Letting Go of Labels and Trusting Reading Identity by Dr. Jennifer Scoggin and Hannah Schneewind

My son pours over illustrations and devours graphic novels, especially those with sophisticated potty humor.  Dav Pilkey has mythical status in our house. Garfield comics abound.  Chris Van Dusen’s illustrations merit hours of close study.   

Yet despite his love of reading at home, my son did not see himself as a successful reader at school.  During independent reading, he studied the illustrations and rarely focused on the words. By October of first grade, he was labeled as “disengaged” and a “struggling reader.” And although those words were never said directly to him, he felt their weight.  

My son watched his friends read increasingly difficult texts and was aware that he could not read the words with similar success.  His teacher tried to support him. However,  she inevertantly made the all-too-common, label-led decision to focus on what my son was not doing as a reader. She focused on word solving strategies yet, he rarely applied these strategies to his independent reading.  Over time, my son internalized the message that his interactions with the illustrations were not a strength, they were a distraction.  

In March of first grade, COVID happened.  Overnight, my work as a literacy consultant  disappeared.  And as a mom, my work with my own reader took on a new life.  My husband and I decided to homeschool Charlie through second grade.  I was back in the classroom…or the basement that we now use as a classroom.  

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At the same time, Hannah and I were researching the role of trust in the teaching of reading.  We were working on our book, Trusting Readers, which celebrates the power of independent reading and conferring.  

We believe that students enter our classrooms already on their reading journeys.  We position each student’s reading identity as the ideal starting point for instruction and key to inviting increased engagement.  Hannah and I have conferred with hundreds of students, listening to learn their stories and working to clearly define the idea of reading identity.  Over time, we began to see the following five aspects emerge:

Attitudehow students feel about reading, reading instruction and the different ways in which reading takes place across the day (reading with a partner, read aloud, independent reading, etc)
Self efficacyhow confident students feel  in their abilities as a reader as well as how the student understands they are perceived by others
Habitspreferred reading spots, how students talk about books and to whom, how they respond to books and the ways in which they make future reading plans
Book Choicewhat students consider when choosing books (favorite books, author, genre, text type, etc.)
Processwork students do independently to solve words, read fluently and make meaning from text

Reading identity is fluid and dynamic.  A teacher’s role is to uncover, reinforce, expand and in some cases reframe aspects of a student’s reading identity with the goal of boosting their motivation, engagement and success as readers. When teachers center the student by using their reading identity alongside other sources of data to make instructional decisions, the resulting learning opportunities become more relevant and transferable.

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Teaching readers is a tremendous privilege and an overwhelming responsibility.  The need to move through curriculum looms over us.  The pressure to define success through quantitative measures is so pervasive that it worms its way into all our minds.  I had to fight not to succumb to the pressure to focus on skills, strategies and levels.  I took a deep breath, let go of traditional expectations and followed his lead, trusting that beginning with and returning to his evolving sense of reading identity would lead us in the right direction.

As I planned his instruction, I often worried if I was doing the right thing. I called Hannah, as there are moments when I trust her more than I trust myself.  (I guess that’s what happens when you write a book together.) Her response: “What would you tell a teacher if she asked you about this? You would remind her of the power of beginning with strengths.” 

And so I began by noticing and naming the strong aspects of his reading identity. Charlie has a very clear sense of how to choose books; he is the kind of reader who loves funny books, and we read all the funny books.  Our journey was anchored by the brilliance of Dav Pilkey’s quirky word play and hilarious characters.  By building on these strongly rooted pieces of his reading identity, I introduced new choices.  We built on his love of funny books to study what made us laugh the most, leading us to pay attention to word choice and character development that made us laugh the most.

Charlie is also the kind of reader who reads and re-reads his favorite parts of books. We have read every Garfield book at least 20 times in celebration of this habit.  Each time he pays attention to something new, increases his fluency, engages in talk about the text, or just satisfies some need he feels as a reader.  

It has been seven months.  By noticing, naming and celebrating the strengths that make up his reading identity first, we created a space where not only did he trust me to really see his efforts, but he began to trust himself to try the very pieces of reading that had originally felt too daunting.  His sense of self-efficacy improved and his attitude toward attempting to read the words and the pictures shifted.  He opened up to the possibility of taking risks and, as a result, started to transfer our work with phonics and word solving strategies into his independent reading.

Today, Charlie is reading above the grade level benchmark.  By all quantitative measures, he will return to school a strong, confident third grade reader.  Most importantly, his reading identity has evolved in positive ways that improved his motivation to engage with all aspects of text and created a strong foundation of trust in himself. He is going to be just fine.

Here is a list of read alouds inspired by Charlie’s Identity as a reader:

  • Dragons In a Bag by Zetta Elliot
  • Octopus Stew by Eric Velasquez
  • Mac B Spy Kid series by Mac Barnett
  • Electric Slide and Kai by Kelly J. Baptis
  • Thesaurus Has a Secret  by Anya Glazer

Dr. Jennifer Scoggin has been a teacher, author, speaker, curriculum writer, and literacy consultant.  Jennifer’s interest in the evolving identities of both students and teachers and her growing obsession with children’s literature led her to and informs her work. 

Hannah Schneewind has been a teacher, staff developer, curriculum writer, keynote speaker and national literacy consultant. She brings with her over 25 years of experience to the  education world. Hannah’s interest in student and teacher agency  and her belief in the power of  books informs her work with schools.

Together, Jen and Hannah are the co-creators of Trusting Readers (@TrustingReaders), a group dedicated to collaborating with teachers to design high quality  literacy opportunities that invite all students to be engaged and to thrive as readers and writers.