By Floyd Gómez-Starnes, Ed.D.
I have a startling thing to say – we don’t actually teach our students to read. What we do is provide the perfect opportunities for them to develop their own reading processing system, inside their head. Think about it. Haven’t you marveled at times at how some of your students just started picking up things about reading, seemingly all on their own? Those are students for whom the classroom instruction was at just the right level. It was easy enough that they could begin to make sense for themselves of the very complicated task of reading in English.
Why are we talking about this? Because there are some students whom we are struggling to teach to read. We are just not meeting with success with these young readers. This could be in PreK, kindergarten, Grade 1 – all the way up to secondary school. My point is that if these readers are to develop their own reading processing system, they need to be in books that are easy enough for them.
Hold on – I am NOT talking about low expectations. We must have the highest expectations for where these students will get. And we must be working diligently, every single day to get them there. But if we do not begin where they are – if the book is too hard – then they do not have the opportunity to develop that all-important reading processing system for themselves.
Remember Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development? It’s hard for me to explain this without using my hands, but the idea is pretty simple and yet incredibly profound. Imagine a big circle that has inside of it all the things that your student Ana knows. When you are teaching Ana, if you are teaching things that are already inside that circle of known things, Ana is right there with you. She’s strengthening her understanding of her known world and building new connections. If you want to teach her something new, it must be right there, just outside the circle – not far away, but just in that first outer ring – that’s what Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development.
If Ana is one of your top readers, she probably spends her whole instructional day inside that circle. She understands everything and is free to make connections and to keep building her very own reading processing system. Mostly likely, she reads almost everything you put in front of her, with ease and fluency. When you are teaching something new, it is very likely within Ana’s Zone of Proximal Development.
Let’s contrast that with Kelvin, a student who is not meeting with that kind of success in your classroom. How much of his instructional day is spent inside that circle of his known? Most likely, when he is at your reading table, he is struggling with many words on each page – not at all the experience of Ana.
So here’s our hard task – we must do everything we can to give Kelvin things to do that he is good at. When he is at our reading table, he must be experiencing high levels of success (just like Ana). We have to figure out exactly what he CAN do – and give him lots of that. We need to give him books that he can read with relative ease – books with maybe one or two words on each page that he has to work on, AND he must experience success at solving those words. Only in that place of comfort and success can Kelvin work on developing and refining his own reading processing system.
I know it’s not easy. When I see my student putting her head down in frustration or shutting down completely – I know I’ve messed up for today. I made it too hard. I’m not in her Zone. I need to go back to what she CAN do and build from there. And the next day, after some careful planning with a focus on success for her, we both are back on track.
Floyd Gómez-Starnes, Ed.D., Contributor
I am a lifelong educator, having served as an ESL teacher, a first-grade teacher, a Reading Recovery teacher, an early literacy trainer and coach, a principal of a dual language school, and a district leader of dual language. I’m currently serving schools and teachers, providing training in early literacy and dual language education, as well as teaching reading intervention part-time with BecomingReaders.com.