Saturday / June 22

Three Questions You Should Be Asking Readers to Build Teacher Credibility

Teaching Reading

I recently sat down with a reader to discuss the “clarifying” reading strategy with a student. We’d just started learning about the strategy and variations thereof in mini-lessons and shared reading. I noticed she was not fond of identifying new, unfamiliar, or interesting words in her reading, so I asked her for a reading conference to learn more.

Simultaneously, I noticed she had a difficult time accepting “chapter books” into her life, finding solace in graphic novels. Or at least so she led on, until I noticed something in her reading behavior. For one, as much as she loved graphic novels, she wasn’t reading many. Secondly, she wasn’t choosing to read. Ride on, for example, a book that “interested” her, was left on the small-group table, for several nights in a row. Something was up.

During our conference I asked her why she was avoiding new vocabulary. She stated, with a bit of a whimper, “I don’t know those words. They’re too hard.”

I followed, “Is that why you read graphic novels?”

She replied, “Yes! When I read graphic novels, I can skip over those words. The pictures tell me what’s going on, so I don’t have to pay attention to the word.”

I believe it took a lot for this young reader to acknowledge something so profound, something that others could consider shameful. I was impressed with her willingness to be open and vulnerable. Not bad for a nine-year old.

After her admission, I asked her straightforwardly, “Do you believe you can learn from me?”

She paused for a moment. Then she concluded, “I don’t know.”

Perhaps that should have been a shot through my heart. But it wasn’t. For one, she’s nine. Thank heavens for the honesty of children. Second, it was revealing, which led me to think, “What reason does she have to believe I could teach her?”

Here is a student who lost a third of first grade to “remote learning,” second grade to half time in-person/half time remote, third grade to a year of adjustment back, meaning she didn’t have much reason to believe anyone would teach her.

Teacher credibility is more than a student liking a teacher. This student enjoyed being in my classroom.

But could she learn from me?

Within the first few weeks of school, I ask students to think about the following three questions:

  • Do you believe you can learn?
  • Do you believe you can be successful?
  • Do you believe you can learn from me?

Whether we consider the effect size of teacher efficacy or annual state testing results, the bottom line is, if students don’t buy into our practice or the belief that they can be successful in our classroom, what else matters?

The first question asks if students believe they can learn. This ties into self-perception. What’s the student’s history? What experiences do they have that suggests whether they can learn?

The second question asks more. Can a student be successful? What does success mean without clear boundaries or expectations for success? As a fourth grader once asked me, “I’ve already read Harry Potter, what’s left for me to read?” We need to show them and tell them what success looks like.

Finally, can they learn from me? Its one thing to like me and enjoy the class, as mentioned above, but there is a stark difference between wanting to be in my class because I’m fun and wanting to be in my class because you have an opportunity to outgrow yourself if you so desire.  Unfortunately, many students believe in the former, which makes for a very awkward, if not shame-inducing start to the school year.

Shame inducing you might ask? Well, it’s simple. If students want to be in my classroom for fun, but not for learning, they are at risk of exposing their perceived inadequacies in their reading abilities and they may fear that this will change my perception of them.

And this is the crossroads the student above is at. She loves being in my class but may or may not have been expecting me to notice her reading habits. Moreover, she wasn’t likely expecting that I would ask about her reading experience, which creates vulnerability. Thus, the question, “Do you think you can learn from me?”

Though her “I don’t know” was a likely response, it’s a starting point. It’s more on me now to give her mirrors that reveal to her that she is learning and that she can learn in my class.

Together, we must move beyond I’m teaching/you need to learn. Instead, I must give her opportunities to see that she is benefiting from instruction through active engagement, which in turn is changing the way she views herself as a learner.

Teacher credibility is more than a teacher’s reputation. It’s a child’s belief that what we do makes them more competent and confident.

Justin is the author of the book, I Hate Reading. He is presenting a free webinar Addressing Shame in the Reading Classroom on Monday, Jan. 30

Written by

Justin Stygles has served readers as an intermediate and middle grades teacher for nineteen years. For many years he taught grades 4-6 in rural and coastal Maine schools. His other experiences include working in summer literacy programs in rural, suburban, and private schools. He currently teaches fourth grade in Portland, Maine. Justin is from a military background and graduated with an associate degree in harness racing before becoming an educator. He’s served on committees with the International Literacy Association and National Council of Teachers of English. Previous publications include articles Literacy Today, Voices from the Middle, and Hoof Beats. I Hate Reading is his first professional book.

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