A Classroom Culture’s Impact on Students’ Reading Success by Emily Visness

​Inspiring students to read can be challenging. Yes, I realize that is a gross understatement. Middle school students have a reputation for not wanting to do much of anything except socialize with each other and exhibit Great Disdain for adult humans.  However, middle school students are not always disaffected, malcontent, and divisive. At least, not if you can peel back the layers and find the young human underneath. Classrooms like the ones I teach in, a general education classroom where I push in to assist students with specific learning disabilities, can turn “challenging” into what can start to seem “impossible.” I’ve been a special education inclusion teacher in ELA classrooms for twelve years, and my job has provided me with a unique and private view into other teachers’ classrooms. Most teachers do not get to observe other teachers doing their thing day in and day out.  They may get to observe a lesson here and there, but they do not get to watch someone else teach and run a classroom every day, all year long. In my years of participating in other teachers’ classrooms, I have learned that inspiring middle school students to read is NOT impossible, and one aspect is key – the classroom’s culture. Classroom culture, which is directly created and encouraged by the classroom teacher, can make or break students’ reading success, especially in a classroom with struggling readers.  Two things that, in my experience, greatly affect classroom culture’s impact on reading success are teacher attitude and trust in a safe learning environment.

All students can have reading success, and teacher attitude toward reading plays a significant role.  I don’t mean success on standardized tests. I mean success in participating in reading activities in class, working with partners on reading assignments, and success in finding books that are enjoyable for independent reading. In other words, a step on the path toward lifelong reading success. I teach students who receive special education services for learning disabilities, which often makes it difficult for them to read and/or understand what they read. At best, they reluctantly participate in classroom reading activities, and at worst they are openly resistant and hostile about reading. I’ve been teaching middle school for six of my twelve years of teaching, and I have been in classrooms where the teacher’s attitude toward reading was so exuberant, and the expectations for students to meet reading expectations were so consistent, that many students who were self-proclaimed non-readers ended up finding books they enjoyed reading on their own, and they fully participated in and showed success on classroom reading activities and assignments. I’ve taught in classrooms where the teacher expected every student to have their own book to read every single day of class, and they provided students time to read independently. Non-fiction Wednesday was a tradition in one classroom, and that teacher met the needs of students who preferred fact over fiction by setting out a variety of age-appropriate magazines at each table.  Other successful teachers I’ve worked with spent time teaching students about an author, historic time period, or culture associated with a reading passage in order to build students’ background knowledge.  Many have shown high-interest videos to students that relate to a lesson or reading passage. These are middle school students – if a teacher grabs their attention with a good intro, they’re hooked. If a teacher says, in the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Economics Teacher voice, to turn to page whatever for a short story, students will tune out.  When a teacher exhibits an attitude that shows an expectation for student engagement and success, it will happen, even with students who have reading skills that are years behind their peers. 

Students also need to trust their teachers, and know they are in a safe environment.  I don’t mean physical safety, which is important, of course, but rather trust that the teacher will support them in their personal reading choices, trust that the teacher will meet them where they are in their reading journey no matter their skill level, and trust that the teacher will promote reading choices that honor a diverse student population. Teachers can be more aware of our facial expressions or tone of voice when a student shares a favorite book we don’t particularly care for. We can be more sensitive when talking to students about their reading progress – instead of saying in front of the class “You’re STILL reading that book? Why aren’t you finished yet?!?” the teacher can instead speak privately to the student and use encouraging words. Teachers can take time to recommend books to diverse students – books by and about people of color, people from other cultures, or other marginalized groups. These kids are in our classrooms, so we need to know them and give them literature they can relate to. We can take time to read paperwork that describes student accommodations, such as not requiring a student to read aloud in front of peers, not over-correcting pronunciation due to a speech impediment, or not counting off for spelling mistakes in writing. These are important to remember in my classrooms, where students with disabilities are learning alongside their non-disabled peers. Trust can be built up, or eroded away, and as teachers we can choose our path.

In the classrooms where I work, I try to help students find reading success using all the strategies in building classroom culture that I’ve learned from the excellent co-teachers I’ve worked with over the years. I am thankful to those talented teachers who tirelessly promote reading and always do what’s best for kids, rather than what’s easiest for adults. I hope they know how much I’ve learned from them, and how fortunate students are to have them. Our middle schoolers may not readily admit it, but they enjoy stories, and as teachers it’s important to build a classroom culture that makes accessing those stories possible for every type of reader.
Emily Visness is a special education inclusion teacher at a Title 1 middle school for Pflugerville ISD, has taught grades 4th through 11th, and thinks middle school students are highly underrated as a species. When she is not teaching, she can be found raising two passionate readers, speaking out against book challenges, and geeking out over gothic horror novels and movies. You can find her on her blog (thebookishadvocate.wordpress.com), on Facebook (The Bookish Advocate), on Twitter (@bookishadvocate), or on Instagram (TheBookishAdvocate).