Nic was convinced that no matter how hard he tried, he would never do better in school. Unsurprisingly, this meant that Nic did not want to try at all.
His conviction wasn’t built on laziness or bad intentions. Nic, like all of the students I’ve ever taught, didn’t want to be unsuccessful, and in other realms of life he proved that his work ethic could be strong. He had just come to believe, over years of schooling, that effort in school didn’t pay. It wasn’t worth it because it produced no results. He’d put in effort before, but “it hadn’t worked.”
The effort belief is one of five that exists in the heart of any motivated learner. (I discuss the beliefs at length in the second chapter of These 6 Things.) Whether in a cross country runner applying the feedback of her coach or a teacher attempting some new strategy he learned from a blog or a pair of parents taking a new tack with their tricky teenager, high quality effort only ever comes when the learner believes that effort is going to do something new.
Often called “growth mindset,” the effort belief has been widely misunderstood by educators and parents in the last decade. We mistakenly think of it as a fixed quality — you either “have” growth mindset or you don’t — rather than something constantly shifting based on the task or the context at hand. We seek to build it with vague praise — “Good job, you tried hard!” — rather than useful, targeted feedback. And we overestimate the power of effort while underemphasizing the critical roles of scaffolding, quality instruction, and prior knowledge in making effort efficacious.
But despite these important caveats, we must not underestimate the great power of the effort belief in our students. We’re wisest when we look at how our classrooms, assignments, and practices undermine or strengthen this critical belief. Today, I’d like to look at a thirty-year-old intervention for reading fluency called Read Naturally and how it skillfully builds the effort belief in students at risk of losing it.
Read Naturally: An Overview of the Intervention
Jan Hasbrouck is a reading expert in Oregon, and while reading her article “Drop Everything and Read—But How?: For Students Who Are Not Yet Fluent, Silent Reading Is Not the Best Use of Classroom Time” (2006), I was struck by the ways in which an intervention she featured skillfully builds the effort belief in students.
The intervention — called Read Naturally and developed by Minneapolis educator Candyce Ihnot in the late 1980s — is aimed at helping students develop stronger reading fluency. (Fluency is defined by the National Reading Panel as the ability to read text with accuracy, appropriate rate, and good expression.)
At the start of the intervention, students perform an unrehearsed “cold reading” of a passage for a small period of time. After this initial reading, students calculate their word counter per minute (WCPM) and graph it on a bar graph.
I’ll let Hasbrouck take over from here:
In step two, students practice reading this same passage three to four times along with a model to learn how to accurately pronounce all the words in the text. This step is not timed, and the students read the entire passage [rather than simply the part they were able to complete during the short time limit in the first step]. The modeled reading can come from a recording or a person trained to read the passage at a rate that is comfortable for the student. The key here is that a student does not just listen to the model, but actually reads aloud (softly) with the narrator’s voice, giving full attention to the text. Encouraging students to point to the text being read and informing them that they will be responsible for answering a set of comprehension questions after completing all the steps in the strategy helps the student stay focused.
Once students feel comfortable with the text, they begin step three in which they read the text independently, again aloud, but softly. Students set a timer for one minute and read the text several times until they are comfortably reaching their predetermined goal level—and are ready to be checked by the teacher…
In the final step, the student reads for the teacher, who then calculates the WCPM score. The student “passes” if four criteria are met: 1) the WCPM score meets or exceeds the predetermined goal; 2) three or fewer errors are made; 3) the student reads the passage with correct phrasing and attention to punctuation; and, 4) the student can correctly answer a few comprehension questions. When students do not pass, they continue practicing this same text. When they do pass, they graph their new score onto the same bar with their initial, unpracticed score, using a different colored pencil or marker. This graph gives tangible evidence to the students that they are improving—and keeps motivation high by showing them that their own effort makes the difference.
Unpacking how the Read Naturally intervention builds the effort belief
The most difficult thing about building the effort belief in our students is that our students are not foolish. If students like Nic weren’t intelligent, then we could tell them to just keep trying, just keep putting in effort, just keep believing in themselves, and they’d just keep putting in effort. But Nic’s not dumb, and so he needs to see that effort works. He needs some indication that trying will actually change things.
This means that one of our primary aims in schools is to create the conditions in which students can practice the right kind of effort — namely, the kinds of effort that works — and then direct our students’ attention to how this right effort produces improvement over time.
Since Ihnot’s method works — since it actually helps students grow in fluency — and since she has students use a bar graph to keep track of their growth, the effort belief naturally comes as a result. As Hasbrouck concludes, the bar graph “keeps motivation high by showing them that their own effort makes the difference.” That’s what students like Nic need — to be shown that their effort makes a difference. In the case of many secondary students, it will take a while for such demonstrations to pay off — after all, students like Nic have often accrued years of data indicating that effort doesn’t matter.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the effort belief is that it can’t cure poor instructional design. A central question of the educator’s work is, “How do I actually teach this thing? How do I actually help students get better at X?” This is what Candyce Ihnot did when she developed the Read Naturally intervention for her master’s thesis in 1989. She said, “If I were to design a simple method for improving reading fluency in students who were struggling, what would it look like?”
(For a couple more questions on making things less complicated, this post might help.)
As Nic’s grade started to tank in my class this last year, I realized that the normal instructional program for Nic was going to end with a failed semester in my course and a lower quality educational experience for his peers — after all, Nic’s disengagement was obvious. And so, during a moment of genuine connection, I made a deal with Nic: if he asked me one good question about world history each day, then I would give him every Monday to do two kinds of work for my class, which he had piling up on him: Gallagher-esque articles of the week and test corrections for his past tests. This required me flexing on several of my policies, and it resulted in a student who, by semester’s end, was re-engaged with my class and making demonstrable strides as a learner.
The five key beliefs are the simplest way I know for understanding what makes motivated learners tick and unmotivated learners… untick. But just because they are simple doesn’t mean they are easy.
I hope this article helps.