Transforming the Passive Learner into an Actively Engaged Student

“For our students, beginning in preschool, instilling a determination to learn is as vital as any literacy or content skills we teach them. It may, in fact, be the greatest gift we can give them. Kids have to believe in themselves in order to learn.”

~Regie Routman, p. 282

This quote from Regie Routman’s book, Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners, made me think about the students I work with as a literacy interventionist. Many of the students I work with have become passive learners by the time I work with them.

I once worked with a student who would chat animatedly with me all of the way to my room about all sorts of topics. He was very knowledgeable about particular cartoon characters, various animals, and he loved to share adorable stories about his classmates. The minute we sat down to learn he turned into a different kid. He slouched back in his chair a good distance from the table, he said very little and appeared to completely disengage. I remember during our first interactions together whenever it was his turn to try something after a demonstration he would just stare at the table and make no attempt to give anything a try. The behavior was puzzling to me because he was such a well-behaved, pleasant, little fellow. I started to wonder about his hearing and then I questioned whether he understood what I was telling him to try. Then it hit me. I realized that he had no confidence that he could do what I asked him to do.  He was waiting for me to do the tasks for him because he viewed them as too difficult. He did not see value in actively participating in his learning because it meant more failure. I had to boost his confidence by helping him to feel safe to take risks as I set him up for successful experiences.

I am happy to share that within five lessons my student looked like a different kid. His beautiful smile didn’t disappear the minute he sat down at the table. He sat up a little taller in his chair. He took over tasks with minimal to no support. He made comments such as, “Oh, this will be easy!” “I can do this.” Intentional teaching and planning that encouraged active engagement through success was the key.

Respect what the student knows

When working with a struggling reader, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by all that your student does not know and become hyperfocused on the child’s deficits. It is detrimental to the child’s progress that we look closely to notice all of the things the child can do (no matter how small) and build on every bit of knowledge he/she has. My student had great oral language skills that I used to support his work creating writing pieces and reading patterned level A and B texts.

Make connections to what is known

My student shared with me early on that he really wanted a pet turtle. He knew all sorts of facts about turtles including the name of the specific turtle he wanted. The next day we read a book about various pets. I showed him the “t” that started the word turtle in his book. We used that “t” to write about turtles during out guided writing time. By connecting the “t” to a pet that he wanted and knew a lot about the “t” became more memorable and was learned more easily.

Work within the zone of proximal development

For each part of my lesson, I had to think about how I could make the task one in which he could be successful with only a little support from me. I didn’t want to have to provide so much support that I was pretty much doing the task for him. He would feel the most success if he was able to take as much control over the task as possible.


Use temporary scaffolds to ensure success

My student was not able to put together his name puzzle without seeing his name on the front of his name puzzle envelope. He knew that using the guide on the front of his envelope was temporary and that he was working on being able to put his name puzzle together without seeing his name. First, he would put his puzzle together looking at his name and then he would turn his envelope over to see how many pieces he could put together before he had to check the front of his envelope. This scaffold allowed him to be quite independent with the task and provided him with a resource to use if he got stuck.

Model, Model, Model

I did less telling and more clear demonstrating to show my student what I wanted him to do. After plenty of opportunities to watch me model the task, we would move on to sharing the task, and then when he was ready I would have him try it out on his own. The first time that we worked on clapping syllables he was very unsure about his ability to do the task. He worried aloud that it looked too hard. But after a good amount of modeling and guided practice, he was eager to try it by himself.

Provide consistent clear feedback & specific praise

Regie reminds us that providing rewards for performance can have negative effects and deter the development of intrinsic motivation (p 282). I praised my student’s partially successful attempts and then provided clear feedback showing how he could build on what he knew. For example, when my student’s attempt at making an “h” turned out backward I praised him for his attempt and let him know that an “h” does have a stick and a tunnel. My next step was to show him that an “h” has to go in a certain direction. We should avoid negative comments and focus more on the message that effort, persistence, and attempts are what is most important.

It is our responsibility as teachers to foster risk-taking behaviors and to teach perseverance through challenges so that all of our learners are able to be actively engaged in their learning. Through thoughtful planning and differentiation, we can help all of our students to learn these important life skills.


This is my third post as part of Reading By Example’s Summer book club on Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman.

Make Professional Learning a Priority

How to Inspire a Love for Learning

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