When I was in fourth grade, my class had to memorize our math facts to automaticity and quote each family of facts to the teacher within a given time frame (60 seconds per fact family, if I remember correctly). Everyone who quoted all their fact families through 12s by Thanksgiving was rewarded with a Winnie the Pooh party after lunch one day. All the A.A. Milne characters were going to be at the party and the class was going to eat popcorn and a Winnie the Pooh-decorated cake and watch a Pooh movie. This was a really big deal when I was in 4th grade! Now, math has never been my strong suit – I’m a linguistic learner. Sadly, I was the only student in all of fourth grade who couldn’t quote all the fact families in the 60-second-per-family-time-frame . . . and so I sat in the hall with a student teacher, practicing my facts, while my peers enjoyed their hot popcorn and cool Pooh party. At the time, I was devastated. Not because I missed out on the movie and cake, but because I truly couldn’t remember that tricky 8x7 and I felt like a failure. My teacher was disappointed in me and my parents were none too happy, either, judging this failure to memorize my math facts as laziness or a lack of character. How glad I am that teaching methods have evolved since I was a fourth grader (many, many moons ago!) and today we look for ways to help students truly understand math concepts rather than just memorize them by rote. Unfortunately, that change in thinking about how we teach math doesn’t always transfer to how we teach reading.
In many (dare I say most?) classes, when readers are unsure of a word, they pause. Then one of three things usually happens: Either another student calls out the word and the reader repeats it and goes on, the teacher calls out the word and the reader repeats it, or the teacher says, “Sound it out” . . . but our students are so afraid of failure that most of the time they will remain silent until someone calls the word out (or they don’t understand what “sound it out” means . . . or sounding it out doesn’t make sense because challenging words are often not phonics-based words). This is a huge disservice to readers because they don’t learn the skills necessary to figure out words they don’t know. So, I’m here to say: when readers struggle, don’t give them the word – and teach your students not to call the word out, either!
The first few times this happens in my class, students do blurt the word out because this is what they are conditioned to do anytime there’s an awkward pause in reading. I stop everything and we have a teachable moment: thank you for wanting to be a good friend, but giving classmates the word robs them of an opportunity to learn how to figure it out. We all get stuck sometimes in our reading – and we all deserve the chance to learn how to figure out the words we’re stuck on. So, let’s not rob one another of those learning opportunities. After the third or fourth such discussion, it’s rare for students to blurt words out when classmates are stuck. Here’s the kicker . . . I don’t give students the word, either! Instead, I prompt them with thinking-cues, such as:
Struggling readers often freeze and wait for someone to blurt out challenging words, but allowing students to form such habits (either waiting or blurting!) doesn’t give them the necessary tools to repair their own reading and improve their own skills. It’s much more effective to create an atmosphere in which all students know that it’s okay not to know challenging words . . . but it’s not okay not to try to figure them out before getting help!
Students who don’t develop effective reading strategies slide along a downward spiral – they do less and less reading until they stop trying altogether. Students need to hear, “It’s okay to struggle with challenging words. Some words stump me, too! Let’s figure out how to figure tricky words out!”
On a separate (but somewhat related) note, let’s make it okay to struggle . . . even okay to fail in our struggles . . . because we learn perseverance in the struggle. We also learn how to do things differently and better. What? Sounding the word out didn’t work? That’s okay – that means we try a different strategy!
Here are a few great quotes to hang in the classroom to remind us – and our students – that it’s okay to struggle and fail and learn from what didn’t work and keep trying a new strategy until something does work! The key for students is to keep trying . . . and the key for teachers is to keep giving students a toolbox of strategies to keep trying!