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“I’m a Stupid Reader”:  Image Issues in Reading

by Paolo Martin 

"I hate reading."  "I'm not a good reader." "I'm a stupid reader."  "I wish I didn't have to read..."  As a reading specialist, those are the responses I often get from struggling readers when I ask them how they feel about reading, what they think about themselves as readers, or what they wish for.  Those negative responses to reading make sense for my struggling readers; because they read two, three, or even four grade levels below their current school grades, reading is a daunting task for them.  But how about high-achieving kids, or kids who don't struggle with reading?  Why might they feel like they're "stupid readers"? 

Many reasons probably exist, but I suspect these proficient-enough readers who feel inadequate in reading (and hence often have a negative attitude toward it) fall prey to "image issues" like most of us do--like the anorexic who sees an overweight image in the mirror when everyone else sees a beauty; the inner-city youth who was told he/she would never make it in the world; or the student who was labeled "special" early in school, was mainstreamed into regular classes, but still feels haunted by the label given to him/her.   This is how Ian Stewart, creator of, feels about reading.  While he reads voraciously, he admits to feeling anxious about reading because he never went to college and never was "officially" exposed to what he calls "the Gold standard" of books taught through the canon generally offered in college-level English literature classes. 

Lakewood City Schools psychologist John Zbornik, in an article entitled "Reading Anxiety Manifests Itself Emotionally, Intellectually," goes further to characterize reading anxiety as a specific phobia particularly in students who don't exhibit a learning disability.  He writes, "Reading anxiety.... has been defined as an unpleasant emotional reaction toward reading that results when the student's intellectual drives of curiosity, aggression and independence become associated either singularly or in combination with significant other disapproval and the reading process. Significant other is defined as a person or persons who have a significant emotional influence over the student's behavior or belief system."  Hold on, did he just say what I think he did? We, as teachers, parents, or even friends of young people can be the source of a child's reading phobia?!  I guess if "you're fat" comments from one's peers can create body image issues (perhaps even eating disorders) in kids, it makes similar sense that disapproval about what they read or how they understand what they read can have a serious impact on what they think of themselves as readers.  That's food for thought.

Tags: struggling readers, reading anxiety, reading instruction

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