The University of Iowa

Using Possible Selves to Facilitate Student Literacy Achievement

Teacher and student work on possible selves.

Teachers can help students define their possible selves in the context of becoming expert readers by thinking about and writing down their literacy strengths, goals, and an action plan to achieve those goals (photo courtesy University of Iowa Office of Strategic Communication).


Posted on: February 20, 2018

Students’ self-concepts and beliefs about who and what they want to become in the future define their possible selves (PS). Because PS can direct the kinds of goals that students set and their action plans for reaching those goals (Markus & Nurius, 1986; Oyserman, Destin, & Novin, 2015), PS can positively or negatively influence students’ academic engagement and achievement (Destin & Oyserman, 2012). Teachers can better direct students in envisioning positive outcomes in school and life by helping them be intentional in exploring their strengths and weaknesses, developing realistic short- and long-term goals, and making a plan to achieve those goals. PS also can be tailored to developing students as readers.

Helping Students Identify and Achieve Their Ideal Possible Selves

A structured way of supporting students in imagining their ideal PS involves six components, as shown in Figure 1 below (adapted from Hock, Shumaker, & Deshler, 2003). When applied to reading, the focus of these components is on the value of becoming an expert reader, which will help facilitate the students fulfilling their broader aspirations (Hock, Brasseur-Hock, Hock, & Duvel, 2017).

Figure 1 Components of Teaching Students to Imagine Their Ideal Possible Selves
Figure 1. Components of Teaching Students to Imagine Their Ideal Possible Selves

Components of Teaching Students to Imagine Their Ideal Possible Selves

An example PS tree

An example of a possible selves tree sketched by a student.
  1. Discovering the students’ strengths is a vital starting point to PS. The students must understand what skills and interests deliver the most self-satisfaction. Having students itemize their past successes and discuss their positive school experiences can help them recognize what skills and interests might lead to success in the future. The list of successes should include the students’ literacy strengths and interests.
  2. During the thinking phase, the program is designed to aid students in answering the question, “Who am I?” Students generate words and phrases to describe themselves, and they articulate their hopes, expectations, and fears for the future. This is a written exercise so that students have (a) time to consider their identities carefully and (b) a record of their current and future PS. Students can deliberate how they hope to improve as readers and writers, and they may consider what limitations to their literacy abilities they fear may negatively impact their futures.
  3. Sketching involves students drawing a PS tree by using information from the discovering and thinking phases. The tree’s roots are the words the students used to describe themselves. The limbs represent the students as learners (including readers and writers), workers, and individuals. The branches denote students’ hopes, expectations, and fears for the future. Fears are things that could attack the health of the tree, as insects or lightening would for a tree in the forest.
  4. The reflecting phase is designed to help students answer the question, “What can I be?” With their teacher, students take the opportunity to evaluate their PS tree. They describe the current state of the tree, what would help it become stronger or fuller, and how they want it to look in the future. Students use this reflection to determine what they can become when they are expert readers. These reflections on the PS tree become the goals the students set for themselves.
  5. The growing phase helps students answer the question, “How do I get there?” To convey the theme of nourishing the PS tree, students explore ways to grow their trees and achieve their self-selected goals. This action plan includes the specific steps they need to take, the timeline for completing them, and the ways they will resolve potential challenges along the way. In addition, their action plans explicitly connect reading with attaining what the students hope to become.
  6. Performing is the last component of PS and is designed to answer the question, “How am I doing?” Students’ goals and action plans need to adjust to accommodate the dynamic nature of their lives and development as readers. Therefore, students periodically need to reflect on their performance, celebrate accomplishments, add new goals as new skills develop, and assess the hopes, expectations, and fears for their possible selves. As part of the plan developed in the growing phase, students establish a timeline for reviewing their progress and the criteria for evaluating whether they are on track or need to modify their steps.

PS can provide student motivation for academic success and specifically reading achievement. As one element of a comprehensive reading intervention, PS contributed to students’ significant improvement on a standardized measure of reading achievement (Hock et al., 2017). Importantly, PS activities are time efficient and practical for classroom teachers to use in multiple settings and grade levels. With the combined effect of social skills development and literacy enhancement, PS may be a powerful program to improve multiple areas of social and academic growth.

Additional Resources on Possible Selves


Destin, M., & Oyserman, D. (2010). Incentivizing education: Seeing schoolwork as an investment, not a chore. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 846–849. doi:10.1016/j. jesp.2010.04.004 | Full text

Hock, M. F., Brasseur-Hock, I. F., Hock, A. J., & Duvel, B. (2017). The effects of a comprehensive reading program on reading outcomes for middle school students with disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 50, 195-212. doi:10.1177/0022219415618495

Hock, M. F., Schumaker, J. B., & Deshler, D. D. (2003). Possible selves: Nurturing student motivation. Edge Enterprises.

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist41, 954-969.

Oyserman, D., Destin, M., & Novin, S. (2015). The context-sensitive future self: Possible selves motivate in context, not otherwise. Self and Identity, 14, 173–188. doi:10.1080/ 15298868.2014.965733