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