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It is important to give first graders confidence in their literacy skills

The confidence that six-year-olds have in their ability as readers affects how their literacy skills progress in year one. Belief in one’s ability must therefore be instilled from the very start of school, a new doctoral dissertation shows.

Boy and teacher reading Confidence and interest are often linked, also when it comes to learning to read.

First grade pupils with poor early reading skills have considerably less confidence in their skills when they start school compared with the other pupils, a new doctoral dissertation at the Reading Centre shows.

“The vast majority of six-year-olds are very interested in learning to read when they start school. But it is noteworthy that pupils have formed an image of themselves as readers before they have begun any formal reading instruction,” says Bente Rigmor Walgermo of the Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger.

In her dissertation, Walgermo followed 1,141 pupils through Year one to examine the correlation between reading skills, expectation of mastery and interest in reading. The early literacy skills she measured are the skills the pupils had when they started school concerning their knowledge of letters and phonological awareness, i.e. how attentive the pupil is to the sounds of the language.

In older pupils, there is a familiar and clear relationship between literacy, expectations of mastery and interest. Pupils who are interested invest more time and effort in reading, and often become better at it for that reason. They develop confidence in their own skills, are more apt to take on challenging assignments and are more persistent in reading situations.

In Walgermo’s opinion, it is disturbing that even some of the youngest pupils have more negative images of themselves as readers.

“This means that children of preschool age have already had formative experiences that influence their perception of themselves as readers. This may arise from experiences they have with learning letters or other written language-related activities at home or in kindergarten. This is cause for concern, because we know that pupils who have little confidence in their own skills often invest less effort in and opt out of reading activities,” she says.

Belief in one’s ability and skills are connected

The year one pupils Walgermo has followed were participants in the På Sporet (On Track) project, which, among other things, examines the effect of specific measures for pupils who have a high probability of developing reading and writing difficulties. She found that measures designed to boost the literacy of pupils also had an impact on their self-image as readers during the first year of school.

“At the same time, I found that belief in one’s ability and reading skills influence each other both ways. Giving these children more confidence in their own skills will make them more motivated to read, which in turn develops their skills,” she says.

Pupils need assignments at the right level

These findings mean that while teachers need to work on skills, they have to be sure to give pupils confidence in themselves as readers.

“It has often been commonly thought that if the pupils just learn the skills, they will eventually gain more confidence in themselves. But teachers need to work specifically on giving pupils good self-esteem related to reading from the very first day of school, as part of formal reading and writing instruction. This is especially important for year one pupils who are at risk of developing reading and writing difficulties,” says Walgermo.

It is also important to stimulate the pupils’ interest in reading.

“Children develop both an interest in reading and belief in their own mastery through interesting reading material with a suitable level of difficulty, and by attaching feelings, values and knowledge to the assignments they are to complete. This is true for both pupils who have poor skills and pupils who have normal or advanced skills,” she says.

The assignments pupils are given in school must be at a level that is adapted to the skills of the individual.

“To ensure optimal skills development, belief in one’s own skills should be just above one’s reading level. In other words, for ideal skills development we should think that we are slightly better readers than what we actually are,” says Walgermo.

“Pupils must therefore be given a variety of challenges that are adapted to them so that they do not experience them as boring or redundant. It should make them happy to solve challenges, and keep trying when they encounter difficulties.”

“Good work” is better than “you are clever”

It doesn’t have to be difficult to give pupils confidence in their own skills, but it does require attentive teachers and parents.

“Simply put, it is better to say ‘good work’ than ‘you are clever’. Teachers and parents should reward youngsters when they make an effort and work well, rather than just putting an emphasis on their performance. When we commend pupils for good work, we promote the attitude that it is the effort you make that determines whether you succeed, not how smart you are. As a result, it is important that pupils of all skill levels experience that it pays to make an effort. They are given that opportunity when the difficulty level of the reading material and assignments is suited to them.”

There is also a fine line between the importance of externally and internally governed motivation. At the very beginning of reading lessons, external motivation is the most important, but as pupils become more experienced readers, their internal motivation becomes more important.

“By safeguarding pupils’ external motivation by giving them good reading experiences in the beginning, we will facilitate more internally governed motivation for reading in the long term,” says Walgermo.

Text: Elisabeth Rongved, communications adviser, Norwegian Reading Centre
Photo: Elisabeth Tønnessen and Getty Images

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