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When & Why It Is Effective to Let Your Students Struggle With Difficult Words

There is a profound difference between struggle and effectual struggle. I was previously aware of the distinction between the two concepts, but that distinction became incredibly clear during a recent experience I had working with teachers.

I was at the end of a training day in which teachers had learned the key strategies and processes in Reading Horizons. I had moved into teaching the teachers how to help students transfer skills to their reading, and I was now introducing the concept of accountable reading. (Accountable reading is the idea that once students have skills sufficient to handle unfamiliar words, they should no longer be allowed to just guess at or skip a word or to ask the teacher to give it to them. They are accountable for what they know and are responsible for applying those skills to the task at hand.) I offered four steps to help guide a student in this process.

For a more complete description of the four steps, watch the following video:

The process begins by encouraging students to sound out the word all the way to the end a couple of times. Then if they still don’t know the word, they are to systematically apply the skills they have learned.  Once they apply their skills and work with the word, then they are to try and sound it out again a couple of times through. They must do all of this before they can ask a teacher for help with the word.

My moment of clarity arrived when a teacher raised her hand and asked, “So we’re just supposed to let the student struggle with the word?” In that moment of seeking clarity and truth, all the pieces that I had collected in relation to this instantaneously came together, and the full picture came into view. Here is the truth that came from that moment of clarity:

I could feel the concern in the teacher’s voice. I recognized the energy of the emotion from my own experiences. My conditioned response—based on these experiences—came up first and I wanted to say, “No! Don’t let the poor child just struggle!” I had to stop the words in my throat before they reached my mouth. I needed to think things through for a moment.

I knew that desire to help all too well. My son, who is dyslexic, would struggle so much when we were reading when he was little. I hated seeing him struggle, and I did not know at the time why he was struggling or what to do to help. I did not have the right tools, so I could not help him. There was no good outcome from this struggle. It was a destructive process that only caused frustration, damaged his self-esteem, and left him feeling powerless. In this case, letting him struggle was not effective, and although “giving him” the word seemed like a great kindness, it still left him powerless.

As understanding flooded in, I answered the teacher with great confidence, “Yes, let the student struggle. Because here is the key: The student now has the tools to work with the word. Now at the end of the struggle, he will feel empowered because he was able to apply skills and gain something from the process.”

When we have knowledge and tools to apply to our struggles, they become effectual, because with those tools we can get to the other side of the struggle with greater knowledge, confidence and experience. We will be successful when we have tools sufficient for the task at hand.

This is what Reading Horizons does—we empower students with the right tools so they can become successful readers. We first add to the teacher’s tool bag so that she can give those tools to her students. The tools empower both teacher and student with an understanding of the structure of our language and provide a skill set that can be taken anywhere and used on any text. 

When students have the necessary skills for the challenge, then allowing them to work through and “struggle” with the word is a gift that lets them discover their power. That can feel “off” at first, but when we understand the difference between struggle and effectual struggle, the greater purpose comes into focus and we can see what sufficient tools can build. We give the power back to the student.

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