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The One-Step Process for Creating More Reading Independence

By Gravity Goldberg
 | May 31, 2016

78717368_x300If your students think they need you for just about every reading challenge, asking “What does this word say?” and “I don’t really get this part…” and “I can’t find any books I want to read,” then you likely dream about the day they learn to solve their own problems. True independence, in which students make choices, engage in deep reading, and self-direct how and why they read, is not just the stuff of dreams. I’ve found there are a few key moves we can make as teachers to support students’ reading independence. Let’s examine why solving our own problems is essential in the learning process.

The learner’s high

David Rock, in his book Quiet Leadership, explains what happens in the brain when someone solves her own problem. When a person encounters a problem she needs to solve and goes on to struggle to figure out a solution, a synapse is formed in the brain. That is basically a connection from one area to the next. The brain actually builds a new map and gets smarter. As this synapse is forming and the solution has arrived there is a “light bulb moment,” a feeling of eureka. This eureka feeling is actually a release of chemicals that are being produced by the brain—dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin. These chemicals give you a “high” feeling as wonderful sensations arrive in your body. We have all experienced the “learner’s high,” and it has propelled us forward in wanting to solve problems again and again.

When we step in and help our students to solve the problem, we are actually stealing their “learner’s high.” We mean well. We think we are being helpful, but in fact we have robbed our students of two important evolutionary and learning experiences. We have not let students form the synapse in the brain that forms true learning and connections. Second, we have not let students experience the rush of problem solving, which is designed to reinforce their motivation to problem solve in the future. Being helpful often makes the helper feel better but not the one being helped, because we stole their feel-good chemicals. As teachers we may inadvertently be walking around “high” on the dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin we get from solving our students’ problems.

Take one step back

The next time your students are faced with a reading problem, ask yourself, “Do I really need to step in just yet?” For many of us, we are uncomfortable watching students struggle so we swoop in and help out. As your students begin asking for help or seem to be experiencing a problem, follow this one simple step: Instead of stepping in to solve the problem, take a step back and pause. Breathe. Give them a moment to try a strategy on their own first. You can always step in and help after they try a bit on their own.

Notice your own threshold for letting readers struggle. If you can step back for only 5 seconds before stepping in to help, then the next time try to give them 10 seconds. Build your own stamina for struggle.

Create a classroom of trust

I am not suggesting we put students in a situation where they will be embarrassed, become frustrated, or feel defeated. In order to use this “step back practice” you first want to make sure that students are holding books they can read with accuracy and comprehension and that you have already modeled several strategies they know how to use. Once we teach students to use these tools, we can trust they will likely be able to use them with a little space and time.

If you worry that students won’t try anything and will just sit there when a problem arises, then consider giving readers a chance to try, to see if this is in fact what happens. If students do just sit there waiting for help, then show students your process of trying your best to solve your own reading challenges. Model the process of not giving up. Make struggling a positive verb in your classroom. Embrace the belief that all readers can tackle their challenges with modeling, permission, and space.

Gravity Goldberg headshot-2Gravity Goldberg is author of Mindsets and Moves: Strategies that Help Readers Take Charge (Corwin 2016) and coauthor of Conferring with Readers (Heinemann, 2007). She leads a team of literacy consultants in the NY/NJ area and presents to teachers across the United States. At the heart of Gravity's teaching is the belief that everyone deserves to be admired and supported. She can be reached via e-mail and on Twitter.

Goldberg will be a presenter at the Preconference Institute “Who's Doing the Work? Teaching for Transfer Across Read-Aloud, Shared Reading, Guided Reading, and Independent Reading” Friday, July 8, 9:00 AM–5:00 PM at the ILA 2016 Conference & Exhibits in Boston. She will also present Using Mindsets and Moves to Develop Truly Independent Readers” Sunday, July 10, 8:00 AM–9:00 AM, in addition to copresenting at “Feedback That Moves Writers Forward: Saying the Right Thing at the Right Time So Students Own the Process” Sunday 10:00 AM–12:00 PM. Visit for more information or to register.

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