"This Class Changed Me": Fostering Adolescent Reader Identities in High School Reading Classes

Dawan Coombs

Abstract

The author presents a case study of an adolescent girl who struggled with both her reading skills and her self-identification as a poor reader. A reading class taught by a capable and caring teacher in a safe classroom environment with personally engaging literature changed both skills and identity in striking ways. The student’s personal experiences and comments are emphasized.

I just—I—I feel, like smarter. . . . They always taught us those skills, like listen, sound the word out—I never did that . . . No one else did it, so I just didn’t do it. I wasn’t going to be like trying to sound the word out. . . . But now I feel smarter cause I can actually read pretty good.

Fifteen-year-old Anna’s description of her reading ability exemplifies the complexities inherent in the act of reading: In addition to the skills required to decode and comprehend texts, the opinions of other people or groups and the self-perceptions of the reader contribute to the reading experience. Research shows students’ self-perceptions, as individuals and as readers (Miller, 2000; Tatum, 2008), their early literacy experiences (Hall, 2009), the curriculum (Fecho, 2000; Miller, 2000; Reeves, 2004; Tatum, 2008), students’ perceptions of school (Lenters, 2006; Triplett, 2004), as well as their teachers, peers, and parents (Hall, 2009; Moje & Dillon, 2006; Rex, 2001) all influence the way adolescent readers approach texts and reading tasks.Reading goes beyond just skill sets to include the practices and habits shaped by values, communities, and experiences (Langer, 2001).

Students who don’t read will typically fail to develop positive reader identities and often fail to invest the time and effort required to improve their reading abilities. Therefore, it becomes essential that teachers support students to develop both the cognitive skills and affective dispositions of engaged and literate individuals.  The discussion that follows examines the experiences of Anna, a self-identified struggling adolescent reader, showing how both strategy instruction and individual attention to her interests and needs during a semester-long reading class helped her transform her reader identity and reading ability.

The Crossroads of Anna’s Identities

The observations (Dyson & Genishi, 2005) of Anna and interviews (Chase, 2003) with her are part of the data collected for a larger multiple case study (Yin, 2009) examining the self-perceptions of struggling adolescent readers. Case studies allow literacy researchers to look in depth at a phenomenon and the particular contexts that surround it. Anna’s case proved particularly helpful in my study because of the way she articulated her understandings of her reading abilities.

As an outside observer I wasn’t present to observe her daily classroom interactions with her teacher and peers, but I did observe her behavior and performance in the reading class periodically throughout the semester and spoke with her regularly about her experiences. Throughout my five interviews with Anna, as well as in the school’s assessments of her reading skills and her scores on the Reader’s Self-Perception Scale (RSPS; Henk & Melnick, 1995), Anna identified as a struggling reader.

A thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) of these observations and interviews clarified Anna’s tendency to talk about herself in “before and after” terms; she talked about her attitudes, actions, and perspectives before her reading class in contrast to her emerging perspectives during and after the class. Although sociocultural perspectives challenge linear notions of identity, such comparisons allowed Anna to articulate shifts in how she perceived herself as a reader.

Although Anna wasn’t initially excited about taking a reading class and rarely read, after finishing the class she explained that she enjoyed reading and read often. Most likely this change resulted from numerous encounters throughout the class influenced by a variety of factors. The discussion that follows explores the forces that influenced this shift through Anna’s experiences. In her interviews she attributed her teacher, the texts she read, and participation in the class itself as integral in helping her work through questions about her reading ability and identity.

A Teacher’s Influence on Identity

Anna attributed a significant part of this change in her behavior to her teacher, Mr. Larson: including the books he invited the students to read and his attitudes toward their reading. She explained,

He taught us that we could read anything. We read this one book, Robot Dreams, last semester, but it had no words, just pictures. That was pretty cool. Like all of his books were good. They’re not like the boring crap . . . most language arts teachers have—they were actually really exciting and had good morals and stuff.

Engagement with books. In this comment Anna alluded to multiple elements of a successful literacy classroom orchestrated by her teacher. Her first statement, “He taught us that we could read anything,” included both the breadth of the content explored in Mr. Larson’s class and the feedback he provided students about their abilities. Surveying his classroom library showed that the shelves contained a variety of young adult novels for students to read on their own, but he also used engaging young adult novels as the anchor texts for his units. Anna mentioned one of these texts, an almost completely wordless graphic novel called Robot Dreams, as representing a genre that opened up the reading experience for her.

The books Mr. Larson selected for students to read as a group and those that he made available for them to read individually challenged Anna’s notions of reading in relation to the texts and genres sanctioned in traditional English classes. As the result of successful and enjoyable encounters with books selected by this teacher, Anna trusted that the other books he offered would also provide her with enjoyable reading experiences. She found opportunities to engage with genres of value to her and thus read for enjoyment, not just for an assignment.

Teachers need first to be well read in young adult literature and aware of high-interest texts, specifically those of interest to struggling or disengaged readers. By incorporating graphic novels, wordless books, and young adult fiction and nonfiction, as well as other genres, Mr. Larson challenged Anna’s notions about what qualifies as a book and what she could read. Teachers need to make this kind of literature available to students.

Whether through book talks, classroom libraries, assigned whole class reading of novels, or literature circles, students need opportunities to engage with these texts. For example, Mr. Larson used these books as means to provide direct instruction and model reading strategies, but he also made them available in a variety of ways. Thus he helped Anna understand that reading includes a wide variety of texts, genres, and ideas beyond what she had previously experienced, helping her see reading as an activity she could do and as one that she might enjoy.

Feedback and support. According to Anna, Mr. Larson also taught her that she could “read anything” through the feedback he offered. In their class discussions and individual consultations, he provided useful feedback and challenged Anna to practice successful reading habits within a supportive environment. Although Mr. Larson didn’t pile on praise and affirmations, his words pushed Anna to improve her skills. For example, he asked her to read books she considered hard and to practice skills she didn’t possess.

Reading aloud was a skill Anna lacked, which had caused her embarrassment in the past. Thus she hated reading aloud and avoided doing it whenever possible. However, in Mr. Larson’s reading class everyone was required to practice reading aloud, so even though Anna felt nervous and didn’t want to be mocked, she accepted the challenge. Ultimately she felt taking this risk paid off because she learned skills that improved her reading ability and confidence reading in front of a group.

Mr. Larson’s feedback at these moments challenged her to become better. Anna went on to explain, “He made me feel smart—because [his feedback] was never like bad things.” The comments he offered helped her “feel smart” as she worked through her challenges and allowed her to act as an agent in her own learning. But more than that, these comments helped Anna see her own growth.

Anna contrasted the feedback she received from Mr. Larson with feedback she received from the student teacher working in the class. Her dislike for the student teacher’s feedback approach appeared evident in the few interactions with him that she cited. For example, once the student teacher told her she didn’t write the letter M properly as an upper and lower case letter, embarrassing her in front of the class. In another instance she quoted a phrase he used to give directions in class—“You can and you will do this”—as off putting. Rather than using authoritative language and pointing out her struggles, Mr. Larson positioned Anna as an agent in her own growth, helping her reconstruct her reader identity. 

Language and identity.The teacher’s language can contribute to reader growth. Teachers play a role in constructing reader identities, extending meaning as well as offering “possible worlds, positions, and identities” (Johnston, 2004, p. 5). Dialogues with Mr. Larson challenged Anna’s notions about her potential, positioning her as someone capable of learning, thus influencing the way she constructed her reader identity. Like students in other studies, Anna wanted to be challenged but didn’t want to be overwhelmed by tasks beyond her ability (Margolis & McCabe, 2003).

Ultimately Anna wanted a teacher who would push her to improve, not one who simply criticized her without offering her guidance as to how to improve. Knowing Anna, including her strengths, challenges and vulnerabilities, helped Mr. Larson make a difference in her reading development. As he was posing challenges in an environment where she felt supported and capable, she worked towards new goals and improved. In short, his language reflected his belief in Anna’s potential to succeed, which helped Anna develop that belief in herself as well.  

Identity and Engagement with Literature

Anna’s comments also considered the influence of the issues, themes, and topics she read about on her growth as a reader. Reading and discussing books that explore issues of identity provides students with opportunities to think about and wrestle with topics of interest to them.

Racial issues.The books Anna encountered in her reading class provided her with opportunities to engage with issues relevant to her life. The books Anna read appealed to her interests and invited her to dialogue with questions concerning her identity. For example, while many bi-racial teenagers experience racism, Anna felt interrogated about her race on a daily basis. Part of this occurred because Anna’s caramel skin, large almond-shaped eyes, and long flowing hair made guessing her race difficult. Thus she often found herself correcting people’s assumptions about whether or not she was Latina, Indian, Native American, African American or mixed race. Her frequent allusions to these episodes throughout our interviews affirmed the preoccupation with race and identity that filled her thoughts.

But the books Anna read in literacy class offered her ways to think about these issues and consider solutions to dilemmas she faced. Although she hated comics and didn’t want to read the graphic novel American Born Chinese (Yang, 2006), one of the first books assigned for class, she immediately connected with the main character. The book begins as three seemingly disconnected stories which are interwoven into a plot that brings them together. For Anna, the stories resonated with her experiences, and she enjoyed the book because she related to the struggles with prejudice and judgment. Anna explained,

My whole life pretty much . . . I’ve been judged. Like I’ve been told by preachers that I was a mistake and I shouldn’t really have been born because I’m—well—biracial, or mixed. . . . I’ve been told a whole bunch of things. I’ve been told I’m Hispanic, and they’ll be like, “Hey, go over the border” . . . I get stuff like that all the time. And you know, this book . . . it’s about this Chinese person who was from China, but he like moved to America with his Chinese culture . . . he moved to a new school outside Chinatown that was filled with people who were like . . . “don’t eat my cats.” They’d be like saying that to the kid . . . and it seemed really hard for him.

Reading about racism experienced by this Chinese American teenager helped Anna consider her own experiences. Although the character was not female or mixed race, others constantly made assumptions about him based on stereotypical understandings about his culture. Reading this text didn’t change Anna’s own experiences, but transacting with the story and characters helped her view her own position from a new perspective. In this way, Anna found her story in the Chinese student’s story.

Misunderstanding. Anna made similar connections when she read Speak (Anderson, 1999) for class. In this book Melinda, a silent 14-year-old freshman, finds herself ostracized on her first day of high school because she had called the police to break up a house party the summer before. However, her classmates don’t realize Melinda called the police only after being raped at the party by one of the most popular boys in school. 

Anna’s explanation as to why she identified with Melinda suggested Anna spent significant time considering the issues in this book. She told me she really connected with the main character because “When [the students] didn’t even know [Melinda’s] story, they were judging her because she called the police. You should ask someone before you start picking on them.” Anna drew connections to her life, explaining the book resonated with her because it spoke to “How life was for me growing up. Judged. Made fun of because of who I am,” by people who didn’t know her. For Anna, this book helped her make sense of her own experiences, although she had not been a victim of rape, nor was she White or middle class as Melinda was. Anna knew what it felt like to be judged at church, in school, or by strangers, particularly in relation to her reading ability, race, and religion. 

Rosenblatt (1995) alluded to making this kind of connection and meaning through texts when she wrote, “The desire for self-understanding and for knowledge about people provides an important avenue into literature” (p. 52). The ways others implicitly and explicitly defined Anna influenced her identity. But Speak allowed Anna to project herself into a character’s experiences, to see how she dealt with similar challenges, ultimately enlarging Anna’s capacity to understand her own situation. In a sense, this story ultimately allowed her to re-examine her own situation and future responses to the assumptions of others.  

The content presented in literature lends itself to identity exploration and development, making language arts and reading courses ripe with opportunity for discussions about students’ transactions with texts, including their own experiences, belief systems, and cultures (Broughton & Fairbanks, 2003). Therefore, in addition to helping students learn literacy strategies, teachers can draw on content to help students develop positive reader identities. As a result, teachers must continue to advocate for the inclusion of texts that are interesting to students and relevant to their lives.

Speaking specifically about identity, Bomer (2011) stated, “Our teaching can be most powerful if it is undertaken with students experiencing the classroom as including space for the details of their existence, rather than blurring their individual faces into a vague generalized identity of ‘student’” (p. 21). These details include issues such as race, class, gender, and socioeconomic differences. Integrating opportunities to foster reader identities can help students make sense of content and engage in the reading experience. Books that interrogate issues of identity provide a forum for students to explore these issues.

Identity with Direct Instruction and a Safe Environment

Anna consistently made distinctions between her abilities before and after the reading class, demonstrating the differences in how she perceived herself as a reader. In the comment quoted at the beginning of this article, she included the simple but deeply significant words “I feel like, smarter.” In this statement Anna listed skills, such as listening to words and sounding them out, as strategies good readers use to make sense of texts. Although Anna had known about these strategies, before the class, she hadn’t typically applied them. She had refused to slow down, sound out words, or engage in other practices that might make her look stupid in front of her peers. 

A safe place. Explaining the reasons for her fears, Anna recounted her experience reading Bible verses at her church: “I used to have to read in church, and I was so slow and everyone would just be like ‘Oh gosh, she’s going to read again.’” This response and similar responses by her school classmates to her reading in class had caused her to withdraw from the very opportunities designed to help her improve. In short, her desire to blend in with her classmates or avoid derision trumped her desire to read.

But skills like these and others, such as questioning the text, checking for comprehension, and re-reading, were among the strategies that Anna’s teacher reinforced and taught in mini-lessons and reading exercises. In her reading class everyone had to practice reading. Practice included participating in the discussions and mini-lessons, as well as taking turns reading aloud. Although Anna wasn’t excited about reading in front of her peers, she soon realized that everyone in the class needed practice too, which ultimately made it a safe place for all of them to engage in learning, rather than merely in trying to “save face.”

Although she had formerly viewed opportunities to read aloud as problematic, successfully reading aloud ultimately helped Anna see herself as a successful reader. Recalling the earlier reaction of those at her church to her reading aloud, she explained, “Now I can read, so I’m like ‘Ha, ha, lady, I can read now.’” Her newly honed skills allowed her to challenge the church goers’ and others’ responses; her response comment reflected her new understandings about herself as a reader and the lack of fear she felt at reading aloud.

A new perspective. Anna later stated,

I’m a good reader, but I’m not like the best. I can’t read all those big words and stuff . . . . I don’t care what people think about me, but I used to. But now I’m just like, “Whatever, I’m not going to change for someone who thinks my hair’s not right or I don’t read good.” I’m not going to change. It’s not worth it.

Anna’s words indicated the shift in her perspective: Her own desires to learn trumped the judgments of others. She no longer hid from these judgments, but took risks to improve herself. Although she was still encountering similar challenges, she indicated a desire to do what would be best for her, regardless of what others thought. 

Anna’s response was not unlike a struggling middle school reader described by Hall (2009), whose  “goal to influence the identity her peers constructed for her created a paralyzing situation” as she directed her efforts towards blending in rather than towards developing her reading skills (p. 301). But in hindsight Anna saw that the benefits of learning to read outweighed the importance of blending in with her classmates. In addition, because everyone in the class had to read aloud, she submitted to a requirement that ultimately improved her reading ability. Having space where it is safe to make mistakes, where improvement is part of the growth process, drastically influences readers’ willingness to take risks so they can learn and improve.  

Anna summarized her own growth as a reader: “Before this class I hated [reading],” she explained, “and now I really like it. [This class] changed me.” Although Anna wasn’t initially motivated to read and didn’t view herself as a strong reader, with a supportive teacher and the encouraging context of the reading class she willingly consumed texts that allowed her to explore issues associated with racial identity. These and other successful reading experiences challenged her previous beliefs about herself as an individual and as a reader. As a result, her reading ability improved simultaneously as her reader identity transformed.

Final Thoughts on Anna’s Experience

Although a variety of interventions and approaches exist to support and remediate struggling readers, reading courses that provide students with time to read with positive teacher support and access to high interest literature that explores issues of significance to the readers, as well as direct instruction in reading strategies in a safe environment help improve students’ reading abilities and reader identities. Although each student’s experiences will be different, texts and dialogues that help students connect literacy practices to their lives in meaningful and substantive ways lead students to long-term academic success and help them develop positive reader identities. For this reason approaches that value the experiences students bring to the classroom and to texts cannot be ignored.  

Peter Johnston (2004) explained, “Children in our classrooms are becoming literate.  They are not simply learning the skills of literacy. They are developing personal and social identities—uniqueness and affiliations that define the people they see themselves becoming” (p. 22). In this time of increasing standardization, deep tensions develop as stakeholders seek to raise test scores, improve student learning, and produce literate citizens. However, issues of scores and achievement will improve as students engage with texts and participate in literacy practices in meaningful ways. For this to happen, policies and practices must acknowledge connections between skills and identity. Allowing teachers to incorporate the texts of student lives and identities with books that speak to these issues will help achieve these goals.

Dawan Coombs is an assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University where she works in the English teaching program. Her research focuses on struggling adolescent reader identity issues and dialogical approaches to teacher preparation.

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