The Bumpy Road to Reading

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Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better – Samuel Beckett

A failure is an event – It is not a person. – Zig Ziglar

Some simple things are learned in a flash, like not touching fire. It only takes one mistake to learn the associated lesson, and it’s the same lesson for everyone. Most valuable lessons however, yielding long-lasting powerful results for a range of children, aren’t learned so quickly.

More complex things, like reading, take time and self-determination to learn. Reading is a perfect realm for teaching children to be independent and resilient. You can do that by allowing them to eagerly select the material and books they read. That selection, of course, shouldn’t be dictated by a book’s calculated “level.” It should be in the personal appeal of the book’s content. More difficult books that fascinate children are worth their added effort to try to read them. Easier books, without any personal appeal, are actually harder for learners to enjoy if they fail to spark their imagination.

Not yet 1The set backs in learning to read fluently are just necessary steps in a very long process which intertwines with the child’s culture, tastes and values. Wanting to learn to read expresses family values and educators must recognize and leverage those  to encourage stickto-it-iveness. By that I mean that if kids focus is on immediate success (like total accuracy or literal reading) then failing to fluently read and enjoy a book can easily result in a sense of defeat.

There has been much talk about the value of teaching children to be self-determined, to have “grit.” Such perseverance is powered by a long-term commitment to one’s own success, not centered upon small victories or stumbles. Perseverance is focused and energized by the perceived benefits of each small step, accepting that taking on road blocks will help them progress over time. Children must learn to see their own central role in that growth.

Adults can micromanage the challenges of learning to read into such tiny steps that the learner feels little sense of accomplishment. As a result, daily independent reading can feel like a slog, drudgery to be endured not enjoyed.

For a struggling reader, we can productively focus on children’s participation in engineering their own successes by discussing:

What did you learn about reading while enjoying that delightful book?

What did you struggle with a bit and how can I help you? And then,

What might you do differently when selecting and reading your next book?

One key to a life of reading is captured in the way learners handle early failure along the way to eventual mastery. Every unexpected challenge of the text must first be viewed as an opportunity to emotionally experience a book, while at the same time Rock climber dangles by his fingertips.learning unknown vocabulary, grasping complex sentence structure and addressing the strange spellings of familiar words.

The natural bumps in the road to learning to read can either be experienced as crushing defeats or feel like a staircase to success and a daily occasion to continue to grow. Some children are reared to expect good things to be hard-won and thus to persevere. Others are reared to believe that if things aren’t consistently easy that there is something wrong.

I think all kids just need to hear the message that it’s okay to “fail” better each day when learning to read.


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2 Responses to “The Bumpy Road to Reading”

  1. Amanda Berger November 2, 2017 at 11:02 am #


    I truly enjoyed reading your post. “Easier books, without any personal appeal, are actually harder for learners to enjoy if they fail to spark their imagination.” This is such a profound statement and one that teachers don’t tend to think about. Due to the fact that, teachers have to utilize Reading Running Records and other assessments that level students. It is so important for students to be engaged in what they are reading and picking topics of interest, so what are your thoughts on teachers assign books and using only resources that are “on a student’s level”? Should we let students choose regardless of level and work through the struggles as you stated, or should this be done in small amounts?


    • Mark Condon November 3, 2017 at 11:57 am #

      Great questions, Amanda! Thanks for the challenge…
      1. What are your thoughts on teachers assign books and using only resources that are “on a student’s level”?
      You mentioned that Running Records identify levels. Then you asked the above. My experience with RRs is that they are best for identifying children’s misconceptions about phonics, syntax, word meanings, etc. Levels are generally a bad idea in my view because they are simplistic. They totally ignore the necessity of children taking ownership of their own literacy. One of my lowest readers wanted to be a forest ranger. He would spend all his reading time focused on an old state yearbook that had a Department of Forestry section. He loved it and it was at least six levels above his tested level.
      2. Should we let students choose regardless of level?
      Like the rest of us, kids make better decisions by making and learning from bad ones. Providing children with a small range of choices (NOT the entire library) and coaching them how to be thoughtful about their choices us the sensible approach. The critical issue is whether they are enjoying the book in their hands. If they are, they WILL grow as readers as a result of that experience, regardless of how hard or easy it is. If they don’t like the experience, they must be gently led to choose another book.