took me several years of practice to develop the ‘floater’ that earned me a spot as a serving specialist on my varsity team. Reading is the same way. Students need practice. They need books that they can practice with. They need the opportunity to improve. There will always be athletes that aren’t the best at their sport, and there will always be athletes that blow everyone away. Whatever side of the spectrum they are on they are always practicing, and those that aren’t so good get better. Those that blow everyone away will continue to hone their skills.
Why isn’t it the same way for our young readers? Every reader improves differently, and not every reader will be on the same level as every other reader. You can’t run a marathon if you have not prepared for it, in the same way you can’t read a book that adults struggle with without preparing for it.
Please stop letting test scores, the assigned books, and your own opinions tell students that they are sucky readers. No student is defined by just that. No student is a number or an added quantity of what they cannot do well. Each student that walks into your classroom is doing so to improve. Do not belittle them for doing that. Nothing makes students hate school or reading more than being told that they are stupid and bad at it. They want to know they can get better because without that why should they even keep trying?
I once saw a TED talk that discussed that there is no such thing as being tone deaf. We can all hear tones. My argument is that there is also no such thing as a bad reader. As long as one can read they cannot be bad at it. They can only improve that ability.