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.

Searching for the Gold and Why Gold Matters

Long, long ago- way before marriage, kids, mortgages-I played basketball in the mornings. Early mornings. “Basketball with the old guys”– well, that’s what I called it.  Every Monday, a group of us would convene at 6 a.m. in the circa 1968 gymnasium of the middle school in which I worked to play hoops for an hour before everyone headed off to work.  And although it was difficult to discipline myself to get up that early (after 21 years in education, I am still not a morning person), I typically ended up feeling pretty good about myself at the end of our session. After all, I was a spritely 27 years of age; whereas the rest of the crowd, aside from my roommate (also a teacher at the school), was probably in their mid-forties.  Forties! Wow, that’s old (was what my overconfident, naive brain told me).  So, I excelled!  I felt strong!  I felt confident!  And it was usually pretty fun.  Not having grown up playing basketball, I was well-matched with my fellow early-morning hoops enthusiasts.  I actually grew as a player.  You might say I was playing at my “just right” level.

But one day, it was suggested that instead of meeting at the middle school at 6 a.m. we meet at the high school.  Arriving at the high school, I quickly knew today would be different.  And, in fact, it was different.  These kids were actually good.  And not only were they good, they were stronger, faster, and better conditioned.  No longer did I feel so strong.  No longer did I feel so confident.  And, to be honest, it was not all that much fun.  I felt outmatched. 

So…what does all this have to do with reading? you ask.

What we want for our readers is a match to text.  We want them to feel strong.  We want them to feel confident.  And we want them to enjoy what they read!  One way to nurture such sentiment, aside from allowing for choice (I wrote about this in my last post), is to ensure students are well-matched (versus outmatched) to the texts they are holding. Dr. Richard Allington (from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville) cites studies in his excellent article, “Every Child, Every Day” that what matters in reading development is “reading and rereading of text that is engaging and comprehensible to students.” (Allington, 2012)   In other words, kids need to read stuff they like and can actually understand.

But how do we know if a text is actually comprehensible to our students?  Might I suggest a couple of ways to determine a child’s match to text:

(1)  “In-book assessment”– Ask your student to show you where s/he is currently reading..  Say, “Point to the place you are right now.”  After s/he shows you, simply count 100 words ahead (and read that short passage to yourself); then ask your child to read those words aloud.  As you listen, count mistakes s/he makes (if any)- there should not be any more than four.  Then ask him/her to summarize that little bit (did s/he get it?).  Although this type of assessment is not perfect, it will give you a sense of your child’s grasp of this particular text.

(2)  Ask and Listen – This one is simple: Ask your student to tell you about what they are reading.  Then listen for a few key things:

  • Is s/he talking in specifics about the characters?
  • Is s/he talking about the setting (either physical or emotional)?
  • Is there a sense for what’s important in the story?

If the talk you hear is primarily literal or plot-driven, ask, “What can you tell me about the thinking you’re doing?”  As you listen, again be on the look-out for a few key things:

  • S/he is talking about ideas— not just text-specific facts.
  • S/he is talking in specifics (if everything is murky and general, this could be a sign that the match is not right).

If a child reads a book that’s “too easy”, generally little harm can come to him or her.  However, if a child reads a book that is too far beyond their “zone of proximal development” (a term coined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky that refers to the difference between what a child can do with versus without assistance)– that is, a text that  is too challenging– a number of possible negative side effects can come into play:

1.  The child learns that reading means “sort of getting it”, versus deep comprehension.
While it is wonderful that so many students in middle school reading workshops across the country are becoming voracious readers, we have also seen many students becoming “plot junkies”; that is, they have grown to be readers that only read for the plot.  And in YA (Young Adult) lit, we know that these stories are about so much more than the plot! Think, Percy Jackson in the Lightning Thief or Katniss in Hunger Games.

2.  The child decides that they’re “not very good at reading.”
This can be one of the most devastating narratives a young reader can establish for him/herself.  Once a child “decides  s/he is not ‘good at’ reading,” it can take years to undo or disrupt this narrative (some parents are all too familiar with this).  Match to books can make all the difference!

3.  The child gives up, or labels him/herself as “not a reader”.
A version of the above narrative, this one can be even more long-lasting and detrimental to the reading health of a student.  Our young readers need a lot of support– lots of books, reading mentors, excellent instruction– but one of the most important supports is a strong message that reading means thinking; and in order to grow thinking, we must understand what we read.

4.  The child becomes a fake reader.
Author and Staff Developer Cris Tovani was one of the first to coin the term, ‘fake reading’ (check out this great chat with her and Education World here).  Often beginning in adolescence, students who have begun to feel marginalized in the world of reading begin to hone their craft of fake reading— that is, pretending to read.  Although Tovani elucidates the fact that many successful people in the world were “fake readers” when they were younger, this is not what we really want for our young readers.  Most of us would agree that our goals for our readers probably sound something like, “engaged”, “sophisticated”, and/or “deep”.  We are interested in supporting our readers in becoming stronger in their ability to comprehend, interpret, and apply what they read.  Not in supporting a habit of pretense!  Match to text, then, becomes extremely important.

So how can parents and persons of influence help when it comes to supporting our readers in finding books they can and want to read?  Here are just a few resources:

Scholastic Book Wizard–  If you know what level books your child has been matched with, simply set the leveling system to “Guided Reading (A-Z)”, and search for the gold!  Parameters can be set to help guide the search.  You can also use this site to look up levels of books!  Although the database is far from comprehensive, there are many books available for search.

Dr. Kimberly Tyson’s blog– Several go-to sources to find good books (assembled by Dr. Kimberly) are here on her blog, including one of my favorites, Nerdy Book Club.  Okay, the name is not a great match with teens, but the recommendations are voted on by teachers, librarians, authors, booksellers, parents, and young people.

Use the librarian.  A tried and true method!  As author Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book, Coraline) says,“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” 

Maybe the basketball metaphor (I wrote about at the beginning) didn’t work for you.  If not, think of a realm in which you have worked to become stronger– and you did, indeed, grow stronger! Or got better. Or gained proficiency.  There was likely a positive ratio of challenge to success that helped you succeed.

Now, some might argue that kids ought to be “challenged” by reading books that are “above their level”. Indeed, there are actual curriculum publishers out there advocating that kids be in “frustrational text” the majority of time.  Has this ever helped a reader to grow? Sure!  We can probably all think of a time when “playing above our level” benefitted us and helped us to grow.  But as a general rule, let’s be sure our kids spend a lot of time playing– I mean, reading– at a level that helps them to grow.  So they can experience what it is to feel strong.  To feel confident.  And to enjoy what they read.  For these are the keys to inspiring a life-long love of reading.

It’s a Matter of Choice

Fall is an exciting time!  For those of us who spend a great deal of our existence in and around the field of education, this is the turning of the new year.  It’s a time for new resolutions, higher expectations, and hopes that this year will be… well, better than last year.

For our middle school students, this is also a time of settling into new routines with new teachers.  Students have new schedules, new classrooms, new expectations being placed upon them.  It’s a lot of ‘new’.

One routine we hope is not new–and is finding its place this year– is independent reading.

With the vast array of activities and distractions that can encompass today’s fast-paced lives (texting, competitive sports, social media, clubs, activities, etc.) it can be easy to lose sight of (or de-emphasize) the importance of reading.  But this cannot be!

A great thinker once said, “Reading creates a wider inner dimension.”  Those of us who identify ourselves as “readers” know this to be true.  We know that reading helps us widen our repertoire of imagined experiences, expand our knowledge of the human condition, and increase our awareness of the world at-large.

The great American novelist, George RR Martin once said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The [person] who never reads lives only one.”

But how do we– those of us fortunate enough to be in a position of influence for young adults– encourage, support, and foster a love of reading in our students?

One tried-and-true method is allowing for choice.  Choice in reading is key.  In fact, in Brian Cambourne’s (1988) research on literacy development, (click here to learn a little more) choice is identified as a condition of promoting self-direction and agency– desirable qualities all adults likely wish for their future adults.

Agency can be defined as “the state of being in action or of exerting power.”  Allowing students choice in their reading material is fostering agency and independence.

In reading workshops and classrooms across the country (and probably around the world), a common time cited by middle school students as a time when “reading was the pits” was when “someone chose what I had to read for me.”  Sometimes they phrase it as, “When I didn’t get to pick my book”, or “When I had to read _________ (insert adult-selected title).”  I’ll never forget the time when, while leading a training in Portland, Oregon, a teacher shared about the time he was made to read The Hobbit.  “I didn’t read another book for five years,” he reported.  “Up until that time I felt like I was a good reader.  But after I had to read that book, I didn’t feel that way anymore.  So I stopped reading.”

Choice matters.

Sometimes as adults, however, we are not always comfortable with the choices our students make as readers.  We think to ourselves, “Really? That’s what you want to read?” (okay, maybe some of us might have said that aloud once).  When we find ourselves in this situation, we might want to consider the following options:

1.  Inquire as to what it is about the text that has interested the student.  This might sound like, “Hmm…what had you pick that [book/magazine/blog/article]?”

2.  If the student offers little information, follow up with: “Can you say more about that?”

3.  If you are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with the choice, you may consider reading it first. Or you might offer to read the text “together”.  Avoid creating a ‘forbidden fruit’ situation, but rather aim to foster a reading mentorship in which you are clear about your role.

4.  If you are unable to approve the material selected by your student, be as clear as possible about your reasons.  You may also want to have some alternate suggestions up your sleeve, or offer to search for other texts that contain similar themes, ideas, characters, etc. (stay tuned for ways to search for books).

Remember that the goal of any reader ought to be to outgrow him/herself.  We strive to be the caterpillar over and over again, letting each book, text, article, post, or tweet help us cast off a new cocoon, leaving us anew.  Thinking differently.  Thinking more. In a wider dimension.

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader. (Margaret Fuller)