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Embracing the Struggle During Guided Reading

The other day, my feisty two-year son was working on a farm animal puzzle. With a sheep piece in hand, he was struggling to put it in place, trying over and over, but unable to do so. As I watched him from a close distance, I was going through my own internal struggle to resist the urge to jump in and help him. I worried if I didn’t intervene soon, he would just give up altogether from frustration. I gave in. I helped him put in the sheep piece.

This reflex of mine to jump in and help seems to be a pattern for me whenever I see him struggle. If he can’t put on his sock, I put it on for him. When he can’t put the lid back on his cup, I’m right there to aide him. Sure, I could justify my actions and intentions as a result of being an attentive mom. Wasn’t I just trying to help him? Show him that I care and that he can depend on me? Or should I be honest with myself and admit I’m on my way to becoming a “lawn-mower” parent, constantly trying to clear the path for my child?

Similarly, as teachers we work hard to help our most struggling learners. With the best of intentions, we scaffold our instruction, we “jump in” to help whenever there is a hint of difficulty. Early on in my teaching career, I panicked when my students struggled. Somehow I worried it was a reflection of my instruction, so I did all that was possible to make them succeed.

One day, while observing a guided reading lesson, my mentor commented, ”Jamie, you have some really wonderful scaffolding in your lessons for your students. What’s your game plan for taking them away?” To be honest, I had no game plan for taking them away. She reminded me that yes, just as scaffolds in real life are important for constructing buildings to reach new heights, they are meant to be temporary. No one wants a scaffold that hides what was really meant to be seen. I wanted to pave an easy path to success for my students but in reality all my best efforts to help only hindered them reaching their full potential for independence. I stole the opportunity to learn away from them.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, states in her book, How to Raise an Adult, “When children aren’t given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don’t learn to problem solve very well. They don’t learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem. The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others.”

In the classroom, as in parenting, there are a million small decisions we make to either give our children the “space to struggle” or not to. In what ways can we embrace struggle in the classroom? If a child is struggling with a topic, of course we want to stay in their zone of proximal development by providing the right modifications and scaffolds. But as my mentor challenged me to think, what is your game plan for slowly releasing the responsibility and independence to your students? Instead of panicking when our students fail, how can we embrace it as a huge opportunity for growth and learning?

Here’s what it might look like specifically in the context of guided reading.

  • Scaling back our book introductions.

Oftentimes, I’ve observed many teachers offering so much support in their book walks and introductions that they have left nothing for the student to decode or comprehend.Ask yourself, what challenges are you leaving for your students?For example, if you’re tempted to preview a tricky word, limit your previews to one or two, instead of four or five.Make sure you’re leaving some challenging words for your students to independently decode.

  • Never underestimate the power of wait time.

Silence and long pauses can be uncomfortable.And in those seconds when a child cannot read a word, it can seem like an eternity.But waiting a few seconds before jumping in with a prompt will lead to a child who is less dependent on adults and more confident to take risks in their reading.When a child immediately asks for teacher/parent help, it speaks a lot about how much help (and how quickly) they’ve received help in the past from adults.Wait time builds independence!

  • Keep your guided reading prompts lean and then move to more heavily supported prompts if necessary.

We can be intentional about what types of prompts we use when we coach our readers.Instead of jumping straight to naming a strategy if they can’t read a word, I would try a progression of coaching prompts that might look like this:

1) Wait 2) “Try Something”

3) “Check it” or “Fix it”

4) Does that make sense? Sound right? Look right?

5) Name the Strategy “Look through the whole word”

Notice how the prompts start super lean and then get heavier with the scaffolds. By starting lean, we’re allowing more opportunities for trial and error and self-monitoring.

  • “Could it be _________________?”

Alas, there are times when we have allowed for wait time and followed a progression of thoughtful prompting and the student still doesn’t know the word.In this case, a common response is to simply tell the child what the word is.However, if you simply phrase it as a question, “Could it be You are still putting the onus back on the child by asking them to self-monitor and cross check to see if that word does make sense.

Now when I’m at home with my son, I leave time for him to practice putting on his shoes, and I allow him to get frustrated while working on a puzzle. If he asks for help, instead of doing the task for him, I’ll slowly model for him and then ask him to try. All these seemingly small actions take intentionality, thoughtfulness and patience. Slowly I see the payoff. He’s growing to be an independent problem solver, with more resilience and confidence. And who doesn’t want that as parents and teachers?

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