Create a safe environment.

Before we can talk about reading, we have to think about brains. For learning to occur, the frontal lobes of the brain have to be engaged. Learning requires the neocortex to be active, all the twisty parts on the outside of the brain where we learn, process, interpret, predict, and reason. That is where learning and higher-level processing occur.

Our “three brains”

However, when we feel threatened, our brains rely on our “reptilian” brain and, to a lesser degree, on our “mammalian brain” and not on our neocortex and frontal lobes. The reptilian and mammalian parts of our brain are where we get anger, fear, avoidance, and attack impulses. When people feel threatened, those parts of the brain become active, causing an automatic fight, flight, or freeze response. It is a survival instinct, but it prevents learning.

Students do not learn when they feel threatened because the “wrong” part of their brain is active. They might learn from the experience later, but when in that survival mode, they are not learning.

What this means for you as the teacher is that your first and most important responsibility is to create an environment in which students feel safe—an environment in which the frontal lobes and not the reptilian brain are activated.

Can all children learn? Yes, but not when they feel threatened or afraid. Think about the struggling readers you know. If they feel threatened, they may engage in fight, flight, or freeze behavior, which is a good indication that they are not learning—and are not capable of learning—at that time.

  • Fight: aggressive behavior, name calling or insults of other children (or the teacher), throwing things, etc.
  • Flight: statements that reading is too hard, intentional wrong answers, skipping class or school, going off-task, etc.
  • Freeze: refusal to participate or respond, keeping quiet, hiding at the back of the classroom, putting one’s head on the desk, etc.

Think about how you interact with struggling students and the language you use when talking to students. For example, students will feel threatened if they

  • expect insults (e.g., “What’s wrong with you? You should know this already!”),
  • expect an attack (e.g., “Do it right this time!”),
  • anticipate punishment for errors (e.g., “If you keep messing up, you won’t get recess!”), or
  • believe they will be singled out for their shortcomings (e.g., “Read this aloud to the class”).

These beliefs and expectations develop over time following a pattern of interactions with teachers and others. Changing them will also take time and a consistent pattern of positive interactions.

When students learn that correction is not punishment (e.g., “This part is tricky! Here’s something we can do to study it in a different way.”), they lose the fear of making mistakes. When students expect support (e.g., “Let’s try this again. I believe you can do this if we practice it.”), they will learn that they are capable of meeting expectations. If they understand that every situation is not a do-or-die, life-threatening scenario (“Sometimes, I have to read things more than once. Which words are you finding confusing? We can figure them out and see if that helps you make sense of this text.”), they will learn that you expect improvement, not perfection, that mistakes are acceptable, and that they can keep trying until they get it right.

Ultimately, they will learn that you will provide help and support. Instead of being in conflict, the students will perceive that you are on their side as they face the challenge of learning to read. Although they may still make mistakes, they believe they will not fail.

You can correct errors, encourage students, and assess their performance without provoking the fight, flight, or freeze responses. As a result, students will realize that your role is to help them learn this necessary skill.

One of your first responsibilities, therefore, is to develop a positive, collaborative relationship with the students. I will discuss this a bit more in the next chapter. When students have positive feelings about the student–teacher relationship, they will be more comfortable taking risks and being vulnerable because they recognize that you care about them. We have seen the power of this relationship in several ways.

First, I have letters and other evidence from students and parents stating, basically, that the students really enjoy receiving tutoring because they enjoy working with the teacher. This is an important distinction. They like doing the hard work of learning to read because of the positive relationship with the tutor. Success does not create a positive relationship. Rather, the relationship leads to success.

Second, education assistants who serve as tutors generally have very good results with students. On the one hand, they typically implement the reading instructional model as it is designed. On the other hand, education assistants are good, often really good, at establishing those positive, supportive relationships with students.

For classroom teachers: Sometimes, you have to discipline students. Kids are kids, and you are the teacher. It is going to happen. Sometimes, too, personalities clash. Sometimes, you have to give low grades. Sometimes. . . . All this together means that reading instruction may be weighed down by prior baggage. This is one reason why we generally did not want classroom teachers to serve as tutors to their students. The most important reason was to give students a different set of instructional opportunities than they receive in the classroom.

If you have had prior conflicts with a student, focus on the goal, and ask the students to do the same. “Now,” you say, “we are going to work on helping you be a great reader. That’s all that we are going to think about, and I am going to help you. Together, we can do it!” If need be, think about “re-setting” the relationship with the students. Take the time to build a positive relationship. It will pay off when you start to refocus on instruction.

For the reading interventionists: Unless you have been working with a student for a while, you have a fresh start. Before diving into reading, take some time and get to know the students. Talk about interests (see the next chapter), what the student thinks about reading and school, etc. Let them get to know you, too!

On the other hand, if you have been working with the students for while, think about the relationship. On a few occasions, we have had to ask a tutor to pause instruction for a session and just work on the relationship. It paid off. Attendance improved, student participation improved, and the students made good gains in their reading abilities.

For homeschool teachers: So many factors affect the nature of your relationship with your children. When you are the teacher, though, you are the teacher, not just the parent. The challenge that you face is to separate your responsibilities as a parent and as a teacher. Similarly, you have the challenge of separating your relationship as a parent and as a teacher. This may seem difficult to do, but if your goal is improved reading ability, then you need to think about how the relationship affects your students (your children) as they work to improve their reading abilities.

Communicate with your students that other experiences and feelings, other factors of the home life, are not relevant to the time you spend with your students in reading instruction—and you need to model this. Except in one case, that is: you probably have a lot of insights about your students’ interests, ability levels, and reading achievements and struggles. This knowledge is immensely valuable as you plan out instructional activities for your children. (See the next chapter for more on this.)

The bottom line: A positive, collaborative relationship with the students is necessary for maximum reading growth. Not only does it allow you to engage students in learning activities as willing participants but also it helps you create the safe environment that students need for learning.

I am not talking about creating a false sense of accomplishment. “Feel good” education does not work. Students’ self-esteem will increase when they accomplish something challenging and important, including reading. A supportive environment makes this possible. As students increase their reading ability, their self-esteem will increase—not the other way around. We see this over and over and over. I have many testimonies and letters from teachers, parents, and even students, that students are more confident, more willing to participate in class, and more likely to read on their own. They are not “super readers” yet, but their reading abilities are increasing, and they know it. Instead of perceiving a threat, they see a challenge that, with the support of teachers and peers, they can overcome.

Student grouping is also important for creating a sense of safety and support, but I will address this issue more deeply in the next section.