Limitations of the Deficit Model

Written by Gen

With all the rhetoric swirling around in the education world regarding test scores, accountability, and rigor, making sound instructional decisions can be confusing. It can be helpful to take time to frame your thinking regarding the end goal of your literacy instruction by asking yourself these questions:

What is most important for your students’ literate lives:

  • accurate reading, or strategic reading? 
  • decoding words, or a love of reading? 
  • memorizing high-frequency words, or falling in love with characters or favorite topics?  
  • answering comprehension questions, or feeling a sense of anticipation and curiosity before turning the page? 

Of course we want our students to love to read, to choose to read, and to care about what they read to the point that they are able to think deeply about it. But with all the pressure to “increase the rigor,” and “close the achievement gap,” it’s easy to fall back on what is black and white, what is easy to measure (i.e. sight words, letter names, letter sounds, phonics). The only problem is, reading is complex. The answer to illiteracy never comes down to just words, just letters, just sounds.

Now, think about our most struggling students. They, typically, don’t come to us with much item knowledge, or worse, they come with habituated confusions.  When we are under pressure to accelerate students’ literacy skills, we must resist the urge to begin exclusively teaching the smallest parts of language, particularly in isolation of continuous, authentic text. Thinking about trying to fill all of those gaps is also overwhelming for both the teacher and the student. It’s practically a losing battle! Working day after day on only the items a student doesn’t know can cause the student to:

become less engaged in learning

become more confused about letters, sounds, and words

become frustrated with learning

lose, or never develop, the love of reading 

So what do we do?

Change the way you think about your struggling students. Construct knowledge from what the students already know, and work from the meaning they use in text. Start with what the student does know. Even if it’s just a name or only the first letter of a name. You will teach the same concepts of phonics and words as you would if you were frantically trying to fill the gaps, but with a different perspective. Each student’s path would be slightly different, since they all come to us with different foundations. Rather than filling all of the holes, you are building from what the student already has.

As a practicing teacher trained in Reading Recovery, I have the privilege of working in this way, and viewing students in this way, every day. On the first day of working with one of my students this year, he said, “I can’t really read anything.” After only 24 lessons, that’s 12 hours of instructional time, that same student, upon turning to a page of his book with many lines of text, said, “I can’t read all of this-oh wait! Yes, I can! I’m a reader now!” He proceeded to read the page effortlessly.

This is the effect of building upon what a student knows, rather than showing him all of his deficits. The goal is to develop a literate person who sees himself as a reader. This can be achieved only if the student is reading. It’s hard to love to read if you all you do is sputter out sounds during lessons.

When you begin working with a struggling reader, it’s impossible to ignore the deficits. Acknowledge them, take stock of them, but then focus on what the student is already bringing to the table. You may need to look carefully for it, but you will find it.  Be strong. Breathe deeply. And let the student fall in love with reading!

For more information on what to do (or not to do!) for struggling readers, check out these articles by Dr. Richard Allington:



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