I have “struggled” with choosing appropriate words to describe students who are having difficulty earning passing grades. Now Ben Orlin, a math teacher writing for Slate, has sounded in on the language used to describe failing students.
I’ve heard slow, weak, struggling, behind, and other words too numerous to list. Students manage to fail in thousands of ingenious ways, and we teachers have developed a vocabulary to match. These words aren’t interchangeable. Each one embodies different assumptions about the engines of success, the nature of failure, and how students’ minds operate. Each word is a bite-sized piece of educational ideology.
Slow doesn’t seem like a good choice, considering the fact that some very bright students work slowly.
Weak “often carries a tone of resignation”.
Low is harmless, but not sufficiently descriptive.
Behind is a relative term, useful in some situations.
I share Orlin’s preference for describing these students as struggling.
My personal favorite is struggling. It dramatizes the situation—as if the student is swimming against whitewater currents, doing her noble best to stay afloat.
Of course, some students who fall behind are not struggling at all. They’re simply not trying, and mainly suffer from a lack of motivation. I guess I might frame these situations as students struggling to overcome a profound lack of interest in learning.