Creating a Motivating Classroom Environment
We know that struggling readers are more motivated when they value reading as something that is important to their success in life. Giving them autonomy, choice, and opportunities to feel mastery during the learning process strengthens this motivation. As teachers, we set up environments and develop curricula that foster all of these critical motivational components, and we then hope our students take the bait. At the same time, we paper our walls and pepper our language with inspirational messages such as “Just Do It!” and “Believe You Can!” We strive to inspire struggling students to persevere through the difficult work of learning to read, to believe that success is possible for them and that the struggle and hard work will pay off in the end.
The Importance of a Growth Mindset
On top of creating a motivating environment, there is another thing you can do to help struggling readers. This strategy is one of the most effective interventions of all. This intervention involves helping your students change their mindset about learning to read.
I’m sure you’ve heard students tell you “I’m not good at this” or “I’m dumb at reading.” Students who have struggled with learning to read often find it difficult to be very motivated to read no matter what teachers do because they no longer believe that they can learn—and research does show that if a student believes he can’t do something, well then, he can’t. Moreover, more than thirty years of research also shows that students who know that intelligence can be developed (growth mindset) significantly outperform students who believe that intelligence is something one either has or doesn’t have and that there is not much that can be done to improve it (fixed mindset). Fixed mindsets are particularly problematic for struggling readers because they are thinking, “What’s the point of working hard—it won’t make any difference. I’m just not smart enough”. When students understand that overcoming challenges by using strategies that work can grow their brains so that what was once difficult becomes easy, their motivation and performance improves. Students with growth mindsets can take advantage of all of our motivational supports because they understand that the greater the effort, the better their brains. This is truly intrinsic motivation at work.
How to Promote a Growth Mindset
So how can you develop a growth mindset in these students? The pioneer of mindset research, Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University, suggests that we help students understand that the brain is a muscle we can grow like any muscle—it gets stronger the more we use it. Being better at anything—gymnastics, dance, math, reading—all accrued skills which have to be learned—is the result of many hours of practice using proven strategies that strengthen the brain’s neural networks until the skills become automatic. “Teachers should help students value effort,” Dweck states in an interview with Education World. “Too many students think effort is only for the inept. Yet sustained effort over time is the key to outstanding achievement.”
Use the Right Language
The language teachers use when working with students before, during, and after challenges can be used to foster growth mindsets. How praise is delivered is particularly important. Praising for effort rather than ability is a beginning but Dweck warns teachers that praising effort alone is useless when the child is getting everything wrong and not making progress. Instead she advises teachers to praise a student’s process and strategies and tie those to the outcome. For example, Dweck suggests these phrases: "Wow, you really practiced that, and look how you've improved." "See, you practiced more and your grade on this test is higher." "You tried different strategies and you figured out how to solve the problem." "You stuck to this and now you really understand it."
More examples of how your language can help change your students’ mindsets can be found here.