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.