6 Ways to Nurture a Growth Mindset in Our Young Readers and Writers

It’s that time of year again…a time when we’ve turned the page of our calendars. Oftentimes, this time has all of us thinking about such things as “resolutions”– how will I make this year different? Better? Different and better? In this post, I humbly attempt to offer some organic food for thought when it comes to helping our students outgrow themselves as readers and writers. To perhaps make this year different and better. Let’s start with the human brain.

The brain is amazing! One of the features of our brain that is now well-researched but little known is its plasticity. The human brain is capable of changing– actually physically changing!– as a result of the quality and types of thoughts being generated. I know, it sounds very chicken-or-egg, right?! But stay with me…  

In her bestselling book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck outlines a cognitive model for thinking about growth and improvement. In a nutshell, Dr. Dweck teaches us that there are two mindsets: fixed mindset and growth mindset. In relation to our young readers and writers, the basic distinction lies in a misconception that some middle school students carry within themselves in regards to reading and/or writing: that is, a belief that because reading and/or writing is difficult right now, it will always be difficult. Somewhere along the way, due to either feedback they have received or a belief they have grown attached to, they have learned that intelligence and/or ability is a general character trait, and therefore permanent, unalterable in any way.

This is simply not true.  

Peter Johnston in his important book entitled, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, calls this type of thinking”fixed theorizing” because of the permanent nature it represents. He writes, “A fixed theorist thinks, ‘I’m not a good writer.’ A dynamic theorist [someone with a growth mindset] thinks, ‘I’m not very good at writing poetry yet,’ or, ‘I’m not very good at writing in very noisy situations yet.'” (Johnston, 2012) Notice the subtle difference– yet. The implication being– “Okay, maybe I’m not good now. But I will be.”

Many of us remember the story of basketball great Michael Jordan who was not chosen for his high school varsity basketball team one year. Did Michael say to himself, “I’m just not very good at basketball”? No. Instead, he likely said something like, “I’m not there yet.” And he began to double down on his practicing. Forging onto a successful high school career, to a National Championship with the University of North Carolina, to six national championships with the Chicago Bulls, to two gold medals in the Olympics…many of us are familiar with this narrative of a famous dynamic theorist.

With a growth mindset, kids can (and will, with some help) outgrow who they are as readers and writers. But how can we, as persons of influence, help to nurture a growth mindset in our young readers and writers? Here, I offer six possible ways (thank you to my colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for the inspiration):

(1) Invite them to find a reading or writing mentor, maybe you– “Mentor” was a mythological character from Homer’s Odyssey and has come to be defined as “a person who shares knowledge with a less experienced person.” In today’s culture, we think of a mentor as someone with whom we share a valued relationship of trust. All of us can likely reflect upon those persons who made a lasting difference in our lives, who we trusted to show us the way down a path we wished to pursue. For me, one of those persons was my father who taught me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” My father was also always reading (and still is to this day)! So for me, he was my reading mentor. Probably without even realizing it, he showed me (notice I am not saying “told me”) a few important things:

 (a) Reading is worth doing— When kids see adults reading, that matters. You are showing how you have chosen reading over all the other things you could be doing (not an easy task as a parent!). Studies have shown that one possible reason girls come to see themselves as readers more often than boys is the fact that it is women who are more likely to belong to a book club or be found reading independently. The fact that I often found my father reading likely played an important role in how I began to view myself in relation to reading.  

(b) Reading furthers your life’s pursuits— I can remember, in particular, when my father decided to become a soccer coach. Not growing up with the game, he knew very little of it when I was young. So he purchased, checked out, borrowed, studied, and annotated any book he could get his hands on about coaching the game of soccer. He even went on to write his own! When we as adults are able to be the kind of mentor who shows kids how much reading and writing matters when it comes to pursuing an interest, we are being a growth mindset. We become the iteration of Michael Jordan-type determination that proudly and boldly states, “I’m not good enough at this yet.”

(c) It’s not about telling, it’s about showing— Honestly, I don’t remember my father nagging me to read. I don’t remember him expounding on the virtues of reading or writing. It was partly a function of who he was being that mattered. When we take on being, versus telling, we show kids that it is living and breathing something that actually matters. Don’t get me wrong…we probably still need to do some telling, too! But you see my point.

So think of the mentor(s) in your life…you’ll likely remember that it was who they were being, not just what they said, that made all the difference.

(2) “Getting better involves hard work”- be that message– It was famous educator Booker T. Washington who once said, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.” When working to nurture a growth mindset in our kids (or ourselves), it is imperative that hard work be welcomed as a key ingredient. New Yorker writer and author Malcolm Gladwell identifies one common element shared by those who have experienced great success (think The Beatles, Bill Gates) was the opportunity to work hard. In other words, if we set out to grow or get better at something, we should actually seek out opportunities to work hard– not avoid them! And as adults of influence, providing such opportunities is part of the formula. We essentially want to be coaching into work ethic, fostering what Paul Tough calls “grit”.

One of my mentors, Dr. Lucy Calkins, Director of the Reading and Writing Project at the Columbia University Teachers College, once told me that as she reflected back on her life, specifically on her seminal accomplishments, she noticed that it was never the times when she was sitting back on the couch, kicking back, and eating chips that things were moving forward; rather, great accomplishment took place during times of “press and stress”– that is, when she was working really hard.

Obviously, we don’t wish our students to be “pressed and stressed” all the time. But we do want to reinforce with them that a growth mindset welcomes hard work. Share with them a time when you were learning to get better at something– whether it was trying to forward a social cause, becoming a better skier, learning a new job, remodeling a room or a house, or learning to play an instrument– and talk about the hard work it took to get where you wanted to be. Because this matters, and we know that.

(3) Practice matters– This one may seem obvious, but it’s shocking how befuddled students look when you tell them that they can become stronger readers and writers– no, really!- by practicing. I don’t know if it is because they only associate the concept with such things as sports and music? One student once told me, “Well, of course I practice Lacrosse– how else would I get better?”  

Whatever the reason, one part of developing a growth mindset is recognition that practice is essential. Reading and writing are skills learned in use; therefore, the more we do it, the more we get better. This may seem oversimplified (and it clearly is, as we want to be practicing in a meaningful way at a just-right level. I wrote about that in my last post), but it is true. Think of Michael Jordan. And think of great educator and writer William Zinsser who teaches us,
“We learn to write by writing.”

(4) Build a vision for what is possible- You can’t achieve it if you can’t imagine it. When we as adults, mentors, teachers, parents, and grandparents want to nurture a growth mindset in our youngsters, we want to be mindful of how we help them construct a vision of what it is they are trying to achieve. And what is the possibility for that vision?

Besides being an educator, I am also a professional musician (piano and keyboards). I can remember being ten years old when I heard my mother playing Beethoven’s famous, “Fur Elise”. In that moment, I built a vision for what was possible. Well, part of one, anyway. I consider this crucial to my success as a musician, as I went on to study piano throughout my entire academic career, eventually coming to enter the professional world. How would that have been possible without a vision for what success looked and sounded like?

But how can we do this for reading and writing? A few suggestions might be:

(1) Help to build a course of study for your young reader(s). Perhaps you might show them how to “work up” to a harder book by reading easier books in that same genre. (2) Maybe you help them to set goals with their volume of reading (pages, minutes, both). Sometimes it helps to teach young readers that building stamina with reading and writing is like training for a marathon. We don’t train for marathons by running marathons! Rather, we run one mile on day one. Maybe we run a little farther the next day. Then we run a little longer the next. Then we run a little farther. In other words, we build up to where we want to be. “Today, you wrote seven lines! Great job. How many do you think you’ll write tomorrow?”

(5) Celebrate small steps- You can tell a lot about a person by what they celebrate. Recall that mentor you were thinking about earlier…likely, there was some celebration along the way that s/he sponsored for you.

Whatever way we celebrate with our young readers and writers, the important thing is this:  we do it.

Sometimes those small steps might look like this:

Credit: Imagur

(6) Chart progress- Finally, when nurturing a growth mindset, it helps to make small steps visible on a chart or in a notebook. There are also many online or digital platforms available for smartphones or computers, such as Goodreads.com. Goodreads allows kids to create an online reading record that enables him/her to see the title of the book s/he is currently reading, books s/he has finished, and books s/he plans to read next. Another social media site focused on books is Shelfari.com. Here members can, according to the website, “build virtual bookshelves, discover, rate and discuss books, and participate in online groups.” Also, there is Biblionasium– “100% kid-tested and approved!” they tout.  

Remember that our middle school kids are very social; so the more we can leverage the medium of a social learning, the better.

“Get here when you can” – Oleta Adams

The bottom line in developing a growth mindset is that the focus is not on where you are currently, but rather, where you’re going and how you plan to get there. Even if your student(s) don’t believe, remind them of something the Heath brothers teach us: that it’s much easier to behave your way into a new way of thinking than believe your way into a new way of behaving. That is to say, behave your way to a growth mindset. Don’t over-think it.

See where it takes you.

For more on growth mindset, click here.

Author: Lanny Ball

For more than 29 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a former co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting writing teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.

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