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West Jordan Journal

Creating confident readers

Feb 09, 2024 04:16PM ● By Jet Burnham

Last year’s all-girls reading class visited the woman-owned bookshop, The King’s English, and were allowed to choose a book to take home. (Photo courtesy of Tara Pearce)

At West Jordan Middle School, 60-70% of incoming seventh grade students are reading below grade level, said literacy specialist Tara Pearce.

“Our work is cut out for us in many ways, where we have the majority of our students being low readers,” Pearce said. “So, we obviously try to be really innovative with how we approach that.” 

The approach has been to introduce an efficient silent reading format, incorporate poetry in every reading comprehension class, create specialized reading classes and to invent and utilize a reading confidence assessment.

The success of WJMS’s reading program is evident in students’ test scores, with 74% of ninth grade students who took a reading class showing improvement in their reading skills. Pearce is even more impressed with the increase in students’ confidence, with 69% of students reporting increased reading confidence, with 40% reporting significant increase.

The numbers are even more impressive for female students in WJMS’s all-girl reading class. Among those students, 86% reported growth in their reading confidence, with 31% reporting significant growth.

The all-girl reading class—which began as a Females of Color reading class to address a group of struggling Latina students who regularly skipped class—focuses on books about, or written by, women, because Pearce believes students need to read books with characters they can relate to.

“A lot of time with secondary students, they can go through their entire reading program without ever reading a book about girls,” Pearce said, whose Ph.D. research focuses on the importance of book selection for secondary students. She said because research shows that boys tend to be lower readers, there is a push for teachers to select books with a male protagonist to increase boys’ engagement. Most of the literary classics are about boys, as well, she said.

The all-girl reading class has been successful in improving students’ reading skills, confidence and attitudes about reading.

A student named Jasmine said, “This class has made me want to read a lot more than I have ever read. I have learned the kinds of books that I really love to read, and I learned how to start being a much better reader, unlike when I would not really read much. This class has also taught me many things and very interesting and cool new facts about stuff that I didn't even know about. Over these past months, my confidence is much better in reading than before.”

Pearce said reading confidence increases class participation, as does the all-girl environment.

“One of the things that every single girl consistently said was that they felt safe,” Pearce said. “They talked about how in other classes, when boys are there, if they answered something wrong, they would often get teased for being dumb, but if they answered something right, they would get teased for being a nerd. It felt like they could never really win. But in the girl class, they express they feel comfortable actually sharing, because they’re allowed to either be a nerd or they’re allowed to be dumb.”

Catherine Crosby, who teaches the all-girl reading class this year, said when the girls feel more comfortable, class discussions can go a little deeper.

One of Crosby’s students, named Genesis, said, “This is a really cool class and, for sure, a safe space to try new things.”

The all-girl class also takes field trips to meet female politicians, authors and business owners.

Another effective strategy that has increased students’ reading abilities and confidence was to eliminate the commonly-used phrase “good reader.” Crosby discovered that her students would label themselves ‘bad readers’ which became an impediment to their progress. She removed the phrase “good reader” from her vocabulary and replaced it with ‘confident reader.’

 “That was a paradigm shift and an epiphany that I had, and I started making that switch at the end of last year,” Crosby said. “I changed the worksheets and posters in my room—nothing in here says ‘good readers do.’ Nothing. And it has made the biggest difference. This is my fourth year teaching reading and this is the first year that I have students finishing books.”

Her 60 first semester students read a total of 225 books. “I've never seen anything like this,” she said.

A student named Michael said at the end of the class, “I have become a more confident reader and have gained more reading stamina. I have read more books this year than in my whole life, and I actually like reading now.”

Low reading confidence has a huge impact on students’ reading skills acquisition. It is common, said Pearce, for students who struggle to read to not see themselves as “readers” because they think “readers” are those who like to read or who read a lot. This misconception is challenged in WJMS reading classes, and by the end of the semester class, students have a different definition of what it means to be a “reader.”

“They say things like ‘Being a reader means that you want to get to know other people and lifestyles, or you want to learn about something,’” Pearce said. “They had such nuanced ideas of what the benefits are, and they developed a different idea of what it meant to be a reader.”

WJMS reading teachers use research-based practices and are always adding new books and new experiences to engage students and improve their reading skills and confidence. Pearce has plans to implement even more specialized reading classes, including an all-boy reading class, a book club class and a reader’s theater class.

“We are certainly trying to build some excitement and motivation around reading,” Pearce said.

The WJMS reading program relies heavily on donations through projects and the Jordan Education Foundation to provide a variety of engaging reading materials and educational experiences for students.