How English Reading can be like a School Bully

Reading can be intimidating for anyone, especially first or second language learners.  Most of my students, if polled, would rather do an activity in class that involves any other type of skill besides reading.  They look forward to listening and speaking activities and even writing is okay – but for some reason, reading is viewed as SERIOUS BUSINESS and it seems pretty hard to get around that.  Most learners get over it enough to read whatever needs to be read but it’s a rare day when they seem to actually enjoy it.

But I’ve had students who were more than just a little “put off” by the idea of reading.  They were utterly defeated by it.  For whatever reason, these young people who were happy and confident outside of my class were totally cowed by reading activities whenever they stepped foot in my classroom.  They faced reading tasks with the same enthusiasm as a doomed prisoner and I could see that most of them were prone to giving up before they even finished scanning the material.

It grew apparent that these students needed more than just reading practice.  They required a liberation of sorts from the oppression they felt whenever they were asked to read something.  Reading had become a bully to these students and they had given in, resigned to offer up a lifetime’s worth of school lunch money just to avoid feeling stupid and inferior.  I decided that the tips they needed were the same sort of strategies that one would need in order to defeat a real school bully.  So here’s the advice I gave to them.  Maybe it can help your students too if they feel overwhelmed by reading:

1.  Face your problem head on –  This is the biggest part of conquering your fear.  You need to learn to read, either for an upcoming test, your boss, a better life, whatever.  Running away from reading tasks and burying your head in the sand won’t work.

2. Enlist support – Silence is the bully’s greatest weapon.  It helps to keep the victim feeling isolated and in fear.  Similarly, English reading can cause anxiety in a student who is facing the problem alone without any outside help.  Talking to teachers, finding online communities of readers, and getting help from counselors can help a great deal.  Tom Cruise, for example, struggled with dyslexia as a kid and tried to hide it from his peers.  He didn’t know he had it at the time – he just knew that he had a lot of trouble reading.  It was only when he opened up about his struggles that he found the methods and help he needed to overcome the problem.  Even if you don’t have a learning disability, the support from fellow learners to keep going can be enough to overcome the dread of having to read something.

3.  Try a different approach  – Examine the way you approach challenges like reading.  Do you start with a negative attitude, certain of failure before you even begin?  If so, you need to change some things.  Try changing small stuff to make the whole experience better.  Put on some nice music while you read, find a comfortable seat, and pour yourself a nice bit of tea or coffee.  All of a sudden, reading loses its ‘intimidation factor’ and becomes a much more positive experience.

4.  Refuse to be a victim – Reading has a way of making us feel dumb sometimes.  We look at something and we just can’t figure it out for whatever reason.  Pretty soon, you have enough of these experiences and start to believe all the bad things about yourself.  Sure, you might not have understood a particular passage or sentence but you probably DID understand a whole bunch of it.  Try to focus on the victories rather than the defeats.

5.  Take away the bully’s power – Basically, this means that English reading can be intimidating if you’re working at a really high level.  You can reduce the “fear factor” by shifting down to easier readings that aren’t as difficult.  This will help you build up your confidence again and get you back on top of the reading task.  In, you can try a free lesson in the Fun For All category if the Academic English articles are too difficult.  You can also try some “Easy English” lessons for some sentence-level review.

How else can we help to motivate students to read more?  What strategies do you use when faced with similar situations?

To add to the thoughts above, I’ve included a link to a youtube video about reading motivation and struggling urban readers from USC Rossier’s School of Education Brown Bag series where Dr. Gigi Ragusa and Dr. Robert Rueda present research on motivation, instruction, cognition, language and literacy in urban schools.