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Deterring Shame in Reading Instruction

by Justin Stygles
 | Jun 02, 2015

The emergence of shame during the intermediate years is discussed at length, as we may recall, from Erik Erikson’s Human Growth and Development courses, but shame is complex. The fact is, our kids come in and reside in our classroom feeling shame in ways we may not even recognize or understand. This shame, be it the internal sense of shame about one’s being, the comparison of one’s perceived abilities to another’s, or confusion amid contrasting value sets, prevents students from reading, not because of reluctance, but because of the need to protect one’s sense of self.

Let’s look at shame within contrasting value sets. In our schools, we inadvertently confuse readers. By virtue of reading interests, students acquire a sense of their “reading-self” through their ease and enjoyment in reading. These students are readers. Then there is interaction with text. We can consider close reading, strategic reading, and transactional reading as modes of interacting with text. Pleasure reading and interacting with text can be related, but are often separate.

Thomas, for example, noted himself as a good reader. Test scores showed he met standards and his annual reading level assessment verified his status as a good reader. However, in day-to-day reading engagement and comprehension work, Thomas found himself swimming in frustration. The work did not challenge the limits of his zone of proximal development. Rather, how he treated text, drew information from text, and relied on previous reading experiences befuddled him. He’d become a good reader but lacked tools or experience to access text appropriately. The shame he began to feel around reading had little to do with his capabilities, but instead with his experiences.

To find the source of Thomas’s frustrations, we looked at what he wrote in his reading autobiography:

  • In second grade I started to read graphic novels. But otherwise I really didn’t read much. I wrote more.
  • In third grade I actually read Mark of Athena. I actually started to like reading in third grade.
  • I don’t remember anything about fourth grade because the teacher didn’t have any books.

Thomas’s short depiction of his reading life revealed some entry points:

  • Nothing substantial from reading instruction “stuck.” We know he had reading instruction, but we don’t know what he learned to do as a reader. We can assume he learned to self-select books.
  • Thomas read without boundaries. I won’t argue that he read Rick Riordan’s Mark of Athena in grade 3; I simply wonder if the archetypes or the mythological text structure resonated with him in any manner.
  • His recollection of reading is contingent on access to print.

In one fashion, I concluded, Thomas indeed pictured himself as a good reader. He aspired to reading and his fondest memories centered on personal values and accomplishments. When I shifted reading instruction to transactional and close reading, I altered Thomas’s perception of reading. In a sense, he had no experience to draw from because his recollections of reading emerged from pleasure reading. Such an event forced Thomas to look in a mirror of reading he had not seen before and he felt shame because he had an incomplete image of his reading ability. When students see themselves as “wrong,” they presume fault as a person rather than observing a gap in reading experience.

Thomas and I had to talk, share, and build a relationship beyond assessment data. In conversation, I learned that his idea of reading instruction dealt with answering questions at the end of a reading. This information helped me realize he didn’t have the skills to interact with text, but he had the capacity to complete reading assignments on the basis of his text recollection.

Time and relationships are the most important factors when working with a student like Thomas who is feeling shame and insecurity regarding his new reading experiences. He didn’t want to lose his cherished image of reading, but we had gaps to fill that did not portray Thomas a bad reader. (Without support and time spent nurturing our readers, students feel we turn our backs on them. When we offer support and nurturing, students create value sets about reading that allow them to feel successful.) We cannot change or eliminate the shame students may feel, but we can foster confidence by guiding them in the time we spend with learning their story or perspective.

In time, Thomas came around. First, I had to help Thomas learn what I call the duality of reading. We had to honor what he valued as a reader—a selection of books at his fingertips and personal choice. Second, Thomas had to learn the function of reading. With this, he had to realize that reading instruction— my teaching him ways to interact with text—would take time, error, and direction. Thomas and I simply had to adjust his value system to incorporate reading that required him to engage with text. None of this would make him a bad reader but, in time, it would make him a smarter reader.

Justin Stygles is a sixth-grade teacher and literacy specialist in Western Maine. He has taught at a variety of levels for 12 years and is currently working with Corwin Literacy about effect, emotions, and transactional reading.

Stygles will present a session entitled “I Hate Reading: Strategies Transforming Negative Self-Perceptions Into Confidence” on Sunday, July 19 at the ILA 2015 Conference in St. Louis, MO, July 18–20. This session will look at how teachers can both prevent shame in reading and in reading communities and transform readers’ lives so students may assimilate being a reader as part of their identity. Visit the ILA 2015 Conference website for more information or to register.

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