Growing or Fixed? Changing Students’ Mindsets About Literacy

LeAnn Nickelsen offers a powerfully practical overview in the article on entitled, Simple Strategies for Developing a Growth Mindset in Your Students.  This article will continue the dialogue of mindsets specifically to teachers of literacy.

In a recent graduate class one of my students who is a literacy interventionist at a public elementary school decided to follow up on our reading and discussions of Dr. Carol Dweck’s book Mindsets with some informal action research of her own.

To review, Dweck (2017) defines the mindsets this way:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits…In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work-brains and talent are just the starting point.

For her application the graduate student simply asked each group of students she served in RTI Tier 3 intervention groups (pull-out support group which meet a few times each week) a few basic questions:  What is something at school you are good at doing?  What is something at school that you are not good at doing? And what can you do to get better at what is hard for you to do?  She was surprised by her findings.  The younger the students (kindergarten and first grade) the more confident they were about most everything they do at school and had a harder time stating things they were not good at doing.  Their ideas about getting better at things included trying more, asking for help, and showed more dedication and optimism.  The older students (third and fourth grade) had fewer comments on what they were good at doing but were very quick to list all the things that they were not good at doing at school.  They had more pessimistic responses such as, “I won’t be a good reader” and “it is just too hard.”  The graduate student reasoned that her students had learned to have more of a fixed mindset at school, and she determined that she would take Dweck’s advice about specific feedback, appropriate praise of effort and problem solving, and the right types of support to develop growth mindsets in her students.

Reading and writing can be two areas where many students encounter difficulties.  Being a good reader and writer is just plain hard work!  How teachers respond to these students as they begin to find literacy difficult is critical for success.  I suggest literacy teachers incorporate the following 4 tools so that their students see their possibilities vs. are defeated by their struggles:

Utilize diagnostic teaching – be informed about where students are successful and where they need more support and teach strategically to the strengths as well as the areas that are weak.  The Guided Reading Model as offered by Fountas and Pinnell (1996) is a great example of growth mindset infused diagnostic teaching.

Strategies + encouragement – growth minded literacy teaching will use effective varied strategies with specific feedback that builds efficacy in literacy learners and encourages them to make the effort.  Practices like round robin reading hurt students who struggle and reinforce a fixed mindset.  Design your teaching like literacy coaching sessions with individuals or small groups and focus on clear strategies that are understood and manageable to students who want to improve their literacy skills (which is all students – who wants to remain a struggling reading or writer?).

Process + patience – it is critical that teachers remember growing in literacy is a process. It is not magic, nor does it just happen overnight.  Learning to read and write is just that…learning and requires that there is a teacher.  Reading is not natural to the brain in the same way that children learn to talk.  This learning takes time, trial and error, practice and support – the stuff of all good teaching and learning.  Patience with all students is a must for growth mindsets to flourish.

Discussions– good talk is a meaningful use of time in literacy classrooms (Cockerille, 2015).  Teachers who ask questions that develop a growth mindset use more divergent and higher level questions such as, “which character do you identify with most?”, “what would be the next chapter if you wrote this book?”, “what is another way this character could have solved the problem?”.  These teachers give their students the gift of modeling and experience with deeper thinking about what they are reading and writing, and this can lead to growth mindsets and motivation to do the hard work of becoming literate.  Teachers who ask redundant questions, such as “That was a good story, wasn’t it?”  or more convergent type questions, such as “Who was the main character in this book?” may be limiting their students to more fixed mindsets where there is only and always one right answer or being smart is giving the answer the teacher wants.  For more on asking better questions see McComas & Abraham, 2012.

By utilizing these 4 tools literacy teachers can help students move from “this is too hard, I can’t do it” to “this is hard but I can do it!”

Cockerille, A.G. Building a curriculum of great classroom talk.  International Literacy Associatoin.  Accessed January 5, 2017.
Dweck, C. Mindsetonline. Accessed January 5, 2017.
Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
McComas W, Abraham L. Asking more effective questions. Rossier School of Education. Accessed December 4, 2012.

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