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V.1 #5 Reading - Strengthening the Resilience of Struggling Readers

It’s tough, frustrating, and demoralizing to have moderate-to-severe reading difficulties. Unless people have experienced the struggle, they cannot truly understand its social and emotional ramifications. Unlike stuttering or cerebral palsy, it's invisible. Consequently, struggling readers are often called lazy, oppositional, resistant, distractible, uncooperative, unmotivated, disruptive. I can easily add 20 pejorative adjectives to the list.

Often, the daily, frustrating, distressing slog of trying to read causes struggling readers to quit. After months, even years, of struggle and failure, many of them see no reason to keep trying—reading is just too difficult. From their perspective, quitting is rational: Why struggle, why be embarrassed when success is impossible? As you might expect, these feelings frequently drench many if not all areas of their lives.

So what can teachers and parents do to strengthen the motivation of struggling readers’ to read? What can they do to strengthen struggling readers’ persistence for learning to read, to strengthen their resilience in the face of ongoing adversity?

Part of the answer is ensuring that struggling readers (a) have excellent classroom teachers who understand reading instruction; (b) are taught at their instructional levels; (c) are given homework and seat work at their independent levels; (d) read or listen to interesting, easy-to-slightly challenging materials for 40 minutes or more daily; (e) get a substantial amount of extra reading instruction daily from knowledgeable and skilled reading specialists; and (f) have a carefully coordinated, systematic program of explicit instruction that's continuously and carefully monitored and adjusted to ensure success. But for many readers these program components are inadequate. These readers also need teachers and parents to knowledgeably and systematically help them overcome the stresses and strains and weak resiliency that often accompany reading difficulties.

To strengthen the resiliency of struggling readers—which includes helping them deal with the stresses and strains of reading difficulties—teachers and parents need to know what to do and what to say. A wonderful book that can help is Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein’s Raising Resilient Children (McGraw-Hill, 2001). By following its guidelines and working together, teachers and parents may well help struggling readers develop the emotional resiliency needed to overcome reading difficulties.

Raising Resilient Children offers practical advice that’s based on sound theory and research. Importantly, the authors present their advice in sensitive, insightful, and motivating ways free of academic jargon. To transform their recommendations from the abstract to the concrete, from the purely cerebral to the practical but theoretically sound, they share many stories of how they worked with parents and children to strengthen everyone’s resiliency. These stories provide the detail and insight needed for teachers and parents to knowledgeably implement the authors’ recommendations.

These stories also provide the dialogue essential to understanding the kinds of comments that weaken children’s resiliency. Here, for example, is how Lucy’s mother attacked and Lucy swiftly counterattacked.

  • Lucy’s Mother: “You don’t have friends because you don’t know how to treat people.” She continued in an accusatory tone, “You think you can just boss other kids around and they will continue to want to be with you.”

  • Lucy (answering angrily): “You always have to tell me what I’m doing wrong. You never listen to what I have to say. You make it seem that everything is my fault.”

Clearly, these kinds of exchanges can destroy resiliency. They slam the door to cooperation and problem solving. Yet, they’re all too common.

But the authors do not end their stories with destructive dialogue. Throughout the book, they provide simple but powerful dialogues for understanding how to strengthen children’s resiliency. Lucy’s mother, they suggest, might have said, “It’s not easy when no one seems to like us. Not having friends can be very difficult. Maybe together we can figure out why this is happening to you and how we can improve things.” In contrast to the attack by Lucy’s mother, this dialogue opens the door to cooperation and problem solving.

Following good educational practice, Brooks and Goldstein augment their examples with critical questions and comments that crystallize the lessons of their examples. In discussing the salvos between Lucy’s mother and Lucy, the authors ask the reader, “Does your style validate your children’s perceptions [of the situation], or are you more likely to disagree with them and offer editorial comments that lead to their resentment?” They clarify potential misunderstandings: Validation, they explain, is recognition, not agreement. It’s recognition of children’s feelings and views, not automatic or ultimate agreement with their behavior or conclusions.

Below are four of the authors’ ten guidelines for parents. As teachers, you might adapt these (and the authors’ other six) to your situation, or use them to help parents strengthen their children’s resilience. Following each guideline is a quotation that’s particularly relevant to struggling readers.

  • Be empathic. “If we fail to be empathic … our words and actions are likely to trigger negative reactions that minimize a willingness to listen, respond, and cooperate…. To be heard and understood one must first listen and seek understanding…. We can be empathic and yet disapprove of what our children do…. Empathy … has nothing to do with giving in to children, spoiling them, or refraining from setting appropriate limits. In fact, children will learn better from us and accept our limits when we practice empathy and try to understand their point of view.”

  • Change negative scripts. “A parent [or teacher] with a resilient mindset recognizes that if something we have said or done for a reasonable time does not work, then we must change our ‘script’ if our children are to change theirs. We must have the insight and courage to think about what we can do differently, lest we become embroiled in useless power struggles.”

  • Accept your children for who they are and help them to set realistic expectations and goals. “One of the most difficult leaps for parents is to accept their children’s unique temperament. When this acceptance is present, parents can successfully set expectations and goals consistent with the child’s temperament…. Children may be accused of laziness and lack of motivation when in fact they are expending a great deal of effort but lack the necessary cognitive skills or temperament to meet parents’ expectations or, for that matter, to be more successful in certain life arenas [e.g., reading]. These mismatches between parents and children, or the failure of parents to establish a goodness of fit between their style and that of their child, often results in anger and disappointment for all parties. In these situations, some youngsters feel that they have let their parents down. Their sense of failure leads to low self-esteem, poor problem-solving skills, and, ultimately, feeling unloved or unaccepted. This pattern sets in motion the antithesis of the development of a resilient mindset.”

  • Help children recognize that mistakes are experiences from which to learn. “If parents are to raise resilient children, they must help them develop a healthy outlook about mistakes…. If parents are to reinforce a resilient mindset in their children, their words and actions must communicate a belief that we can learn from mistakes. The fear of making mistakes is one of the most potent obstacles to learning, one that is incompatible with a resilient mindset…. It is when our children make mistakes and experience setbacks that our ability to be empathic is really tested, but these are also the times that provide an opportunity to educate our children about the positive results that can follow from mistakes…. [After his daughter fell off her bike], one father told his daughter, ‘But don’t worry, I’m here to catch you and help you get on again, and after a short time you’ll be able to ride on your own.’ A simple but powerful message such as this teaches children that they can all expect to fall at different times, but we are there to help them get up.”

Raising Resilient Children is a wonderful book that offers teachers and parents deep insights, powerful guidelines, and enlightening dialogues that can help struggling readers overcome the pessimism and distress that reading difficulties so often cause. Its perspective and recommendations for strengthening resilience are invaluable. My advice—read it, study it, use it, live it.

Related Readings

The articles below are available from the writer at

The next two articles discuss how several of the concepts discussed by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein (e.g., empathy, problem solving) can help to resolve disputes with angry parents.

  • Margolis, H., Shapiro, A., & Brown, G. (1987). Resolving conflicts with parents of handicapped children. Urban Review, 19(4), 209-221.

  • Margolis, H., & Brannigan, G. G. (1990). Strategies for resolving parent-school conflict. Journal of Reading, Writing and Learning Disabilities International, 6(1), 1-23. [The journal has been renamed, Reading and Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties.]

Self-efficacy is highly related to resiliency. The articles below show how teachers can strengthen struggling readers’ self-efficacy.

  • Margolis, H. (2005). Increasing struggling learners’ motivation: What tutors can do and say. Mentoring and Tutoring, 13(2), 223-240.

  • Margolis, H., & McCabe, P. P. (2006). Improving self-efficacy and motivation: What to do, what to say. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41(4), 218-227.

Howard Margolis, Ed.D. is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 17 years has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. He and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, a Chancellor's Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, discuss this and related topics in their forthcoming book, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds.

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