Posted by Nate Dunlevy

A few days ago, we examined the literacy crisis in the United States. stressedKidWhile it’s undeniable there is a problem, what are the causes?

Why is it that reading engagement drops off so significantly by the time students enter high school?

For older children and teens, the answer is paradoxical. They don’t read because they stopped reading. At some point along the way, many simply decide they aren’t “readers”. That self-diagnosis can have troubling consequences.

As kids age, their confidence in their abilities drop. As students age, the less likely they are to take risks and engage themselves fully in activities at which they are not sure they will succeed. According to L.S. Lumsden in an ERIC Digest article, young children tend to maintain high expectations for success even in the face of repeated failure, while older students do not. To older students, failure following high effort appears to carry more negative implications—especially for their self-concept of ability—than failure that results from minimal or no effort.

To put it simply, over time kids get used to failure and stop trying. Reading proves too difficult to endure the embarrassment of failure and not enough fun to make it worth the effort.

Over time, children begin to believe that their lack of progress is because they are ‘dumb’ or defective in some way. The results are catastrophic.

A student who believes that he isn’t capable of learning will eventually stop trying to learn. (Anderman & Midgley, EIRC Digest,1998). For example, students who understand poor performance as a lack of skills they can still acquire, rather than as some innate personal deficiency, are more likely to re-engage themselves in a task and try again. Students whose self-image is rooted their history of failure, on the other hand, are less likely to be motivated to learn.

Kids stop reading because they start believing they aren’t smart enough.

As you would expect, motivated readers hold positive beliefs about themselves as readers (Guthrie & Wigfield, Journal of Educational Psychology, 1997). Kids that read, believe they are capable of reading and learning. That confidence can propel them into life-long habits.

These beliefs are infectious.

Students who believe they are capable of learning influence and boost their peers. Students who believe they can’t wield a cascading influence over their classmates. MacIver and Reuman (1994) note that middle school and high school-age students’ level of engagement in school is also highly influenced by peers. As students grow older, their motivation to engage in learning may be influenced by their social group just as much as, if not more than, it is by teachers, parents, and other adults.

Engaging children in reading at a young age can pay exponential dividends by the time they become teenagers. Solving the literacy crisis in the US is not easy, but one thing is undeniable: if we don’t help kids early, by the time they hit high school, it will be too late for many.

Monday, we’ll continue to investigate the roots of the problem in an effort to find lasting solutions.

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