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Building Reading Confidence, by Maryann Manning

What can you do to build and protect your students' confidence in their reading abilities?

K-8 students have been saying to me, "I don't read fast enough," "I'm not reading books at a high enough level" and "The stopwatch goes off before I finish reading." All of these comments tell me these students aren't feeling confident about themselves as readers.

Under the gun
Recently, I was assessing the reading of a six-year-old boy who began to cry. He blurted out, "I hate reading. I can't do it and the other kids laugh at me because I say words slow. I'm stupid!" When I told the boy and his parents that he was normal in his literacy development for his age, that wasn't enough to erase months of receiving verbal and nonverbal messages because he wasn't benchmarking on mandated tests. The boy was phonemically aware because he could divide multisyllabic words into the smallest phonemes; he knew a lot about phonics because he could write words in invented spelling that could be read, and he knew many sight words.

I'm sure he was slow responding during the timed tests and that he didn't know how to sound out nonsense words because he was looking for real words. In addition to his total lack of confidence and his rightful distaste of reading, he skipped over every word or phrase he didn't know and went on to a word he knew. When I asked him why he just skipped words and didn't attempt a guess, he said, "Because the teacher says that I can get more words right on the test if I skip the words that I don't know." When the family left my office, I was sad for the child, the parents and the teacher who was under the gun to have her students benchmark.

Feeling confident
The importance of confidence as a necessary psychological condition in the reading process began haunting me. I can't remember ever not feeling confident in my ability to read. My grandmother had been a teacher and I was the first grandchild who lived nearby, so she and my mother spent a lot of time reading to me. I distinctly remember filling a cigar box with words I recognized and cut out of the newspaper.

I also don't remember ever being ridiculed by anyone about my reading ability. Thankfully, throughout my schooling I was never told my reading level or how many words a minute I could read. I never saw a stopwatch used by a classroom teacher. Yes, I'm lucky because I went to school before high stakes testing, so a fear of testing eluded me during elementary school. Back then, I couldn't have identified with parents and teachers telling me about children who have begun stuttering or twitching and those who vomit before and during school when testing is happening.

All the commercials on television about building and protecting one's financial nest egg has reminded me of our responsibility to build and protect the confidence of our students. I like to think of confidence as a balloon that either becomes bigger and bigger or loses air.

What Can We Do?


I asked classroom teacher friends if they shared my concern. Everyone I asked agreed that there was a problem and many of the mandated practices caused the students who were not precocious to lose confidence. One special education teacher said, "My students have no confidence, they feel dumb, out-of-place and like nonreaders even if they can read."

What can we do to build confidence in reading? My answer is probably similar to yours – any positive experience that allows our students to feel successful while reading builds confidence. It isn't about the awarding of points, winning prizes and smiley face stickers. It's about having feelings of accomplishment that are intrinsic because students know when they are successful. Instead of stickers students need more opportunities to read.

  • We create accepting classroom environments
    Our classroom environment is an important aspect in building confidence because we celebrate reading and writing throughout the year. We want to create an atmosphere where all our students believe they are readers and writers and view reading as fun. We want our students to be comfortable in taking risks and making mistakes without fear of being ridiculed.

  • We use authentic assessments
    There are excellent reading assessments that value what students can do, not what they can't do. Phonemic awareness can be assessed by asking a student to segment words and phonics knowledge can be evaluated by studying a child's invented spelling.

  • We choose interesting, appropriate texts
    The texts we choose (or even better, for independent readers, the text they choose) should be interesting. The word "easy" should be applied to some of the materials students read either because they've read them before or because they aren't difficult. Emergent readers should have lots of predictable text where they can feel powerful. Finally, when we choose texts we always consider if students have the prior knowledge to comprehend the text.

  • We use supportive reading strategies
    The list of strategies that supports readers is long. Included in the list are both shared and guided reading, individual conferences, rereading text, independent reading and readers' theater. We can also make parents aware that we want to boost their child's reading confidence.

Reading confidence is a lot like a balloon. As teachers, we work to build and protect each student's reading-confidence balloon. In the primary grades many of our students have an almost empty balloon that we must inflate. Students in the intermediate grades and middle school students come to us with confidence balloons of many different sizes. Each time someone or something makes a student feel unsuccessful as a reader, the balloon loses air. As teachers, we want to minimize the practices that deflate the confidence balloon and use strategies that help our students' balloons to become bigger and bigger.

Maryann Manning is on the faculty of the School of Education, the University of Alabama at Birmingham.