Can We Find A Better Term Than Struggling Readers?

image from icanread

image from icanread

To struggle means to contend with an adversary or opposing force.  To struggle means to advance with violent effort.  To struggle means to cope with an inability to perform well.  Despite its relationship with these definitions, the term “struggling reader” has become one of the favored way to label our learners as we discuss their needs.  A term that means to advance with violent effort is somehow now associated with developing as a reader, and I cringe every time I hear it.

It is not that I don’t see children fighting with words when they are learning to read.  I see the tremendous effort.  I see the hard work that goes into becoming a reader.  And I see my older students still fight, sometimes word for word, as they process the text.  They are in a struggle at times, yes.  But they are not struggling readers.  They are not battling an epic foe that will take them down somehow, because I can’t allow them to identify that way.  I can’t allow that definition to define them in my own eyes.  they are so much more than struggling readers.

When we allow a term like this to permeate our instruction, to permeate the conversations we have about students, we are viewing the children we teach only through one lens.  We allow this term to overtake any other information we have on the child and the effort that they put into learning.  When we label someone as struggling, we have, in essence, given them a box to place themselves in and for the rest of their lives they can choose to stay within that box knowing that no matter what they do, they will never stop struggling.  That label becomes part of their identity.  In our own minds as teachers, we also create a neat box to put them in as we plan our lessons and our own assumptions about what they can or cannot do taints their future path.

When we tell a child they are developing rather than struggling, then there is hope.  Then there is a chance for them to think that some day whatever they struggle with will not be as hard for them.  That they are developing their skills and working through the process.  And yes, that process may take years and years, but that there will be success, however small, and that this learning journey is one they will be on for the rest of their lives.  We don’t give them that chance for hope when we call them struggling readers.

In fact, why label them at all?  Why not just call all of our readers just that; readers?  Almost every child reads in some way.  I see it in my own children when they pick up a book and point to the pictures, too young to process that there are words on the page as well.  I see it in Thea, my 6 year-old, who is reading from memory and developing systems to figure out words.  I see it in my 7th graders that slowly work through a page of text, exhausted by the end of it.  They are readers.  And yet, their path toward becoming better readers may be one that has obstacles, may be one filled with struggles, but that does not mean that they are the ones struggling at all times.  That does not mean that one label will define who they are human beings, and nor should we let it.  But that change starts with the very language we use to speak about our students.  That change starts with us.

What do you think?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.  

16 thoughts on “Can We Find A Better Term Than Struggling Readers?

  1. I love the term “struggling”. I used it today to describe a small difficulty I had getting my groceries in the house in one trip. I think it is an honest and understandable term to describe students who aren’t where they want to be yet, but are putting forth the effort to make progress. A struggle sounds very surmountable to me. As a special education teacher, I certainly prefer it to terms “delayed”, “disabled”, “slow” or “behind”, as well as many that are much worse. Over my many years in my field, I have also heard many patronizing euphemisms that don’t fool my students one bit. Perhaps we could call them “boundary transcendent”, but I think “struggling” is both apt and respectful.

    • Yes, I would certainly never go back to those terms either, however, is it our adult mind that don’t see it as a big deal to struggle with something? I am merely thinking outloud here.

      • Sorry, still disagree with you, maybe it is my yorkshire roots but I firmly believe in calling a spade a spade. I have a son with dyslexia so know as a mother as well as a teacher the struggle some learners have with reading. We are not labeling these children, we are stating a fact.

        The teachers who have served my son best are those who have recognised the battle and the effort needed to learn and have battled along side him. Those who have not helped him have simply labelled him with something like ’emerging reader’. Emerging means ‘ to come forth into view or notice, as from concealment or obscurity:a ghost emerging from the grave; a ship emerging from the fog.’ (On line dictionary .com). Such teachers have done little to help him because they waited for the reading to ’emerge’ all by itself.

        I think it is also important for a child to know that they have to work harder than their peers and the word struggling helps them to recognise that. It is such a generall term too, we are constantly asking children things like ‘are you struggling with that glue lid, would you like some help getting it off’ or ‘ I see you are struggling with that maths problem, would you like some help’.

        Sorry Pernille this word is to valuble for me to stop using it.

      • I think that makes total sense though, what you are describing is someone really struggling with reading. Part of my issue is that we use it to label huge groups of kids, not the kids that rally do go through a struggle. So perhaps not a total abdication of the term, but reserving it for the kids that really truly struggle? Once again, just thinking out loud.

  2. The online dicrionary.com defines struggling as: ‘To be strenuously engaged with a problem, task or undertaking’ so I have to disagree with you on this one Pernille, my struggling readers really do struggle. The whole point about struggling is that you do get there in the end, you just have to work harder. I think the term describes the extra effort these learners have to put in. Indeed it is much better than ‘remedial reader’ or ‘not adequate’ reader which wre terms used in the past. Think I will stick to ‘struggling’

    • Interesting to see the different definitions of “to struggle,” that makes me think by itself. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using the term to describe the struggle that students go through at times, my problem lies in when we use it as a label for students – they become the struggling reader rather than someone who struggles to read. I know it seems like a semantics game but I think it speaks volume of how we view that student and also what it can do to self esteem for developing readers.

      • To me, it seems as if the concern is in using “person-first” language, wherein we acknowledge that first and foremost each person is just that, a person. This, to me, is similar to the movement to say “student with autism” versus “autistic student” or “person with cancer” versus “cancer patient:. Pernille, I totally agree that it is semantics, and don’t our word choices reveal how we may feel, even if it’s subconscious?

  3. I appreciate your perspective and desire to keep vigilant about labeling students. I’m more of the mindset that we need to be mindful of our intentions and our tone when using terms to describe where students currently stand in their learning journey. Such descriptions are necessary in our profession and what I wish we would do is shift our culture to one where students and teachers could discuss openly students progress levels with the realization on both sides that it’s not an end point definition but a signpost along a journey that marks progress toward a goal.

  4. I appreciate this topic. I was a struggling reader throughout grade school. Even now I’m a very slow reader. This year I shared with my students about my struggle and a beautiful transformation took place in our classroom. My students began openly talking about their strengths and weaknesses. They complimented each other and helped each other. I didn’t plan it, but you bet I’ll be sharing with my next class too at the appropriate time.

    I don’t have a problem with the term struggling reader. I would never use it in front of students about students. During RTI planning meetings though we need to have a descriptive term to use with the intent of identifying who we will focus our energy on. In those meetings I’d rather not waste time worrying about the newest more gentle label when I know our intentions and goals in that meeting are to help those students win.

    As a struggling reader, I’d rather not be called a person who struggles to read. That makes it sound like I can’t read at all. But as long as teachers aren’t using either of these labels outside of confidential planning meetings then what can they hurt?

    If we must get rid of struggle, how about Emerging Readers or Persevering Readers.

  5. I love the conversation this post has spurred. While I agree that it’s dangerous to label students, I also agree with the points others have made about the semantics of the word struggling. I think we all could label ourselves as struggling at something in our lives, and I think maybe if we all could pinpoint that there are certain parts of the act of reading that we ALL struggle with, that word would be less of a way for us to label students and more for us to name what parts of reading is difficult for us.

    Rather than saying Susie is a struggling reader, I wonder if we could just name the things Susie struggles with instead. I, for instance, still struggle with overly academic texts and find myself feeling like I’m back in decoding mode rather than comprehending what I’m reading. So yes, even at 35 years old, I still struggle with certain facets of the act of reading. If we are open and honest with ourselves and our students, perhaps we can remove some of the stigma of that word.

    I, for one, am not ashamed to admit there are certain facets of reading I still struggle with. I would not, however, label myself as a struggling reader. So I think that is where the problem and the danger lies. Let’s name the thing(s) we struggle with, but let’s be leery of labeling students as straight-up struggling readers.

    Sorry if this doesn’t make sense. That’s another thing I struggle with: overly verbose and redundant writing. 😉

  6. Hello, I, too, love this conversation. I never liked the term “struggling”. I agree with Mrs. Ripp. When I read this word, I felt depressed because it insinuates dark and gloomy efforts to try and reach a goal. A person can be successful in their endivour or not. While “developing”, to me, feels more positive and doable. It gives me hope that I can do it, maybe not soon, but eventually I will. In university we were taught the term “emerging” readers which also feels positive. Although we should not focus on terminology as long as we know what is meant by the word, and as long as we keep our sight on the prize (the best interest of our students), it is important to know whom we are dealing with so that we find the best way through which we can help them.

    Thank you for this wonderful post. And thank you all for this engaging discussion.

  7. Pingback: They Are Not All Struggling Readers |

  8. Pingback: 3 Ways to Get Your Child Reading Without Books – Nu Family Bridge

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