Can a student’s ability to learn to read be linked to their mental health and influenced by life outside of school? Could reading anxiety come into play?
Those are questions Wellington Schools psychologist John Zbornik has been asking the past 30 years.
He penned a dissertation on the subject in 1988 that created a reading anxiety scale consisting of a 45-item questionnaire. It evaluates students in three areas that he feels problems with reading can stem from: aggression, curiosity, and independence.
Zbornik had his work on reading anxiety published for the first time in 1991 by Reading Improvement. Just last week, his research was included in a collaborative piece in the Early Childhood Education Journal.
“When I was writing it, I thought it was really good and something everyone would want to be a part of,” he said. “I felt like I was doing something no one else had done. I was also taking a psychoanalytic model and applying it or making it practical.”
He said years passing between recognition of his findings did not discourage his thought process.
“After I got published, I sat back and waited for the phone to ring but nothing happened,” he said. “That didn’t change my thinking, though, that I invented a really cool and useful instrument for students and teachers to diagnose and focus on emotions’ impact on learning.”
Last year, he received an email from Luciane Piccolo, a colleague working at Columbia University in New York. She asked whether she could translate Zbornik’s work into British Portuguese to be used at schools in Brazil and potentially throughout South America.
“She asked if I had a problem with that and I said hell no,” he said. “She asked about royalties and I told her I don’t care about that. I told her to go for it. I’m 60. I want this to get going here. You can’t wait forever on these things.”
He described scenarios in which curiosity, aggression, and independence can individually affect reading skills and also how they can combine effects.
Curiosity factors in when a student comes from a household that staunchly supports certain lifestyles or ideologies and rejects outside interference.
“Typically these homes are very rigid,” he said. “It’s very fundamentalist, where not a lot of knowledge is disseminated in the household. There’s probably one person calling the shots and learning or education is perceived as a threat. That can create a fear of all kinds of curiosity.”
With aggression, Zbornik said it’s a matter of using it to maintain mental focus when learning to read. It also factors into fear of aggression from peers who may be hostile toward students who learn to read faster.
“Kareem Abdul-Jabaar was the head of his class,” he said. “He always felt that he had to suppress himself and not show his true ability in order to fit in. Reading is a very difficult process. It takes a lot of energy for a child to learn how. It’s not natural. It takes aggression. If a child does not have that aggression toward it, they’ll be reluctant to read.”
Fear of independence references aspiring readers who do not want to alienate family, friends, or peers through their newfound skills, he said.
“If you read and you read well, you become liberated,” he said. “Of course in some families, situations, or cultures, that’s not always met well. Independence, aggression, and curiosity can often overlap and create an even more difficult reading anxiety situation.”
He said a continued false perception of the separation of body and mind leads to many students not getting the help they need when they encounter difficulty learning how to read — or in any facet of school.
“That is a perception as old as philosophy itself,” he said. “If there’s something wrong with the mind, society still wants to tell us its always something you have control over. In many cases you don’t.”
An uptick in the amount of information students are expected to process as well as stress from standardized testing comes into play as well, Zbornik said.
“The machine is starting to break down like a computer,” he said. “There’s only so much working memory that people have. It’s of limited capacity and short duration. Teachers are doing the best they can. I think the fact that reading anxiety is becoming more validated because of people breaking down.”
Zbronik said he has no plans at this time to bring his research before the Wellington school board or building administrators.
“I have not discussed it with anyone but I use it in my day-to-day practice,” he said. “Teachers in Wellington are incredibly dedicated. They work so hard with these kids. Whenever we assess a student, I work with speech, occupational, and physical therapists. We have a really good team that works together to provide services to children.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Jonathan Delozier | Wellington Enterprise Psychologist John Zbornik has been working in the Wellington Schools for three years. He has researched and written about reading anxiety since 1988 and was published by the Early Childhood Education Journal last week.