I believe everyone struggles with at least one school subject at some point in their life. For me it was, and always will be, mathematics. As a homeschooled student, I was in “class” from about 8:00am until 2:00pm every day with a half hour to hour lunch, and two of those 6.5 hours of class were always spent on math. Long division, algebra, geometry and fractions all equally confounded me, and every math lesson was a drawn-out battle as I grappled with the formulae and fought to make sense out of what was essentially a foreign language to me. There were several social and emotional factors that came into play every time I opened a math textbook, including the “fight or flight” syndrome. First, I would argue with my mother about the lesson and why I had to know all of this “useless stuff” (the fight). After she would win the argument, I would be so worked up that I mentally shut down (the flight). I literally could not figure out the answers to the problems. Then my mother would have to help me out every step of the way until I was calm and confident enough to answer the remaining questions on my own. When it came to math, I had developed learned helplessness—the belief children have “based on repeated failures that their efforts to learn will be ineffective and they must rely on others to help them” (Gunning, 42).

As I read pages 42-46 of chapter two, I found myself sympathizing with the case study of Florence. Florence struggled to read and to remember what she had learned from the day before. As her reading difficulties continued, doubt and frustration slowly whittled away any self-confidence she possessed until she found herself trapped in the cycle of learned helplessness. As Gunning writes, “Believing she could not learn to read became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Florence. Because she had judged her efforts to be futile, Florence no longer worked on reading, learned less, and fell further behind, thus confirming her feelings of defeatism” (43).

Gunning describes the importance of developing self-efficacy in students to counteract defeatist attitudes (Gunning, 43). If the child believes she can do it, and the teacher provides her with materials that are easy enough for her to complete, the student’s confidence will soar. Besides having materials that are appropriate for the struggling student’s learning level, teachers should offer positive feedback whenever the student completes something particularly difficult, as well as explain why the concept they are learning is important and where and when the students should apply it. These teaching techniques are important to master, because in our own classrooms we will encounter many Florences or Cassies. As educators, we need to know how to deal effectively with their socio-emotional issues, or risk losing these students to an endless cycle of self-fulfilling failure.

Thomas G. Gunning, Assessing and Correcting: Reading and Writing Difficulties, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2010), 42-46.

4 thoughts on “Assessing and Correcting Reading and Writing Difficulties: Chapter Two

  1. As homeschool children, my sister and I often struggled with the same thing of spending so much of our time on the single subject of math, and not getting to spend as much time on subjects that we liked more, like reading and history. Of course, she turned out to be a librarian, and I write now too.
    I noticed your comment on Adriane Dorr’s blog, and your life story really sounds interesting. I actually write a lot too, and my goal is to become a novelist. I’d like to hear more about what you’ve written; have you published anything online, or that I can download to my kindle? Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks for commenting! The only writing I have made public is on fanfiction.net under the name Cassandra_Elise. Some of those stories were written more than ten years ago, so I cannot vouch for how good they are. 🙂 I’ve had several works published in my university’s annual anthology, but I don’t think I have permission to copy that work to the internet.

  2. Cassie I agree with you 100%. Your struggling subject was math and mine was reading. I often struggled with reading due to many of the issues you hinted at. After students become that frustrated with something they no longer enjoy any part of it and like you said they shut down. I feel it is important to push your students to their full potential, but don’t push them into absolutely hating it. Instead understand that students learn differently and some students are just going to need additional help. I really enjoyed your post about this issue.

    1. Hey, Robbie. I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I find it interesting how your strong subject is my weak one and vise versa. That really serves as a powerful reminder that no two students are the same, and we have to be able to meet the individual needs of every child.

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