June 20, 2014

How to Help Struggling Readers Stay Motivated Despite Setbacks

This year we started the first official Reading Horizons Softball Team. We're terrible. Like really terrible. We have fun… but we LOSE like crazy. It’s painful. Our score last week was 0-20. They didn’t even let us finish the game. Once the other team gets to 20… game over (even if there are still technically 12 minutes left in the game). It’s embarrassing. My new goal for us isn’t even to win… it’s for us to get half of the score of the other team. That would be success at this point. 

(FYI: After writing this we met my goal that night and it felt like we won. Below is the photographic proof… that’s 16-9 [us being the 9]… we exceeded our goal!)


Strangely… I still love it. I’m more determined than I’ve ever been in my life to improve my softball skills. I go to the batting cages every week (I still can’t hit…). I play catch for 30 minutes before every game. I ask everyone who knows anything about softball for strategy advice. I hope we need subs some weeks just so we can see if switching out one player helps (even though switching me out would probably make the biggest difference). I’d take any form of success at this point! As anyone who has experienced failure as bad as the Reading Horizons Softball Team learns: failure can be extremely motivating. 

Failure as a Motivator

One group of students that are exposed to struggle (and feelings of failure) early in life are those with dyslexia—for whom, learning to read is extremely difficult. For our In Your Own Backyard video series, we interviewed several individuals with dyslexia to learn how dyslexia affected them throughout their lives. A common trend prevailed across all of their stories: their reading difficulties motivated them either to improve their reading or to improve in another area of their life. 

Author and Researcher, Margaret B. Rawson, dedicated 55 years of her life to studying the lives of 56 dyslexic boys. Her findings are published in her book, Dyslexia Over the Lifespan, and reveal patterns of learning and achievement for students with dyslexia consistent with those featured in the In Your Own Backyard video series. Rawson discovered that these students tend to be “late-bloomers” in regards to their education and that they usually perform very well in high school and college, eventually finding themselves in successful careers. In fact, the most difficult period for these students is in their elementary and middle school years. 

By dealing with a challenge from such a young age, dyslexic students learn valuable lessons that help them develop a strong character. To get through their difficulties they must become determined and patient—qualities that set them up for a lifetime of success.

Failure as a Discourager

However, this isn’t always the case. We talk to teachers every day who are desperate to get struggling readers motivated to improve. After years of failing to learn to read these students want to stop trying. Perhaps if our softball failure stays as intense as it has been until the end of the season: I may never want to play softball ever again.

The saddest thing to me about working for Reading Horizons and to anyone I tell about my job, is the number of inmates that struggle with reading. It’s easy to see how struggling with reading made them feel demoralized in the classroom, so much so, that they sought alternative paths trying to find a place to belong and succeed—only to end up in correctional facilities. 

How to Help Students Learn from “Productive Failure”

How do you find the balance? Is there a way to preserve the motivating power of failure while minimizing discouragement?

Manu Kapur, a researcher and professor at the National Institute of Education of Singapore, has studied what he calls productive failure over the last few years. To promote productive failure, Kapor has students attempt to solve complex problems by collaborating with their peers prior to teacher-led direct instruction. This inevitably leads to failure, given that experts spent years developing the solutions to these complex problems. However, during this exploratory phase, students gain a deeper understanding of both the structure and complexity of the problem, making them more engaged and understanding when they’re provided direct instruction. Kapor has proven this process to lead to deeper learning and higher test performance.

For a student's failure to be productive, you must follow it up with direct instruction that helps students understand why they failed during initial exploratory attempts. However, when failure isn’t followed by corrective instruction, or when students don’t understand why they failed, the failure is unproductive (on the contrary, when a student succeeds without understanding why he/she succeeded, it leads to unproductive success).  

This being true, why do so many struggling readers lack motivation? They have experienced failure, and thus should be more engaged and interested in your instruction showing them how to correct their failure. 

Reading, like math and science, is a complex process. However, unlike math and science, very few people understand the process (see video below). Because reading is natural for most learners, including their teachers, most people don’t need to know the process involved in learning to read—thus, few know how to explain it. This makes it extremely difficult to provide effective direct instruction to struggling readers. Leading most of these students to experience unproductive failure—making failure frustrating rather than motivating. However, with the right training, teachers can learn how to explain the reading process to students and turn this pattern around.

Another reason failure can be unproductive (even when followed by direct instruction) is the message that students tell themselves when they fail.

From an article in Education Week on productive failure:

"What message kids internalize when they struggle is an absolutely essential part of a great classroom climate," said David Levin, a co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program charter network... "Things should be hard, and when things are hard, it should be fun. Teachers have to be able to recognize and engage with kids when they have the thought that they got a math problem wrong and it means, 'I'm a bad person.' "

Students, especially struggling readers, need to be taught that their previous failures are not indicative of their abilities or character. When you teach struggling readers to view failure as a natural, productive process, and provide effective instruction that helps them understand the reading process, they can experience productive success.

Here is a video about helping students develop a healthy mindset about their difficulties with learning and/or reading:

How do you help your students overcome reading problems? How do you convince them to keep trying even after experiencing failure?


Research by Manu Kapor:

Classroom-based Experiments in Productive Failure

Productive Failure [PowerPoint Presentation]

Articles about Productive Failure:

Students Learn to Fail—and Recover—at Calif. School

Why Floundering Is Good

Three Ways to Foster Productive Failure

Productive Failure: Turn Your Mistakes Into Learning Opportunities

Related Blog Posts

How to Get Started When Teaching Struggling Readers

How to Promote Metacognition & "Growth Mindset" in the Classroom

Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #3 – The English Language is Inconsistent

Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #4 - College Prepares Teachers to Teach Reading

How Does Dyslexia Affect Individuals Throughout Their Lifetime?


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