Throughout my school years, teachers often required me to make dioramas related to the books I’d read. Though I was a skillful reader and knew those books well, this type of assignment always raised my level of anxiety because:
shoeboxes and other necessary supplies were at a premium in our house;
my visual and spatial challenges often caused the characters’ sizes to be disproportionate to the setting;
the illustrated parts of the story were those that were easiest for me to draw, not necessarily those that were most important or most intriguing; and
they usually lacked sophistication and content, so my dioramas were rarely displayed in the classroom with other students’ submissions.
These experiences and my feelings of anxiety affected my future beliefs and practices. This type of assignment might create these same feelings in other students also. So, since there are many ways in which readers’ can express their competencies, it might be wise to allow students latitude when it comes to showing understanding of the materials they’ve read. As a teacher, I’ve always strived to foster a community of readers, but when we define student achievement in such narrow terms (i.e. construct a poster in January, write book report in February, etc), we push lots of readers out of the community by disengaging them. Unfortunately, struggling readers are often the first to go. Of course, this is not our intention; nonetheless our class requirements often contribute to the problem perhaps by reducing a child’s motivation to succeed.
Motivation plays a role in students’ success (Guthrie & Davis, 2003; Wigfield et al, 2004). Some classroom experiences enhance students’ motivation, while others deflate it (Stipek, 2002). I suggest that whenever possible, we offer students product and performance options that will help promote excitement and interest in reading and increase motivation.
A good example of one possible option is a Think-Tac-Toe (Samblis, 2006). The basic premise is the same as that of a traditional tic-tac-toe board. Students work alone or in pairs/groups to complete three assignments that comprise one row of a nine-space grid. This can be done horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Or, the entire grid may be completed for extra-credit or enrichment. The teacher writes each Think-Tac-Toe to include options for writing, illustrating, constructing, or performing in each row. It can be created to complement either literature-based (Ex: Sing a song or recite a poem about the main character, Create a T-chart contrasting two different characters, or Act out a story scene in a way that highlights your favorite character’s best qualities) or non-fiction text (Ex: Design models of one meat-eating and one plant-eating dinosaur, Develop a WebQuest about dinosaurs, or Role play as a tour guide of Jurassic Park). The Think-Tac-Toe can be displayed on a chart, distributed as a handout, or shared as a Power Point slide. Students may fulfill their requirements during center time, independent work time, or as a take-home project. The possibilities are endless!
It is not unusual for my preservice and inservice teachers to express concerns about the notion of student choice. Many believe that students who struggle will use choice to avoid certain necessary tasks (Ex: writing) and therefore, will never improve in their area(s) of need. My answer is always the same: you may design a Think-Tac-Toe and its requirements any way you like. So, if avoidance of writing worries you, create a grid that incorporates a writing task in every row. Or, invite students to work on the most difficult task with you. This will give you the chance to provide the necessary scaffolds for learning. It may take practice to find the right balance between student autonomy and teacher involvement, but you’ll never get there if you don’t take the first few steps. Trust yourself and your students. Tweak as you go. Do your best to empower them.
The bottom line is this: struggling readers have experienced failure often, and in varied situations. If they come to expect failure when presented with a task, they may start to exhibit a range of avoidance behaviors such as restlessness, distractibility, or a refusal to start or complete work. However, they are likely to participate in activities that intrigue them and that they deem valuable (Margolis & McCabe, 2003). In many cases, offering choices to your students can make all the difference. They are likely to put more care into the things they care about. In addition, they’ll have opportunities to “wow” themselves, their peers, their parents, and their teachers with their willingness, creativity, and mastery.
Guthrie, J.T. & Davis, M.H. (2003). Motivating struggling readers in middle school through an engagement model of classroom practice. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 19, 59-85.
Margolis, H. & McCabe, P.P. (2003). Self-efficacy: A key to improving the motivation of struggling learners. Preventing School Failure, 47(4), 162. Retrieved February 3, 2008 from Research Library database (Document ID: 587624091).
Samblis, K. (2006). Think-Tac-Toe: A motivating method of increased comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 59(7), 691-694.
Stipek, D. (2002). Good instruction is motivating. In A. Wigfield & J.S. Eccles (Eds.), Development of achievement motivation (pp. 309-332). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Wigfield, A., Guthrie, J.T., Tonks, S., & Perencevich, K.C. (2004). Children’s motivation for reading: Domain specificity and instructional influences. The Journal of Educational Research, 97(6), 299-309.
Karen Russo, Ed. D. is an Assistant Professor in the Child Study Department of St. Joseph’s College in New York. There, she teaches both undergraduate and graduate level courses related to elementary education and literacy instruction. Before joining the college faculty, she was an Assistant Principal of a New York City elementary school, a literacy specialist, teacher mentor, and staff developer. Dr. Russo has presented at local, national and international conferences and has published articles on differentiating instruction, enhancing motivation of struggling readers and writers, and effective professional development for teachers. She has served as Guest Editor for Reading Writing Quarterly and Insights on Learning Disabilities.