Why Building Confidence is Key for Struggling Readers

A 2nd-grade teacher shares how she’s boosting students’ confidence to help alleviate learning loss.

By Danielle Head

When my 2nd-grade class arrived in the fall of 2020, most of them were still reading at a 1st-grade reading level. I knew they had missed out on the last half of their 1st-grade reading education, and I had to find a new way to help my students combat that learning loss due to the pandemic. To make matters worse, I could see a lack of confidence was impacting their potential for growth. With a new approach to reading instruction, I have found a way to help students believe in their abilities and improve their skills. Here’s how it works.

Taking a Scientific Approach to Reading
Many students (and even many educators) see learning how to read as more of an art, but in fact, it’s a science. With this mindset, teaching reading can be much more black and white. Students don’t have to see reading as an abstract skill they either have the ability to grasp or don’t, because that’s not how it works. When you know how to teach phonics according to the structured literacy framework, it’s easy to address the gaps in students’ reading skills. If students don’t know how to read a word, I can quickly show them how to break the word down using consistent patterns and steps that reveal how to properly read and pronounce the word–rather than having students guess or rely on pictures for context. Teaching phonics in a structured way has made learning to read much more concrete for both myself and my students.

In college, I was not taught how to teach phonics. I was taught during the whole language era, so I wasn’t familiar with the effectiveness of structured literacy. I saw math as a subject that I could teach in a concrete way: every concept builds upon the previous concept. On the other hand, for decades, many educators had been teaching reading and literacy as an art, an abstract skill you pick up if you practice enough. If you present it as more of a science, certain students might see learning how to read as more achievable.

Meeting Students Where They Are
One of my students seemed to know he was behind in reading from when school went virtual during spring of 2020. His frequent mantra in class was, unfortunately, “I can’t read.” His lack of confidence was heartbreaking.

To address our students’ reading challenges, my district adopted a new reading program, Reading Horizons Discovery, that teaches structured literacy by assessing students’ reading abilities and helping them actively progress from their current level. I was worried the software was going to be another piece of technology to learn when I already had so much added to my plate, but in a few months, I saw a lot of growth, especially in the student who claimed he “couldn’t read.” He loved building nonsense words—and he understood them—so I knew he was understanding the kinesthetic vowel clues. One day he looked at me and said, “I can read now, Mrs. Head!” This was one of those moments that make being a teacher so rewarding.

Once my students gained confidence and realized that they had the ability to learn how to read, they buckled their seatbelts and went on the ride. We wrote Christmas letters to Santa, and the student I mentioned before read his out loud. He knew every word he had written, and he was so proud and happy. He now sees himself as a reader rather than someone who says “I can’t.”

Making Progress Visual
While students might recognize that figuring out words is easier as they continue their practice, they might not perceive it as progress or a reward. To help them visualize what they’re learning, I have a reading poster in my classroom that shows a map of progress. This visual incentive boosts their confidence and encourages them to keep growing in their reading.

Not only are the students getting a confidence boost, I am as well. Our reading program is constantly gathering data on what students are understanding and what concepts they are struggling with. From there, I can analyze those reports and easily see which students need intervention, and how much. That reassures me that no student has been left behind. When I see their growth, I’m reassured that I’m doing something right.

Danielle Head is a 2nd-grade teacher at Laramie County School District #2. She can be reached at danielle.head@laramie2.org.

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