Public Reading Shame             


Related Video(s):

Shame: The Dark Heart of Reading Difficulties
The Power of Shame
Public Shame
Fear of Shame

See also:  Index of all topic pages related to shame

Return to Index of Topics  -  Notes: 1) This page is a work in progress and does not yet comprehensively cover its topic or include all the COTC and web resources its topic deserves.  2) Bold is used to emphasize our [COTC] sense of importance and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis in the original source. This color indicates COTC edits for brevity or flow. See referenced original for exact quotes.

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Typically, from first through third grades there is a lot of oral reading, and there are interactions where the kids are expected to read out loud, orally or in round robin. When kids are hesitant, disfluent, inaccurate, slow and labored in reading, that is very visible to their peers and remember the peers, the other kids, again look at reading as a proxy for intelligence. It doesnít matter if this kid is already a genius and can do algebra in the second grade, reading produces particular perceptions. Better said, lousy reading produces a perception of stupidity and dumbness to peers and clearly to the youngster who is struggling. That is the shame. There are very visible differences between kids who are doing well with print and youngsters who are struggling with print. They feel like theyíre failures; they tell us that.   (More "shame stories")       

G. Reid Lyon, Past- Chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Current senior vice president for research and evaluation with Best Associates. Source: COTC Interview -

Multiplication Effect of Shame

So, in the classroom situation thereís a multiplication effect. The more trouble any individual has reading in a classroom situation, the more likely that child is to have further shame affect interruption of the normal interest in reading. Immediately downstream what do we have? We see kids who simply say I donít want to read. I donít want to try because every time I try in class Iím going to feel worse. Iím not going get rewarded like Francine or Billy, Iím going to get laughed at and that hurts.

So, first the shame comes from being unable to decipher the code. Then thereís the shame that comes because you did it in public. And then thereís the next level of multiplication of shame experience; that the other kids will compare you to them and they feel better than you for that moment and your position in class is reduced tremendously. That means the simple failure to figure out what the letters mean on the printed page has not only become difficult for you to understand yourself, but itís placed you in a position relative to your peers where you are defined by them as lesser and itís acceptable to laugh at you and deride you for this inability to read.

If youíre reading one-on-one with a parent, a loving tutor, an older sibling whoís helping you and you feel safe, then that moment of shame is not magnified as it is in the classroom situation. So, when tutoring one-on-one, the nature of shame is that we feel less dangerously exposed if we feel loved. Itís merely exposure. But when weíre in the atmosphere of the classroom where every other child in that classroom is at risk of feeling exposed and compared invidiously to every other kid, then an error I make in reading reduces me in everybodyís eyes and Iím better off not trying.   

Donald L. Nathanson. M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, and founding Executive Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute. Source: COTC Interview -


Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Part of the complex of reading failure is increasing frustration by individuals, children who are failing to read at their success in school and what school is all about. It can in some cases, in desirable cases, resolve in greater motivation to try to get help and succeed. But in many cases it generates a sense on the childís part of helplessness; helplessness not only with reading, but helplessness with school. You find those children turning to other avenues to gain reward to gain self satisfaction.

So, they donít read well, so they donít read. They may play a computer game because theyíre better at that. So, you find individuals shifting their activities into areas which they are getting a sense of satisfaction, a sense of reward, and away from activities that are frustrating, and thatís certainly the case for reading.

You see a pathway taken for children who are failing to read and itís a way of preserving their self-concept of succeeding, but itís a pathway that is not ultimately to their benefit because it takes them away from the activities from which they can derive knowledge and develop the skills that are important for success in school and in life.

David Boulton: At a somewhat more implicate level the emerging emotional sciences, with respect to Ďaffectí and its driving and directing influence over cognition, have suggested that we operate in a way that once shame gets to a certain threshold level we want to move away from it. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development research studies are saying that children, because of the way we contextualize this whole reading experience, are feeling that there is something wrong with them because they canít do this. 

Again, weíre back to our beginning points: most of our children are to some degree in this space, for some degree of their education, feeling ashamed of how theyíre learning. And if shame causes us to want to move away from what causes shame, then we want to move away from learning. 

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Yes, thatís certainly true. And we need solutions to this. We need curriculum solutions so that fewer children experience frustration and difficulty during the task of learning to read. We need to change the context of schooling so that the child whoís struggling in reading in third grade can have that problem addressed in a way that isnít stigmatizing to the child and doesnít generate the sense of shame. We need in some way to break out of the lock-step nature of elementary education so that if you donít have what the other children have in first grade for some reason you are forever doomed and will never get the opportunities to pick up that information.

It is a very significant problem and the emotional and social consequences of reading failure are extremely important and are the soquali of the bad experiences that come from sitting down with text and not being able to figure out whatís going on, or not being able to figure out whatís going on at the level of oneís peers.

Itís often the implicit comparison with what other kids are doing in the classroom that generates not only the shame, but in some cases, the lack of motivation to do better. That is, if the overall expectations for that classroom, those children are low, then thereís no shame on anyoneís part with reading failure or low level reading success. The teacher isnít ashamed, the school district isnít ashamed and the state isnít ashamed.

We need to create a context in which people understand that there is a problem, that they need to deal with it, but the child doesnít experience shame for having not benefited from the type of instruction or societal support necessary.   

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Ex-Director (2002-08), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Source: COTC Interview:

Reading Aloud in Class

David Boulton: Yes. One of our interests is to explore what happens when children become so ashamed of how they feel about themselves in this process that it creates an almost preconscious aversion to it.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: Well, I think that's true. I've had the good fortune to speak to many people who are dyslexic, and who've been highly successful by anyone's standards. But if you speak to them, as I have, and you ask them: "Well, what was it like for you when you were a child, particularly, what was school like?" And you see this terrible look on their face. Particularly they recall the really horrible experience of being called upon to read aloud in class, in front of everyone when they couldnít do it.

David Boulton: Yes.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: That's the kind of mental image and emotional experience that stays with a child. It's really remarkable how many adults will remember that and can picture that classroom and how they felt and how they wanted to get out of there and avoid that at all costs.

David Boulton: Right. Almost everyone we talk to speaks about this feeling level connection with people who are suffering with this challenge.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz: Yes, this isn't an academic abstraction, it's about real people who have to live with something that people don't see, and that's why I guess it's been a really wonderful thing that the science has progressed so far, and that we actually now have the ability to see the brain at work, so we can actually see what is happening at the most basic levels.   

Sally Shaywitz, Pediatric Neuroscience, Yale University; Author, Overcoming Dyslexia. Source: COTC Interview -

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Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


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