Sunday, April 3, 2011

Teaching for Independence

"The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher."   
                                                                                                                            --Elbert Hubbard

"Ok guys, I've been watching you really closely when you read the past few days. I've noticed that when you try something that doesn't match or make sense, you keep right on going. If I stop you or ask you if it made sense or matched, you go right back and fix it up. As readers, it's your job to notice mistakes and fix them by yourselves."

This was not the first time I'd said this to these readers. And a little voice in my head warned me as we worked through another lesson together that it would not be the last. J. in particular puzzled me. She seemed to have all the tools and strategies she needed to read accurately with understanding. Yet day after day, she made mistake after mistake without slowing down. When I'd slide in to draw her attention to the fact that what she read didn't make sense or match, she'd immediately go back, fix it up with very little effort and move on. On the next page, the same thing would happen. The others in her group would do the same. 

I knew these kids could do it. They were capable of monitoring their reading themselves, but they just were not doing it. A. even commented one day, "yeah, I really gotta work on that!" 

No kidding, I thought, so do I.

When I was being trained as a literacy coach, one of the things that came up time and time again was the idea of teaching for independence. Over and over in training sessions, in readings, and during classroom observations, we were told not to do for the child what he could do for himself (thanks go to Marie Clay for that powerful bit of wisdom). In addition, we grappled with the idea that our teaching should enable our kids to do things themselves--we were to teach them to be independent, not to depend on us. 

Easier said than done. There are a lot of things we teachers do that unintentionally may encourage kids to depend on us, and this is something I've had to learn to watch for in my teaching. Maybe that was part of the problem. Another thing I've noticed over time is that struggling readers often assume they can't do things without help. 

So now what, I wondered. They seem quite able to fix things up once they know they've made a mistake. The problem is getting them to notice that in the first place. I decided that the words I hadn't said to the kids were, "I know you can do this, so I am not going to do it for you. I'll be watching, but you'll have to do the noticing." I also realized that I would need to make sure I was not pointing out errors for the kids--with words or with facial expressions. I had to be willing to let them flounder a bit more so they would know that it was their job, not mine to monitor their reading.

I'd love to say that things changed overnight and that J. and A. and the others nodded their heads, opened their books and monitored for themselves. It wasn't that easy. But over a few days, things did change.

During our reading group Friday, I watched as J. read a sentence, then another....and made a mistake. I held my breath but didn't say a word. As she neared the end of the sentence, she paused and her eyes flicked back to the start. She frowned and then glanced at the picture. Then she went back and reread the sentence, fixing up the error and continued on. I struggled to keep a straight face--after all, I had told the kids that I not only believed they could do this, I expected they would. And she did. All the way through the book. 

As she finished, the book, she looked up triumphantly. "You did it," I crowed, "I just knew you could!" She grinned and looked the others.
"I did it that time by myself," she announced, "I didn't need Mrs. M. to help."



  1. Sounds like you are so on the right track. Maybe it also took a number of repeats to get the message through whose job it really was. I liked the way you led us through the whole story, Ruth. It was illuminating & I recognized some of it from my own experiences.

  2. Tears are brimming in my glad you shared this. I've been thinking about similar issues in writing -- you know how they say "I'm done," but there's not a single lick of punctuation. Then you say, "What about punctuation?" And they say, "Oh yeah, and put it in."

    After reading your post, I realize we can talk until we are blue in the face about the importance off stuff in writing, but until we let them flounder a bit and do it for themselves, they're never going to take the time to do it for themselves.