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Ditching the Phrase “Struggling Student”

I hear this phrase a lot.

Many language teachers lament about staying after school to help a “struggling student,” that a student is “struggling” with grammar point X, or that they have a group of “struggling students” in their second year, Spanish 2 class, etc.. When it comes to language acquisition, however, there’s no struggling going on, at all. Bill VanPatten recently had something similar to say on Tea With BVP Live From OFLA (Episode 54).

Unless the student has a disability—not a learning disability, but a communication disability in the native language, which even then might not be an issue because students with severe non-verbal disabilities show signs of understanding language spoken to themno student should struggle to understand language in our classes.

These students might have behaviour issues that negatively impact our daily routine and flow of comprehensible input, but that has nothing to do with language acquisition itself. We are all capable of understanding and acquiring a second language. Therefore, “struggling” is only in reference to something else, usually related to explicit grammar instruction, or forced language production, and the assessments that leave students excluded.

For most teachers, then, a “struggling student” is just a student whose acquisition rate is slower than the curriculum pace—a pace that also excludes most students. **Newsflash** ALL LEARNERS have an internal syllabus that WILL NOT CHANGE just because your program moves at speed X, or you explicitly teach Y. In fact, your program’s curriculum is designed for only one student’s pace. The sad part is that you might not even have a student who acquires at that particular rate, this particular year in any particular course!


5 thoughts on “Ditching the Phrase “Struggling Student”

  1. I’ve always thought of the “struggling” student in the context of a CI classroom as the one who struggles to pay attention. If/when they pay attention they do fine, but they don’t always do that so they struggle in comprehending things because they’ve received much less input than the other students. Of course the causes of this varies and is often complex (ranging from the student’s own internal abilities to pay attention to whether what is being done is compelling). This seems to me an appropriate way to use “struggling” and fits with what you say because “paying attention” is more like a pre-requisite to receiving input.


    1. I hear you, yet students with ADHD communicate with ease in their native language! I’m not sure absolute focus is needed to acquire a language, or in the short term just understand what’s going on in class. That is, our classes must be comprehensible regardless of any particular student receiving less input, and/or acquiring at a slower rate. Also, I would take the comprehensibility aspect further by stating that it still is not on the student as one “struggling,” rather, the teacher is likely “struggling” to know students well enough to know what is compelling and take paying attention out of the equation.


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