When Students Think They Can’t Read

Beyond the Apple’s Narratives from the Classroom

We share the following script, taken from a teacher’s real experience, as a discussion starter about high school students who see themselves as non-readers. As you and your professional colleagues read “I Can’t Read” (or maybe ask two colleagues to act it out) , consider the following questions:

How did the narrator approach her first meeting with T?

What did the narrator learn?

How did T respond?

What did T learn?

What’s the next step?

To follow up on the narrator’s final sentence, “The more you read and the more you learn about reading, the better reader you’ll be.” What support does T need? What support does the narrator need?

I Can’t Read!

After the obligatory applause, I thanked my hosts, tidied my papers, and prepared to leave. A participant from the audience approached the dais.

Participant: That was a good presentation and I get what you’re saying. I agree in theory, but what about the students who are finishing high school and simply can’t read. We’ve tried everything and they just can’t read. Are you willing to visit our school and show us how to put your words into action?

Me (thinking): Okay . . . this is where the rubber hits the road. If teachers are willing to listen to me talk the talk, surely I can respect their time by walking the walk.

 Me: Yes – let’s set a date – soon.

One week later, I met with the principal, teacher, and resource teacher to chat about a student we’ll refer to as T. The conversation began with a list of T’s problems – he skipped school, he was disruptive, he had many suspensions, he’d been tested and was known to be a non-reader, his siblings were non-readers, he never completed his work, etc. etc. Since the list only provided information about what T couldn’t do and included no information about T as a person or what he could do, I asked, “What is T interested in?”

Teacher: Kirk Johnson! T lives and breathes Kirk Johnson! (for those unfamiliar with the boxing scene, Kirk Johnson established himself as a notable Canadian boxer.)

Me: That’s the information I need. I’ll be back in two days.

Over the next 2 days, I collected information about Kirk Johnson and wrote a series of paragraphs about him. I rewrote each paragraph at a different level of difficulty. Each paragraph was printed on 81/2 x 11 paper in Times New Roman font, size 14. Regardless of the level of difficulty, each paragraph looked identical.

Then I went to the school to meet T.

T entered the room with his hoody-covered head down. He slumped in the chair across from me.

T: This sucks! I can’t read and I’m sick of these tests. I’ve had a hundred tests and I know I can’t read. I can’t wait to get out of this place!

Me: Okay, but right now, let’s just talk. I heard you know a lot about Kirk Johnson, so I looked him up. Here’s what I know.

I shared what I knew about Kirk Johnson, and T proceeded to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge. He told me about Kirk Johnson’s training, his latest fight and the unfair treatment he got from the press. He also had strong ideas about the press’s bias and fairness.

Me: I have some articles about Kirk Johnson. Some are easier to read than others. We’re going to find one you can read.


Me: Because there are certain things I believe in and one thing is that many people who say they can’t read or who have been told they can’t read actually can read.

T. Yeah, yeah . . .

Me: Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll give you some paragraphs about Kirk Johnson, and you take a few minutes to look through them. Some might seem hard and some might seem easy.

T: Too easy! Right! I can’t read, so that won’t happen.

Me: After you look over the paragraphs, I’ll ask you to choose one to read to me. I’m going to listen for how your reading sounds . . . I’ll listen to hear if the words you read correct, is your reading flows fluently, if you you notice a mistake, if you fix up a mistake and how you fix up a mistake. I won’t mess around – if it’s too hard, I’ll tell you; if it’s too easy, I’ll tell you.

T: Yeah, yeah.

During this conversation, T’s continued to be slumped in the chair, his hoody still covering his face.

I spread out the articles and asked T to find one to try. He grabbed the closest one.

Me: Please read it aloud to me.

T: Out loud???!!! No way! That sucks!!!

Me: I know, but I need to hear you read, so I can get information about how you read.

T started to read. He was reading at approximately 50% accuracy and in a very halting way. At unfamiliar words, he mumbled. He quickly became frustrated.

T: See! I can’t read! I told you!

I handed T a slightly easier paragraph.

Me: Try this one.

T grabbed the paper and started to read. His accuracy improved. It was clear that T noticed this improvement, because his “presence” changed. His back straightened a bit and the lower half of his face was visible.

Me: You’re getting more words right, but you’re mumbling some of the tricky words and it still sounds choppy, so it’s too hard. Try this one.

I handed T a paragraph written at an easier level.

T started read. His accuracy was above 90% and he read fluently. His postured changed again. Now I could see his face. As he read, I saw the hint of a smile emerge – but just a hint. I had the feeling he was surprised by his reading and was trying to suppress the urge to truly smile.

Me: So, you can read.

T: Yeah, I guess, but it’s about Kirk and I know this stuff.

T seemed intrigued with the paragraph and read it again silently. His posture straightened even more.

T: Can I keep this?

Me: Yes. It’s yours to keep.

T: So, yeah, I read it, but this isn’t as hard as what we read in class.

Me: You’re right. It’s easier.

T: So I can only read easy stuff?

Me: No, this is just the start point. You now know that you can read because you heard yourself reading. You can start by reading text like this and then you’ll learn how move on to more difficult text on a wider range of topics. The more you read and the more you learn about reading, the better reader you’ll be.

T looked right at me and said, “When can we start?”

For more professional conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at Beyondtheapplecontact@gmail.com












About Beyond The Apple

Beyond the Apple provides everything a Professional Learning Community needs! Designed to follow Beyond the Apple's Tenets of Adult Education, our videos re-ignite the excitement of professional conversations among educators in the classroom, university, colleges and professional training. Our free teaching and learning resources provide a follow up with more information that is current, research based and practical.
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One Response to When Students Think They Can’t Read

  1. Pingback: Re-framing Conversations About Disengaged Students | Beyond the Apple

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