By Karen Oncken
Navasota Intermediate RSVP Instructional Coach
I am of the belief that we, as teachers, in our heart of hearts, want each and every one of our students to be successful. I am also of the belief that we will do whatever it takes to secure their success. However, there are times when our actions bring about unintended outcomes that are far from what we want for our students. As we are all aware, many of the students in our district are struggling with reading. Too many are one grade level or more behind and their ability to comprehend what they are reading is low. As teachers it is very important that we have this data in order to help our students succeed, but do our students need this information?
Each year when our students arrive we begin by using a variety of diagnostic reading tests to figure out just where each student's strengths and weaknesses are in regards to reading. We use this data to determine the reading level of each student. Many times we share this reading level with the student, and we restrict them to a range of reading levels from which they can choose books. My question to each of us is this:
Is it really necessary to share this information with our students, or could it potentially bring about an unintended outcome that is harmful to our students?
I will be honest, when I first started teaching language arts, I did the exact thing that I am now questioning. I gave the test, looked at the results, and issued a reading level to each of my students telling them what level books they could read. I did this in what I thought was the best interest of my students because I did not want them to be overwhelmed. I wanted them to be successful. However, over time I began to notice that my lowest readers were not improving as fast as I would have liked. Many did not enjoy the books that were available to them in their reading level. To further agitate the situation, often students would pick out a book that was of interest to them just to be told that they could not check it out because it was above their level.
After some time, I decided to let every child choose any book from my classroom library, regardless of the reading level. What happened from that point on totally changed my belief about telling a student what level book they needed to be reading. What I discovered by watching my students was that they would self-regulate the books that they were reading. They would find the books that they were comfortable with on their own without me ever sharing that reading level with them. Not only that, they would also push themselves to read books that were a little harder than what they were comfortable with if the subject was of interest to them, and in turn their reading levels began to rise and so did their love of reading.
This point was driven home to me last year when my own son was given a diagnostic test that showed that his reading level was much lower than it had ever been before. He had always been on grade level, but this particular test stated otherwise. He was told that he could not check out the books that he was used to reading and quite frankly had been successful at reading. Reading has never been his favorite thing to do, but he has never questioned his reading ability until he was given that low reading level. All of a sudden he was convinced that he could not read and that he must be dumb. Thankfully for him he had a Mom that was a reading teacher, and I did my best to let him know that he could read and he was not dumb. I told him not to worry about the test, and we made sure that he still had access to the books that were interesting to him at home. All of this really made me think about the students that don’t have teachers as parents. They have parents that trust us as teachers to help them know what to read.
Are we letting these students and their parents down by giving them their reading levels? How many times does a student have to hear us say, “You can’t check out that book because it is not on your level.”, “You can’t do that math problem.”, “You can’t play that sport because you are too small.”, or “You can’t compete against those animals so why go?” before they begin to believe us? And if they begin to believe us, no wonder they are struggling on state mandated tests.
As teachers we place before them a test at a reading level that we have been saying for months is too difficult and that they “can’t read”. They are scared to death because all they have heard from us is: “You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.” To me this is one of the most egregious unintended outcomes that we could have happen to our students. While we want only the best for them, we want to protect them and we want them to be successful, we are in my opinion, setting them up for failure which was never our intention at all.
In my mind this same concept can be applied to just about any situation. In order to truly set our students up to be successful, shouldn’t we be pushing them to take risks and try new things? Whether it is reading a new book, trying a harder math problem, trying out for the choir or sports team, raising an animal or being involved on a team in ag, or working and learning with your group using the ELM model, shouldn’t we always be pushing them to try their best to be better at it than they were the day before? My challenge to each of us is to take the words “you can’t” out of our vocabulary and start pushing and encouraging our students to try to be better every day. We need to help them not only find their genius, but believe in it. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight, but we will help each of our students know that they CAN when they TRY!