“Struggling” Readers in a Growth Mindset

I was catching up on Twitter when this post caught my eye:

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I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What an excellent question! I only wish I had been at that conference to join in on what I’m sure was an amazing conversation.

2015-04-09 13.14.15The term “struggling readers” has always bothered me.  I’ve never liked “struggling” coming before “readers” (or writers, or mathematicians, or whatever identity you are describing). When Pat and I titled our book, we wanted to make sure that “readers” was the first, and most important, identity mentioned – so we decided on “Supporting READERS who Struggle”, instead of “Supporting STRUGGLING Readers”.  However, after reading this quote I couldn’t stop thinking about this. Is it the same thing? By labeling our readers “struggling” (either before or after labeling them as “readers”), are we implying that this is a fixed way of being? That they aren’t readers who are growing and learning – they are readers who are struggling?

But is “struggling” a bad word?

Can struggling be a sign of a growth mindset?

I read an article a few months ago about having and nurturing a growth mindset, where the authors question whether “struggling” might be a good thing. “That struggling means you’re committed to something and are willing to work hard. Parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should ask, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today?'” I love this. “A fabulous struggle.” I know that for myself, some of my “fabulous struggles”, like completing a 108 mile trail run in the mountains or finishing graduate school left me with a huge sense of accomplishment, pride and joy. It wasn’t easy. I struggled. A lot. And I had a lot of help and support. But it was worth it.

Learning to read isn’t always easy. It can be a struggle for some children. But what if we changed our conversation about what “struggling” means, and instead, teach children that struggling is a fabulous thing to do? That, if you are committed to something, and work really hard, you can feel that amazing sense of accomplishment and joy. I think the conversation we have with our students would be the easy part. None of my kindergarteners would tell you they are “struggling”. That word is never used, and they all see themselves as readers – whether they are reading pictures in books, the letters in their name, retelling a familiar book or reading all of the words in an Elephant and Piggie book. They are simply “readers”. It is the conversation with adults that we need to change. When we discuss children in our CT meetings and our progress monitoring meetings the word struggling comes up often. After all, it is our “struggling readers” that we are meeting about. But what if we framed our conversation about the “fabulous struggles” these kids are having and how we can support them and help them grow as readers and empower them? What if our conversations worked towards growth and empowerment and looked at effort, good teaching and moving our readers (and writers, mathematicians, etc…) towards growth and success?

I’m looking forward to exploring this more. My school is focusing on the growth  mindset as one of our professional learning strands for the upcoming school year. I think this question begs conversation, reflection and thought as we examine our language and our practice.

I would love to hear your thoughts on “struggling readers” and a growth mindset. Please share!


  1. I like the way you frame “struggle” It doesn’t have to be negative as “in the kinders can’t”. We tried to turn the can’t to what “I can” and build on that. I have shared a wonderful graphic someone posted on Twitter about “YET” I don’t know how to share it here in the comments so will link it to your post on Twitter.

  2. Katie, thanks for your post. We’ve had many conversations about this and I also mention it in “What’s in a Name?” towards the end of “One Child at a Time.” I wrote that I love what Peter Johnston once said, “why do we call them ‘hardest-to-teach’ kids when they are actually ‘the hardest-for-me-to-teach’?” I loved this because it puts the problem where it belongs — with the teacher. That’s our job…. to learn how to teach that child better. It’s not the child’s fault he is struggling. We just haven’t figured out how to teach him yet.

  3. I loved reading your response to this! And I agree that a struggle can be positive and productive. For me the problem comes when we use “struggle” to label our children. Pat’s comment above is exactly what I was trying to get at. We need to own the problem – not place it on the child.

  4. this almost brought tears to my eyes! I love “fabulous struggle” and am going to use this concept with my kids. I just finished grad school and one instructor shared this quote with us, “I struggle and emerge.” Just like a beautiful butterfly!

  5. I agree with all of you. In fact, I refer to children who struggle my “inspiring” children. They inspire me to become a better teacher, and to learn what I can do to meet them where they are.

  6. I try to work hard from day one to let my students know it’s OK to do hard things. We want all of our kids to be stretching themselves a little out of their comfort zone- every child should be involved in an engaging challenge in their learning regardless of what level they are at. It’s one of the dangers of making standards the focus rather than the guideline. What of those students who come to class already meeting the standard- they are entitled to a “whole year’s growth” as well. Love this discussion, thanks for posting.

  7. As a reading specialist, I too have stumbled over how to refer to this population of students. “Struggling readers”, “at risk readers”, ” children with difficulty acquiring literacy skills”, but my own children helped me with this…. They often talk about building your “struggle muscle”…..helps a lot to refer to difficulty in this way.

  8. I love this idea! Taking it a step further, I can imagine modeling during reading and writing workshop, sharing the parts of reading and writing I am struggling with. Modeling the struggle-leads-to-learning positive mindset could have some great effects on the conversations about learning in the classroom.

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