How Growth Mindset Can Benefit Students Struggling with Reading

How Growth Mindset Can Benefit Students Struggling with Reading

When was the last time you completed a monumental task? Maybe you ran a marathon, started a new job, or learned to play a musical instrument. There were probably moments when you felt overwhelmed by the work ahead or even considered dropping out entirely. What kept you going? How did you stay motivated to see it through to the end?

Chances are that you achieved success by using a growth mindset. Current studies, such as Dr. Angela Duckworth’s research on grit and self-control, show that successful people often encourage themselves by focusing on the process, taking pride in their hard work, and perceiving themselves as capable learners rather than naturally gifted. This is the growth mindset—and it’s no wonder that the process-over-product approach has been gaining traction with educators across the county.  


Applying growth mindset to students struggling with reading

For students who struggle with reading, using a growth mindset often means perseverance and practice as they learn strategies to decode new words, reread to appreciate context, and carve out extra time to read even short passages of text. As all educators know, practice is the key to mastering these reading skills—and therein lies the irony. In this Educational Leadership article, Paula Bourque noted, "Readers can get into a Catch-22: To improve requires much practice, but it's hard to get motivated to practice without success."  


How can teachers help?

For students trying and failing to read fluently, the process can become a negative cycle of great effort with little or no reward. With this in mind, Bourque suggested that literacy educators motivate students struggling with reading by ensuring they experience success. For example, prior to introducing a new text, educators can help students learn strategies to decode and interpret as they read, as well as encourage students to give themselves credit for the many learning decisions they make throughout the process. Finally, Bourque proposed that educators help students reflect on their process after the lesson. What did they find challenging? Did they find a helpful strategy they can use again next time? These methods help students develop a growth mindset toward reading.


Choosing the right reading materials

For students who naturally excel in literacy, reading itself is the reward. Through learning new information or escaping into an entertaining story, reading can feel exciting instead of exhausting. How can we extend that feeling to struggling students and help them feel that reading is intrinsically rewarding?  

The answer could lie in the reading material we choose. While many educators try to find books that are interesting, challenging, and cover topics their students enjoy, we can also select reading material that emphasizes a growth mindset. Fiction is rife with characters who fail and get back up again—often multiple times—before finally emerging as the hero. By celebrating the characters’ journeys and perseverance, we emphasize that it’s the process, not the product, that counts.  

In his Edutopia article Young Adult Novels That Teach a Growth Mindset, Robert Ward recommends middle-grade books that feature characters battling loss and adversity. He recommended the Hatchet series, in which the main character shows survival and resilience when stranded in the wilderness. Meanwhile, the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time finds the strength to save her family even when this means traveling to a fantastical otherworld. Ward’s list includes several more suggestions that span a range of genres.  

As we see on Ward’s list, middle-grade novels that deal with complex issues are a great pick for high-schoolers who read below grade level but still need to feel excited and engaged while reading. Ask students about their interests, favorite movies, and preferred TV shows to learn what topics most appeal to them. Then, look for stories within those genres that feature characters with the kind of grit and determination we encourage in our students. Even if a book is geared toward a younger age group, a story with a relatable hero or heroine is important for every reader.    

For everyone facing a difficult task, using the growth mindset is a great way to stay focused and motivated—whether they're reading a book or running a marathon. Students particularly benefit from celebrating their learning process rather than constantly striving to meet a far-off "finished product." Choosing reading material that showcases characters with a growth mindset is a wonderful way to emphasize that it’s the journey—not the final destination—that counts. While this is an encouraging message for all students, it may be especially inspiring for those who struggle with reading to see a hero-in-progress reflected on the page.

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