S3 Ep13 - How to Engage Reluctant Students in the Classroom

Teacher Showing Students Paper

Hello to you and welcome to this episode of the Structured Literacy Podcast recorded here in beautiful Pataway, Burnie. My name is Jocelyn and it's wonderful to have you here with me. We have all known a student who we believed can perform skills, such as reading and writing, and have become frustrated when, day in, day out, they produce very little work or appear to be making very little effort to engage in the work we've assigned. I've heard the following statement many times, that is, "He can do more than he is letting on." This statement is an indication that the teacher believes that the student has skills they are withholding or declining to demonstrate. It implies that the lack of performance is somehow based in a failure of commitment, motivation or effort on the student's part. In today's episode, I'd like to share my thoughts on some of the reasons that students who appear to have the skills and knowledge they need don't perform as expected in the classroom. The first point I'd like to make clear is that if the student really can do something confidently, they will. Now, I'm not talking about the student who sits with their friend chatting about what happens at lunch and doesn't complete the classroom tasks. I'm not talking about the student who drags their feet during the lesson, and if you ask them to finish the work before they go out to lunch, they do so to a high standard in about a minute and a half. I'm talking about the student who is genuinely pained and might even be distressed or shut down when they are asked to perform a task. Often that task is reading aloud or writing on their own. I'm talking about the student who is the struggler, someone who is desperate to fly under your classroom radar, someone who will likely ask to go to the toilet every time you begin a writing task and stay there for so long that you wonder if they've encountered some misfortune on the way back to the classroom. You may have observed this student writing words with apparent ease in your phonics lesson or avidly 'reading' a book of their choice. Often, this book will be a graphic novel, one of the Treehouse books, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid that has loads of pictures, but when it comes to participating and completing work in a lesson, their skills seem to dry up.

In order to understand what might be going on with this student, let's consider the idea of performance. Performance doesn't simply come about because someone has skills. It's made up of a mixture of competence and commitment. In exploring these concepts, I'm drawing on the work of Ken Blanchard in his book, 'Leadership and the One Minute Manager'. This book is absolute gold for anyone who supports another person to develop in some way. It's designed for workplaces, but the concepts work for classrooms too. In the book, competence is defined as a "Function of knowledge and skills which can be gained from education, training or experience." The text goes on to discuss that competence can be developed with appropriate direction and support. It's not something you're born with: it's something that is learned. Let's think about when you develop your unit plans and outline your success criteria.

I like to arrange this into "I can and I know statements, so that it's really clear what is being learned. Are we developing knowledge or are we practicing skills? Incidentally, you can't be skilled without knowledge, so both are necessary. Keeping this in mind helps me to use the appropriate pedagogical techniques to ensure that I'm providing enough rehearsal and spaced practice for strong skill and knowledge development. In literacy, these I can statements might be:

  • I can decode words containing the initial code automatically;
  • I can decode words with a complex code automatically;
  • I can decode multi-syllable words consistently.

I know statements, on the other hand, might be something like:

  • I know that sentences must have a who and a do;
  • I know that capital letters are used at the start of sentences and proper nouns;
  • I know what proper nouns and common nouns are.

Having a student be able to perform in the way you want them to, it's not just about what they do. It's also about what they know. When you are thinking about the tasks you are asking students to perform, it's helpful to reflect on what skills and knowledge that student would need in order to perform the task. So, if you want students to write a simple sentence on their own, they need to know phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

They need to know that they can sound out words and listen for the phonemes to write them down. They need to know that there are spaces between words, capital letters at the start of the sentence and a full stop at the end. They need to know which words make sense, in what order. If they can't say it, they can't read it and write it. They also need to know that a sentence needs to have a who and a do, or a subject and a verb. In terms of skills, students need to be able to:

  • automatically sound out words and record the phonemes they say;
  • form letters without conscious thought, and this has to be automatic;
  • hold a sentence in their head to focus on one word at a time, to write it down, and this is why spelling and handwriting must be automatic, we can only consciously focus on one thing at a time.

If your students don't know these things and can't do these things, we really have no business asking them to write a simple sentence on their own. That task is likely overloading them.

The second aspect of performance is commitment, and this is often a value-laden word that can trigger some people to be a little resentful. I once had a colleague who refused even to discuss this idea, saying that I was asking her to say that she wasn't committed to her job, and I didn't mean anything of the sort. Commitment refers to the confidence and motivation a person feels. As a school leader, I had the confidence to rework the duty roster, but my motivation to do so wavered just a little bit at times. That didn't mean that I wasn't committed to my job. Ken Blanchard describes commitment as a measure of being able to do a task well without much supervision, whereas motivation is a person's interest in and enthusiasm for doing a task well. So, is it possible that a student can have skills and knowledge but not be motivated? Sure. In order to put yourself in the student's shoes, think about a task that you are likely to avoid because you do not feel confident.

For me, it's been reverse parking. For many years, I reverse parked for my driving test, many, many moons ago, and up until last year, had only done it about five times since. I would park three blocks from where I was going in order to avoid reverse parking. Now, could I do it? Sure, I did it for my test and five times since. But did I feel confident and motivated to do it? No way! The reason that I avoided reverse parking was that I was absolutely convinced, in the irrational way that comes with feeling unsure, that when I started to reverse park, every person on the street was going to stop and stare, that if I messed it up, they would all notice and my failure would be on display for every man within a two kilometre radius to see. In my head, I told myself, they would then say, "See, I told you, women can't drive." Now, this is ridiculous. My attempt at parking was not even a blip on anyone's radar, maybe except for the owners of the cars either side of the car space. They couldn't care less what I was doing, but did knowing that really impact how I felt? Nope, not one little bit.

When your struggling reader or writer is resisting you, it's likely because they feel exposed and vulnerable. They are so scared that they are about to make a fatal blunder that they would rather sit there and risk getting in trouble than open themselves up to feeling useless. These students are often told to just try a bit harder or apply themselves, which is well-meaning but actually unfair. Our attempts to motivate and encourage may even push the student into a fight-flight-freeze response that sees them upending tables and shutting down or storming out of the classroom. Telling the student to "Just have a try," or saying that they're capable and just need to apply themselves only serves to leave them feeling blamed. After all, if they were clever, they'd be able to do the task with confidence, right? Well, wrong. The solution to this issue lies in instructional decisions because we cannot separate emotions from learning. Those two things are interdependent and interrelated. We can't compliment our way to student confidence. Saying "You're so clever," when a student clearly has no idea what they're doing is disingenuous and does nothing to earn the student's trust.

Well-being is an enabler of engagement in learning that is then further enhanced when we are successful. It's not a present that you can hand someone. Students, and adults just quietly, need to see the results. They need to experience success. We need to stack the deck to help them see that they can complete tasks well. Sometimes that means dropping the academic expectations a little so that the student can build the first steps in confidence. This doesn't mean dumbing down tasks so that there's no effort or heavy lifting required, because if there's no thinking, there's no learning, but it does mean breaking learning down into small steps and supporting students to work with them in a way that supports their cognitive load.

Another important element of instruction that needs to be considered is task design. Before you begin instruction, compile the list of prerequisite skills and knowledge students require to complete the tasks. Students can't work independently until they have these prerequisites to automaticity or mastery. The larger the number of prerequisites students are wobbly on or uncertain about, the less likely it is that they will succeed in the task. I said earlier in the episode that we can only consciously focus on one new thing at a time, and that is also true for your students. If the task you're asking for requires eight elements of knowledge and skill and your students are only proficient in four of them, you are setting them up for failure. It's not even feasible to say that four out of eight elements gives them a 50% chance of success. The goal is to teach all students. To do that, we need to pay particular attention to those students who need extra support and guidance. We have to make sure that they are 100% guaranteed to succeed within the lesson. Remember, we aren't removing the requirement to think, we aren't eliminating intrinsic load: we are optimising it.

Tasks should not be too easy. They should also not be too hard. The difficulty in the task comes about because we've combined the elements, not because we have asked students to do something they don't know how to do yet. In considering where our students are up to, it's entirely possible that we have, at some point, misunderstood a student's readiness to complete a task on their own. Students might be able to follow along with a class task with direct instruction (that's small d, small i) and guidance about how to do something, but when we ask them to do it on their own, they just fall apart. This has likely happened because we haven't given them enough time to consolidate learning before handing over the reins of the task.

We may have taught a lesson, checked for understanding and, upon seeing correct answers on whiteboards, assumed that meant that students had learned what they needed to. The answer to whether they've learned what we think they have lies in whether they can perform the skill or use the knowledge the next day, and the next day, without clues and supports. Even then, we can't leave it at that. If you have identified that this is the cause of your students not being able to complete tasks on their own, that you have just released responsibility too early, well, that's great news. All you need to do is just adjust the timing, and we must remember that different students will be ready for release into independent tasks at different times. So that's where differentiation really occurs: it's not in the rich instruction you provide overall, but in the support students have to work on follow-up tasks and apply learning.

If you want to explore more about the idea of the consolidation piece, have a listen to our recent Research to the Classroom mini-series about daily review. You can find that in Series 3, episode 8, 9 and 10. In today's episode, I've explored the idea that reluctance to complete tasks isn't about attitude or personal commitment; it's often related to feelings of insecurity. The way that we support those students we might label as reluctant, is to carefully consider instruction and ensure that they have the prerequisite knowledge and skills to be ready to tackle classroom tasks before handing over the reins of independent work. Stack the deck in instruction so that every student is 100% guaranteed to succeed, and watch what happens, it'll be magic. Until next time. Bye.


Blanchard, K., Zigarmi, D. and Zigarmi, P. (1994) Leadership and the One Minute Manager. Harper Collins. 


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