Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Brilliance of Struggling Readers (Things Students Need to Know)

Unfortunately reading rarely makes people feel smart. We either take it for granted or we struggle. This means that a helper trying to use a strengths-based approach with a struggling reader has an especially challenging task if they want the student to enjoy what the student already does well even before there has been any “improvement."

Many students learn the alphabet, some sound-symbol correspondence, some sight-words... and then BOOOOM, they are off into the World of Text, enchanted by how much of the world all around them is suddenly filled with more and richer meaning than it ever had before. Each new hurdle--blends, vowel pairs, silent-e’s, irregular spellings--seems less daunting as the momentum builds and the sheer joy of this flood of information coalesces and empowers elementary schoolers to follow the path of their own curiosity like never before.

If kindergarten, first grade, and second grade readers are little reading-birdies lined up on a high branch, the problem becomes this: no matter how much grown-ups may encourage “working at your own pace”--rarely is any birdie pushed off that branch--the sheer spectacle of seeing fuzzy-feathered peers leap off into space with raptor-like grace, or swoop and twirl with barnswallow-like acrobatics, has a tremendous pull. And the kids who flutter-stumble off the branch to meander awkwardly like Woodstock can completely miss the miracle that they are FLYING, at all.

When a student sits down with me to work on reading, I generally notice things they are doing well, immediately. But even when I name those things for the student, out of context these things are so alien to the student’s way of thinking about themself as a reader that they carry no weight. It’s gibberish. Students generally judge reading skill by their smoothness and expressiveness when reading aloud, first, and their comprehension at the concrete level, second. Do these two things well, and you are an OK reader. Any other criteria are arcane and irrelevant. And in the context of a student who desperately needs help--who has barely allowed themself to consider the possibility that sitting down with a tutor might provide some real help, as in relief from suffering--the clock is ticking. I cannot spout arcane gibberish for long without being tuned out as more useless adult noise.

So I tell them a story about the reading brain.

Of course, there are a lot of processes going on when we read or do anything else, and they’re all connected--I could talk about respiration and neurotransmitters and white blood cells, and these would be germane, though it would be a weirdly comprehensive framework, and not very efficient.

That’s why we focus on three processes your brain uses to try and make sense of text. I draw three circles whose center points would make a triangle if we connected them. And I suggest that it’s like you have three different kinds of experts, who are each totally into their own point of view, and who argue with each other about the meaning of what they see. When they agree quickly, things are super easy and smooth, but sometimes one of them is just confused, so the others have to swoop in to the rescue. And sometimes they actually disagree. This is when a different part of your brain has to step in and be a peacemaker, making sure everyone has their say, and we reach some kind of a handshake agreement. Nothing good comes from just fighting. That’s super stressful.

The first expert is the phonetic decoder. That’s the one who sees the letters, knows the sounds they can make, and puts those together for you. This is the one who sees C A T and goes kuh aah tuh kuh-ah-tuh CAT! You really need this expert when you see a word you don’t recognize. But it would be really hard to read if that expert were the only expert you had, right? <--- That question right there would read like “buh uh tuh ih tuh wuh ow? Oo?ool? hmmm Duh buh ee rr eee luh ee huh ah rr duh...” etc. So obviously, you don’t read like that, right? No, you have at least one or two other reading experts helping you out.

In fact, let’s look at C A T again. When I first wrote that, did you think “kuh aah tuh?” No, you saw the whole word CAT and you recognized it as CAT: not a group of sounds, but a whole word. This is your orthographic reading brain, a fancy way of saying “sight word” reading: you see the whole word at once. It’s like looking at a tree. I don’t start on the left and scan right, going “Lessee, leaf, leaf, branches, leaves, bigger branches, trunk, branches, leaves branch...Oh, TREE! It’s a tree.” I see the whole thing at once and go “that’s a tree” (if I even care). This is more like how we read sight words.

This is also when it gets interesting from a reading-teaching point of view. Some kids have an amazing ability to decode phonetically, but also have a really hard time remembering the words, so they have to decode words over and over again. The sight word part of their brain just shrugs and apologizes a lot, and the phonetic part works its butt off. For other people, it’s just the opposite: the phonetic part of their brain may have trouble remembering which sounds go with which letters and groups of letters when, or it may have trouble seeing the order the letters are in--maybe they see a kind of pile of letters instead of any meaningful arrangement of letters--but once they figure out what that pile means, they never forget. This person has a shruggy phonetic decoder and a tired but determined orthographic memory. Both readers are working really hard, but in spite of that hard work, you can also get shrugs from both of these experts when the words are too challenging.

I've been described more than once as a "big picture" guy. Well, we have a "big picture guy" in our reading brains, too, who often comes to the rescue when the other two are stumped. In fact, this is probably one of the most thrilling indicators of the hidden genius of many struggling readers. When they do get shrugs from the sight word and phonetic decoders, the context expert works overtime to come to the rescue. As a teacher and parent, it can be agonizing to reflect upon how often students show incredible cleverness--perhaps synthesizing information from numerous sources at once, reflecting amazing working memory and higher-order synthesis--coming up with a smart guess in a heartbeat when the letters are indecipherable, only to be casually corrected with a “try that one again” or “not quite” because the more instinctive text-decoder peer or teacher only notices the miscue, not the genius of it.

Consider, further, how much bandwidth this student is using to construct a guess, versus their peer who decodes the word easily. As long as their sense of wrongness or impending wrongness doesn’t tip the scales of anxiety into the realm where learning stops and internal fight-or-flight emotions start, the reading experience of the highly contextual decoder can actually be far richer, cognitively, than that of an easy reader, as their brain scrutinizes the information they can decode, and simultaneously applies every related clue they can muster from class discussion, past life experience, and everything else, to make meaning from the text. If we can help this student see this coping strategy for what it is--an ingenious survival method that, when instinctively over-applied, will fail them more and more often as novel vocabulary is increasingly introduced via text in the upper grades--we can find motivation where there may have been mostly despair. Replacing the deficit model (you have a “reading problem”) with a difference model that requires work to overcome, but which also provides hidden superpowers, is key to helping struggling readers find motivation. And we have to show them, not tell them about, these superpowers, by pointing them out in the moment they reveal them to us, which they will do repeatedly.

But I digress from the story.

Near the third circle, I write “The dog chased the_____.” I ask what they expect to be in the blank. They may say squirrel, or mail carrier, or car, but usually with a sly smile. I point out the sly smile and ask if I’m right assuming that it was because they guessed I wanted them to say “cat.” Of course there are a lot of things that could go in that blank. I talk about how some students will only think about the words in that sentence, and not notice that we just used ‘cat’ twice before, and that ‘cat’ fits. Others will be thinking about the things that we said before, and also every sentence they’ve heard that sounds remotely like that, as well as their knowledge of dogs, their understanding of what makes me happy (I like surprises), and a lot of other things. This part of the reading brain notices context.

We talk about how useful this part is, and how sometimes when the phonetic decoding expert gets super determined to identify the sounds and put them together, they can be so caught up in the victory of a solution--any solution--that when they shout “‘Flurgbidunkle!’ Eureka!” They neglect to check in with the context expert to see if they have an opinion (such as "um, are you out of your mind, Phonics Expert? Flurgbi-what-what?!").  The point is, for some of us, at some times, checking in with all the experts has to happen on purpose, or it won’t happen at all.

On the other hand if I write “the dog chased the cap,” a lot of readers might read it as “the dog chased the cat-cap” or even just “the dog chased the cat,” because the context expert is overconfident. Luckily in this case the sight word expert and phonetic expert are likely quick to huddle up and raise a hand to correct the context expert. If I write “the dog chased the cag,” it is even more likely to be missed because the phonetic decoder is the only one who sees anything strange; if we’re lucky, the orthographic decoder at least goes “hmmm” before shrugging and looking to the others for guidance.

From here there are many different directions we can go to apply this understanding to practical academic success, and the rest of this blog will go many of these places! The key value of this conversation is that from this point forward, the student
  • can see reading mistakes as the smart misfires that they generally are, and
  • can intentionally engage the missing expert(s) to try to get a better result immediately and hereafter.

There is an even more fundamental conversation that I should elaborate upon in its own post, but should at least touch upon here, too. I think everyone needs to understand the natural manner in which wise, self-protective creatures will instinctively tend to employ established natural talents, and avoid more difficult skills, when approaching a novel task. Thus, in school, where novel tasks are de rigueur each day, children are positively reinforced for what they do well easily, and negatively reinforced for what they find more challenging--the emotional stakes are straightforward, whether they come from internal pressure, peer pressure, or old-fashioned teacher talk. Thus, we systematically improve upon what we are already good at, and specifically avoid improving the areas most in need of improvement, because it isn’t safe.

This dynamic is why many students hit a wall between fourth and ninth grades, when the volume of material they must comprehend and retain finally outstrips the work-arounds they have so cleverly employed to succeed up to that point. They need to understand 
  • the subconscious emotional wisdom that got them into this predicament, 
  • the hidden commonness of this experience among their peers, and 
  • the possibility of systematic catch-up work and/or mindful employment of scholarly tools to overcome these challenges, without the creeping anxiety that invariably bubbles up when these things remain obscure, or even shameful, for students.

This dynamic is also why some readers are so profoundly skilled at employing one or two of these reading experts, while the third may be distrusted and neglected utterly: they have naturally focused on the parts that work best to overcome any deficit. This is the benefit and the danger of having a “team” of skills for completing a complex task like reading. Students need to understand how and why this happens, and to get help identifying how much skill-building in the weakest area is possible, as well as scholarly ways to support complete comprehension and retention of reading, while that skill is being built. Of course, a specific aptitude may be unattainable or the progress may be very slow, which is why, again, it needs to be remediated in tandem with the construction of a toolkit that includes healthy self-advocacy and the kinds of transparent work-arounds that will serve a student forthrightly and effectively in perpetuity, throughout their academic life and beyond.

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