Shifting Adult Mindsets to Accelerate Students’ Reading Growth

by Rachel Lella, NJLA Board Member





Every August, there seems to be a sense of trepidation in even the most confident teachers. The teachers with the strongest, asset-based mindsets may show signs of their back-to-school nerves getting the best of them, even if only for a moment. In previous years, that may have been due to concerns over class dynamics, limited supplies, implementation of new programs, or even just the idea of starting over. This year, much like the last, brings a new set of academic concerns - valid concerns - that may be weighing heavy on teachers’ minds and hearts.


What if students have learned to hate or avoid reading? What if students didn’t have access to books? What if it was nearly impossible to address reading difficulties during hybrid or fully remote instruction? What if even those students who were in school full time didn’t get the individualized or small group instruction they needed due to distancing requirements?


What if I can’t get my kids to read, to participate in engaging reading conversations, or just on track to experience success with reading?

Regardless of what your students may have encountered over the past year and a half, it’s likely that you will find struggling readers on your roster. You’ll find disengaged readers. You’ll find students who maintained their sanity by reading and came out of 20-21 stronger readers for it. And yet, they’ll all be sitting together looking to you as their fearless reading leader.


As described in fantastic detail by Davidson and Woodward (2021), the adult mindset during this school year is vitally important. Students will, as always, be incredibly aware of the expectations being held for them by the adults in and around their schools. With consideration to everything children have experienced throughout the pandemic, it is likely that adults with good intentions will decrease rigor and expectations to soften re-entry to schools or protect students from experiencing frustration. However, it’s more important than ever that expectations be held high, students be held accountable, instruction be engaging and challenging, and, importantly, that all those working in school environments truly believe every student can and will experience success through access to reading instruction based on high levels of rigor.


We know the importance of helping all students meet grade level standards for reading. We also know that some students will come to us with deficits greater than we are used to encountering. Truly, that means we have no choice but to double down on our efforts to remediate learning loss through acceleration and high expectations. Otherwise, our students will never be able to make up lost ground - they will remain a half year, year, or year and a half behind even if they are progressing at an average rate. How can we possibly assist students in achieving a year and a half to two years worth of growth in the coming school year?


Brandt, Sharp, and Gardner (2021) review the imperatives of motivational reading practices, stating, “Challenge, or “supported struggle,” allows students optimal level learning tasks by providing open-ended assignments and scaffolding challenging tasks into manageable, bite-sized steps” (p. 723). This is our imperative, and here are three simple ways to approach it during the 21-22 school year to support and effectively challenge students:


  • Set appropriate goals with individual students. Challenge them by focusing one goal on filling gaps or necessary remediation and another, simultaneously, on utilizing that work to access grade level standards or materials. There are many cyclical skills and strategies in reading - selecting goals that move across a continuum will both remediate and accelerate students’ reading skills in challenging, meaningful ways.


  • Provide access to grade level texts and discussions to all students - struggling readers, on level readers, and accelerated readers. Engaging in interesting discussions about relevant, grade level texts will give students a sense of belonging in your classroom reading community, and being able to participate in such discussions will boost their reading confidence.


  • Embrace productive struggle. This is a tough one, I know. It can be incredibly difficult to watch students struggle. It’s in the nature of many teachers to swoop in and remove frustration for our students. However, this also removes the learning opportunity. The ah-ha, lightbulb moment. The sense of ownership students feel when they make sense of or fluently read a text they didn’t think was within their reach.


Approaching remediation and acceleration together is no easy task. However, if our students are surrounded by a community of adults who authentically believe they can succeed and grow when given high expectations and significantly rigorous instruction, they will have the most optimal conditions possible for quantifiable success and growth. How will you approach instruction with your struggling readers this year? We’d love to hear your ideas and strategies!


Brandt, L., Sharp, A.C., & Gardner, D.S. (2021). Examination of teacher practices on student

motivation for reading. The Reading Teacher, 74(6), 723-731.


Davidson, B., & Woodward, G. (2021). The acceleration imperative: A plan to address

elementary students’ unfinished learning in wake of COVID-19. Retrieved from:

https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED613178.pdf.