About a month ago, I participated in a running relay race with 11 of my wonderful colleagues as part of team Jedi Mindtrix. We ran from Huntington Beach to San Diego, a distance of about 195 miles. We were divided into two teams, which meant spending a lot of time in a van with 5 other people, either driving to pick up a runner or racing to drop off another in time. We ran steep hills, we ran in the middle of the night, we ran in the morning, we ran when we were exhausted, we ran when we were exhilarated.
And I did it, which is amazing, considering: I haven’t run since high school, I’m pretty introverted, I really, really like sleep, and challenging myself physically is really not my thing, unless I’m challenging myself to an all day sedentary reading marathon.
Over the last month, I’ve been thinking about what made me successful, especially as I try to keep running, even after the race. And, of course, that makes me think about what makes kids successful at something they often find equally challenging, namely, reading difficult texts. So here, are 4 things that help helped me achieve something difficult- and how those same things help students.
- Building my background knowledge was essential: I knew some things about running, but not a lot. My teammates helped me think about my form, taught me how amazing foam rollers are, and helped me with my training plan. Yoga teachers and physical therapists helped me with my posture. All of this additional knowledge helped me be successful. Students need similar support with background knowledge when they’re reading- one of the best ways we can guarantee they can read challenging texts is to ensure they have a varied vocabulary and a wide knowledge base (see, for example, Allington and Cunningham’s Schools That Work). Every time we expose them to new ideas and new knowledge, we help them be better readers. Just like I needed knowledge in order to achieve this difficult task, so do students.
- Taking on the identity of a runner helped me believe I could do it. Suddenly I was one of those running people. I wasn’t used to seeing myself in this way, but I quickly appropriated this new identity, talking about running shoes and running in the cold with folks I met on the trail. We need to help students see themselves as readers too (see Schoenbach et al’s Reading for Understanding and WestEd’s Reading Apprenticeship program for lots more on this). This can mean validating all the reading they already do, from graphic novels to video game blogs to text messages (yes, text messages totally count- kids are still making meaning from symbolic language). Helping them find books they like, giving kids lots of choice in what they read, and encouraging them to share and talk about a book they found themselves enjoying can all help with this. Helping kids see the many large and small ways reading matters in a wide variety of careers and industries might help too. And having kids read or promote books to younger readers is also psychologically powerful in building a reading identity.
- I could see my progress over time: At the beginning of my training, I could barely run a mile. A few weeks later, I could run two. Then, I was running 7 or 8, and, while I was still really slow, I could see my times getting a little faster each week. It can be harder to help students see their growth when it comes to reading challenging texts. If students struggle with fluency, having kids read (aloud or silently) and track their words per minute over time can help them see their own improvement. Lexile assessments, though not perfect, can serve the same purpose. Lots of meaningful reflection helps too- students often don’t realize they just learned something or just grew. Ask things like, “What do you understand now that you’ve read this a second time that you didn’t understand before? How is your reading stamina, compared to when we first started reading challenging texts? What did you do when you became confused- and what do you understand now as a result?” Such self-reflection promotes a growth mindset and student agency, too!
- Having a team really helped. Seriously. There was nothing like knowing that 11 other people were dependent on me finishing my leg, or knowing that a team member had already done a run early that morning, to get me out of bed and lacing up my shoes. This is why I love book clubs in classrooms so much. (Note that book clubs can also be article clubs or textbook clubs.) When students read something together, the resulting peer support and the encouragement is very powerful. I always smiled to myself when I heard one member of a book club saying something like, “Wait, don’t tell me what happens next,” and another student would reply, “You’re supposed to be on Chapter 11. Hurry up and read already so we can talk about it!” Reading club members can also help each other understand the text, scaffolding for each other.
We can achieve challenging goals in our own lives, with the right knowledge and support. And students can achieve similarly challenging academic goals, with the same kinds of knowledge and support.
What do you do to help kids reach the goal of reading challenging texts?