The life of a struggling reader is not easy. I learned this in a fresh way when I taught small groups of primary-aged rookie readers who were baffled by print. Each day we gathered around the table in my tiny office and attempted to dive into that day’s lesson.
Even in this small setting, the students’ dread of reading was palpable. Each of them wondered, “What if I’m the only one who can’t read well?” Students who hid their shortcomings in a group of 28 peers had no way to cover them up in a group of five. But that didn’t keep them from trying: from the more basic method of insisting they needed to use the bathroom (“It’s an emergency!”) to the more elaborate approach of feigning blindness while squinting and feeling for the furniture, they gave every excuse possible for not trying to read.
Once I had convinced these students they could wait a few minutes to use the restroom, and that they could see well enough to read the large print, I could observe their clumsy reading strategies. There were the “expanders” who sounded out words until they were incomprehensible, and the “skippers” who hopped over every word they didn’t know. There were the “robots” who read without expression, the “gazers” who stared at a word and looked up wide-eyed waiting for me to supply it, and the “impulse readers” who guessed every word based on its initial sound. I could easily list at least twelve more such hit and miss strategies, but you get the idea.
While they possessed many strong skills, their illiteracy masked their identity, and they weren’t receiving many accolades for work done well in the classroom. They rarely completed tasks because they could not work independently. They were lost during lessons because they could not keep pace with their peers. They distracted other students because it helped pass the time. They rarely, if ever, heard edifying words even though they had much to offer.
Witnessing these groups of struggling readers plodding through print outside the larger classroom, I saw their plight in a new light. I watched as they agonized over pronunciations, tried to remember which letter made which sound, and slogged their way through the shortest of sentences. When I realized how they must feel , I asked myself, “What if I’m the only one?” Not the one who can’t read, but the only one who says something positive to them each day. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized I might be the only one who looked these kids in the eyes and said something complimentary about what they contributed to their learning, to their classroom, and to the world.
I decided that every day I would lock eyes with them and say something to encourage each one, being sure to say their name and their claim to fame. Even if it did not have anything to do with reading, I needed to proclaim what was good: “Juan, you are really improving!” “Melissa, your creativity is inspiring!” “Tyrone, you are so respectful.” It helped all of us. I was always on the lookout for their strengths, and they were happy for the positive attention.
The beauty of this “strategy” is that it works with people of all ages. In fact, the older the student, the less often they hear, and the more often they need to hear, hopeful words.
If we all try it, no one will be left wondering if they are the only one.
Action Step: Who in your life needs to hear more positive words? What could you say to lift them up? How might it help change them, and you, for the better?