Confessions of a Former “Really Good Reader” by Tobey Antao
There was a time in my childhood when I loved reading. When I was very young, I loved when people read to me. As an early reader, I loved reading on my own. Then, a few years into elementary school, I found something that I loved even more: annual standardized testing. Or, more accurately, I loved the test results, which told my parents and teachers that I was A Really Good Reader.
When you’re a kid, being A Really Good Reader can feel a bit like having a superpower. Teachers talk to you and about you in a way that might make you feel a little superior. Adults think it’s cute that you want to read constantly. Claiming that you can’t put your book down is enough to keep you out of having to just about anything that you’d rather not do. Well-meaning adults might even suggest grown-up books for you as though you are a peer. In many ways, being A Really Good Reader can look like a Get Out of Childhood Free card.
There was one catch to my superpower: I had no idea why I was A Really Good Reader. So, while I was glad to have that distinction, I didn’t know how I’d earned it, or if I’d really earned it at all.
Here’s what I did know: I liked being special, and I didn’t want to lose that specialness.
As a result, my reading life shifted, and not in a good way. My status as A Really Good Reader became more important to me than reading. I got the message that, as A Really Good Reader, I should be reading important, grown-up books, so I put kid books aside and leapt into books written for adults, the more obscure or difficult, the better. Sometimes words, sentences, even entire paragraphs or pages didn’t make sense but, hey, I was A Really Good Reader, right? I skipped over the confusing parts. Sure, it was hard to tell what was going on, but I figured that books about adult life were confusing because adult life itself was confusing. If I were still measuring my reading life by the enjoyment I got from books, I might have been worried that I was getting only a hazy picture as I read, but, as that enjoyment had been already replaced by a need to maintain my Really Good Reader status, I just kept pushing on as the texts grew cloudier.
I don’t know exactly when my thin connection to reading finally snapped. I think it may have coincided with end of eighth grade, when the annual standardized testing ceased and there were no more notices about my fabulous reading skills. It might have been when I was “reading” Tiny Alice and feeling as though I was trying to climb a slick wall of ice, without finding a single foothold. (Only later in life did I realize what I was up against with that one.) Somehow, my superpower was failing me. It was terrifying. Who was I if I wasn’t A Really Good Reader? From then on, my adolescent reading life consisted of nothing beyond obscure song lyrics and notes passed in class.
Sadly, my story is not all that unusual. There are lots of kids (and adults) who believe that they have very little control over how they perform in school or in life: they think they’re either good at something or they’re not. Researchers such as Carol Dweck and Peter Johnston explain how this “fixed view” can be paralyzing: What’s the hope in trying to do well in school when you’re A Bad Student? You already know that you won’t succeed. What’s the point in taking on a new challenge when you’re A Smart Student? You’ve already established your status, and you might even lose face if you don’t perform perfectly on your first try. Besides, having a fixed mindset means believing that things are, well, fixed, and that working hard or asking for help is not just futile, it’s a sign of weakness. This might sound harsh, but then I remember how I reacted as a kid when I found reading hard: I stopped reading. Working at reading was for people who weren’t Really Good Readers. Trying to improve my reading would be admitting that I wasn’t A Really Good Reader, and that was too painful to contemplate.
Luckily for us, Dweck and Johnston have also identified how adults can help kids to avoid this kind of fixed-mindset thinking: they ask us to consider how we speak to kids. Are our words teaching kids to pass judgment, or are they teaching kids that people can learn and grow? For example, when we use criticism or even praise that comments on the kid as a person (“You’re a handful,” or “You’re a really good reader”), we’re giving kids ready-made, fixed identities that could hamper their growth. When our feedback, advice, and encouragement are about the process, not the person, we’re sending kids a message that they are in control of their performance.
It’s this focus on the process, not the person, that eventually helped me to find my way back to reading. I have many reading mentors to thank for helping me to lose my fixed-mindset notions about reading. These friends and loved ones read what interested them, not what that they thought was impressive. Their descriptions of what they were doing as they read—exploring cities they’d never visited, getting to know Thomas Jefferson, learning to program, learning to cook, solving a mystery–were completely unlike my experience as A Really Good Reader. They read for themselves, they enjoyed reading, and they were completely engaged. They never let a worry about their reading ability get between them and a text they wanted to read, even if it meant that the reading was hard sometimes. They didn’t blame themselves when books weren’t a good fit for them. They abandoned books when they needed to. And they never, ever, ever talked about themselves or anyone else as Really Good Readers.
My mentors’ reading lives are aligned with the core of what Dweck and Johnston promote: These readers know that we can all learn from what we read, that there’s always more to read and learn, and that trying to judge who wins the Really Good Reader prize is a pretty tragic way to waste one’s reading life. If we want our kids to be lifelong readers, these are the messages that we need to be sure they are getting, not a message that they need to be Really Good Readers.
Tobey Antao (@tobeyant) is an editor and former teacher who lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter. She is grateful to the Nerdy Book Club for the good work they’re doing in the world and for the opportunity to write this, her very first ever blog post.