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Developing a Growth Mindset in Struggling Readers

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

By Shawna Audet



When students come to me for a reading remediation, they sometimes come in “hot.” By this, I mean that they are angry. Anger is a reasonable reaction when you consider their experiences with the education system. Without exception, every student with whom I have worked as a private reading remediation teacher has experienced reading failure and then been forced float along in the regular classroom without access to proper support. By this, I mean that they were denied access a trained reading teacher and proven reading remediation program. Since these are the essentials tools that would help enable them to overcome their learning difficulties, these students have been denied their basic human right to read. These struggling students watch the gap between them and their peers growing, and they wonder, “What is wrong with me?”


This situation in which students who are experiencing reading failure are passed along from grade to grade without being given access to proper reading remediation has many negative consequences. Dyslexic students are in a race against time. The longer that a dyslexic student must wait to gain access to a proven reading remediation program, the less likely it is that the program will succeed in rewiring their brain for reading. In schools where students who are experiencing reading failure simply “float along” the dyslexic readers continue using their slow upper brain circuit for reading. As they age, they get to a moment where this situation becomes permanent. Once this happens, the school system has robbed the student of the chance of ever becoming a fluent reader. The reason for this is that fluency requires accuracy and speed. The speed comes from having access to the lower brain circuit. I can still teach these students to be accurate readers, and there is huge benefit in doing that. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that these students been harmed in an irreparable way by their school system.


The struggling readers who are denied access to proper supports suffer in other ways as well. For example, many struggling reader develop self-esteem issues because they incorrectly assume that they are struggling because they are not as smart as their peers. Some turn inwards and begin to show anxiety related issues. Others let their feelings out and are labelled as disruptive. For students experiencing reading failure with no help in sight, it takes strength and bravery to walk through the door of a regular classroom everyday. Negative behaviours that they exhibit are expressions of unmet needs.


When I work with a student to resolve their reading and writing difficulties, I am also helping them to heal from the emotional trauma that they experience through having their needs neglected at school. In the beginning, many students are afraid to even hope that our work together will change things. Soon, their mindset starts to change as they begin to improve their reading and writing skills. As their skills continue to build, students begin to look forward to our lessons. Once they trust in the fact that they can learn read and write, they realize that the problem was not them – it was the system. This understand is fertile ground. It’s a place where self-esteem, mental health, and literacy skills can grow. I made a graphic (see above) to show the shift that happens in the minds of my students as they move from a fixed to a growth mindset.


The shift from a fixed to a growth mindset that takes place in my students is not magic. It is the result of putting certain conditions in place in the learning environment that are conducive to nurturing a growth mindset. I follow the advice of Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychology professor whose research is foundational to our current understanding of fixed and growth mindsets. Professor Dweck states that if we want to nurture a growth mindset, we need to create environments that help students learn to do the following things:

1. embrace challenges and mistakes

2. value constructive feedback

3. encourage innovation

4. master new skills


All four of these qualities are built into the structured literacy approach that I use when I teach the Dyslexia Training Institute's reading remediation program. I teach that student to look at some mistakes at "good mistakes" because they show that the student is applying decoding skills. For example, is a student spells the word "graph" with as "graff," then that is a good mistake because they are showed that they know a grapheme that makes the sound of /f/ and they correctly applied the "Jeff will pass Buzz" rule for which consonants get doubled at the end of a one syllable closed syllable word. We will focus on all of the wonderful parts of the process that went right and then we'll teach the student about the fact that the consonant diphthong "ph" is another way to make the same sound as "f." I encourage innovation by having the student do lots of multisensory syllable card drills in which the student builds read and non-sense real. The practice of building and reading non-sense words not only help students to decode unknown real words that they come to when reading a text, it makes the drill feel more like play because the fear of "getting it wrong" disappears. The single most important element in stimulating a growth mindset in my students is that every lesson gives them a way to master new skills. They move from a state of feeling that reading and writing is beyond them to a state where they can read and write with ease because they have mastered the needed skills.



Works Cited


Brown, E. (2015, April 17). Innovative thinking: Fixed vs. growth mindsets. Business in Greater Gainesville. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://businessmagazinegainesville.com/innovative-thinking-fixed-vs-growth-mindsets/


Farnam Street Media Inc. (2021, February 5). Carol Dweck: A summary of the two mindsets. Farnam Street. Retrieved March 28, 2022, from https://fs.blog/carol-dweck-mindset/



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