June 26, 2016

Helping Learners Manage Cognitive Dissonance

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Yesterday, Angela Stockman, a literacy consultant from Western New York, shared her own memory of being a high school student tasked with reading and figuring out T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock. Today, Angela helps us to think about how to help readers embrace the dissonance that Eliot caused her.

How do we help all readers gain the kind of confidence that I did that spring? I’m not really sure, but I know this necessitates cognitive dissonance. I know that as a teacher and a professional development facilitator, it’s my job to create it. I also know it’s my job to help learners manage it productively.

For instance, many of the children and teachers that I work with are daunted by the idea of close reading and text-based questioning. The models provided by our state are helpful, but many of the teachers that I know remain eager to keep the responsibility for quality question design and discourse in the hands of kids. It’s taken a long time to let go of those reigns, and some teachers wonder if we need to take them back again in order to align with the expectations of the Core. Another challenge? Asking kids who read far below grade level to lead quality conversations about complex texts seems like an impossible dream. But we’re trying, and in the trying, we’re learning what works.

3 strategies for helping students manage cognitive dissonance:

1. Chunking very complex texts into smaller portions helps us moderate frustration levels.

2. Opening honest conversations with kids about how difficult reading can be and sharing our own comprehension challenges is powerful as well. As kids dive in, they know that we don’t expect perfection. They also know we are confident in their abilities to use what they read to lead rich text-based conversations, even when they aren’t able to understand many of the words that they confront.

3. Sentence frames and anchor charts have become excellent travel companions for the readers we work with, enabling them to talk about tough text in increasingly sophisticated ways–unprompted.
I also prepare students for difficult texts by asking them to write about personal experiences related to concepts in the text. For example, before I had students read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, I had them do a quick write about a dream they had that they thought was real. What was it like when you woke up? This exercise foreshadowed the story’s narrative form and the surprise that comes at the end. Asking students to relate conceptually to a text through personal experience gives their experiences (and writing) validity, since students are already experts on their personal experiences. It’s also a good way to get students thinking about themes in the text ahead of time.


As we think about supporting students struggling with cognitive dissonance, it makes us wonder what others are doing to manage this in their classrooms.  Thoughts? 


  1. Excellent suggestions. I teach with students with acquired brain injuries and Learning Differences including Dyslexia. I use these three and, perhaps a variation on your #3, urge teachers to provide framework or guiding questions. Some give out the task for complex or self-selected texts without questions before Ss start reading. They are being tasked to comprehend (difficult without the framework) but then do the real task identifying language features or synthesizing content (?) understood (?) into something “K”reative. Often all this without background or context.
    Challenging even for a read aloud eBook or other adjustment etc without framework pre-questions.
    Reading can be made less effortful, surely.

  2. Jaime Mendelis says:

    Using these strategies with my 8th graders this year has been an eye-opening experience. I’ve noticed that many students believe reading is an activity that is passive and enjoyable, and don’t regularly flex the mental “muscles” that require them to force engagement with a text. They are genuinely pleased when they work hard to struggle through a text and employing strategies that good readers use, even adults, when faced with complexity. I’ve discovered also that teaching students what it feels like to “know when they don’t know” has been extremely useful — to know when they are reading the words on the page, but really thinking about the sports game after school! Thanks for your blog, and the reinforcement it gives to the instruction in my classroom.

    • I’m having very similar experiences with the students I’m working with. They DO get excited when make meaning from something they assumed they would not be able to understand. I’m a huge proponent of choice-based reading. It’s critical that kids discover who they are as readers and have plenty of opportunity to read the things they prefer. Working with shared, complex text has taught me that readers want to be challenged as well. They actually enjoy tackling assigned texts and topics too. If everything were choice-based, how would readers gain exposure to and fall in love with texts and concepts they were previously unaware of? I think we need balance, perhaps.

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