Years ago, I read an article by a teacher who was worried about Gretchen (a pseudonym), a conscientious, enthusiastic, and hardworking struggling learner. He feared that his district’s policy would force him to fail and retain her. He feared the negative consequences.

His article was touching, perceptive, and troubling. It dealt with common fail-retain-and-repeat decisions that I had frequently encountered, decisions that continue to demoralize and undermine countless struggling learners, their families, and their teachers.

When the decision is fail, retain and repeat, despite the learner’s difficulties, many learners lose their confidence and motivation. For some, the process is slow; for others, it’s fast. When slow, it scatters like paint chips in a soft breeze. When fast, it can explode like a cherry bomb.

Regardless of the speed, indifference, hopelessness, humiliation, weariness, anger, and resistance become common. For many retained learners, academic progress doesn’t quickly boom. Just the opposite; it remains weak.

The results [of the study] revealed that retained students did not experience a benefit in their growth rate (relative to either the preceding year, or to similarly performing but promoted students), and made less progress compared to the randomly selected group of students.”

And, as retained learners age, many drop out of school. “Why fail again and again?”

Studies have shown that students do not appear to benefit from being retained and, indeed, that retention may increase their risk of dropping out of school.”

Nationwide, grade retention costs billions of dollars, billions that have yet to demonstrate substantial achievement, billions that damage many lives.

Demanding the Unreasonable

Reasonably, schools can ask only one thing of struggling learners: They sustain a good effort to achieve.

To require this, schools need to convince struggling learners who expect to fail that they can succeed if they make reasonable efforts.

To convinced them, schools must set the stage for learners’ successes. They need to provide learners with interesting curriculum they can relate to, at levels that slightly stretch their abilities, levels devoid of frustration and scents of failure.

To achieve this, schools should not hold struggling learners responsible for reading disabilities, language difficulties, impoverished backgrounds, chaotic homes, turbulent communities, inadequate school resources, internet-based instruction, unproven teaching strategies, past struggles, beliefs that success is impossible, and other barriers that undermine motivation and learning. Instead, schools should employ programs and strategies that both mitigate or eliminate barriers and clearly increase the chances of success.

These situations raise important questions that have far better answers than retention: How can we prevent or minimize struggling learners’ problems? How can we show them that they can succeed?

Prevent Problems

Certainly, combinations of positive family support, preschool intervention, small class sizes, personalized counseling, interesting curriculum, interesting activities, and daily tutoring can boost the academic and social achievements of many struggling learners, thereby preventing problems and lessening the likelihood of retention. If these are missing, the odds of retention and dropping out of school increase. Some will drop out psychologically, others physically.

At a day-to-day, hour-to-hour granular level, teachers and support staff need to structure instruction to ensure that struggling learners initially succeed, expect to repeatedly succeed, succeed again and again, and expect to engage in one or more daily activities that interest them. For these and other learners, optimistic expectations are critical.

Experts … say that there is a relationship between how strongly a person expects to have results and whether or not results occur. The stronger the feeling, the more likely it is that a person will experience positive effects.”

To achieve this, teachers and support staff must get to know their struggling learners’ current interests, disinterests, concerns, and abilities. Once known, they need to plan one or more daily lessons and related activities around the learners’ abilities and interests. This creates positive expectations, something to look forward to.

Though struggling learners’ interest in specific topics is important, topics don’t stand alone. Other factors interest them. These include contests, novelty, choice, reinforcers, cooperative learning, difficulty, and effort.

Difficulty and effort go hand in hand. Greater difficulty requires greater effort. Typically, extreme difficulty causes confusion, despair, and frustration. It backfires. It creates resistance. Effort plunges. This is especially true of discouraged learners who believe they can’t succeed, that their efforts will be futile.

In contrast, too little difficulty or negligible challenge evokes boredom. Occasionally, it evokes the belief that “My teacher thinks I’m dumb.” Both extremes — extreme difficulty and negligible challenge — backfire.

Thus, in all cases, teachers and support staff need to ensure that all activities reflect the struggling learners’ proper Independent and Instructional Levels, the levels that match challenge to ability, the levels that avoid confusion, frustration, and despair.

Work at the proper levels prompts success. It includes the learners’ abilities to plan, begin work, monitor progress, work together, and work independently.

Match Critical Levels

In general terms, Instructional Level offers moderate challenge that requires moderate effort. For example, when reading third grade paragraphs unaided, struggling learners can routinely, quickly, and accurately identify 95-98% of words and correctly answer 70-89% of questions. At this level, teachers work directly with learners. Here, teachers explain, demonstrate, monitor, help, encourage, and offer feedback. Learners are not alone. Whatever support they need they get.

The Independent Level is just that: Independent. The word Independent says a lot. Each struggling learner is on his own.

At this level, struggling learners can comfortably and successfully read paragraphs unaided. They can quickly, routinely, and accurately identify 99% of words and correctly answer 90% of questions. At this level, they can succeed on homework and effortlessly read books they enjoy. This, not the Instructional Level, is the level for homework.

A characteristic of both levels is comfort. Given proper assignments and supports, most struggling learners feel comfortable at these levels. If, however, the criteria provoke substantial anxiety, ease the challenge. Focus on comfort. Select easier materials and structure activities to evoke expectations of success.

If the learners gain confidence, if their anxiety decreases and their expectations of success for more challenging materials and assignments increase, slowly, in small increments, raise the bar.

Why expectations? Because expectations are critical. They influence outcomes.

In one study, researchers told some track athletes that what they thought of as pre-race jitters actually improved performance, while telling another group that this sort of arousal was usually detrimental. The athletes performed accordingly.”

Create Realistic Expectations

Here are several other suggestions to help struggling learners develop realistic expectations of success and satisfaction:

  • Write short, positive notes to learners that compliments their specific actions. “Ronald, the way you quietly helped Sheila decode the three words she was struggling with was wonderful. You can be proud of yourself.”
  • Discuss what they enjoy. “Luz, yesterday you said you had a great taco recipe that you wanted to share. Would you like to explain it to me or to me and the class?”
  • Offer activities they enjoy and look forward to, such as free reading time, Minecraft challenges, math contests, and free time to meet with friends. “Looks like everyone did well on their assignments. So, start your free time activities.”
  • Complement their efforts, persistence, and correct use of learning strategies. “Wilson, you just used the Visual Imagery Strategy in the right way at the right time. And you stuck with it. You’re on the right track. Wonderful.”
  • Offer choices. “From the three homework assignments on Wednesday’s list, do the one you like best.”
  • Smile. Tell learners what you appreciate. “Marylee, I deeply appreciated the way you carefully listened to what I was saying. It showed you cared. Thanks.”
  • Stress what’s working well: “Gretchen, you’re making lots of progress in your daily tutoring. Just yesterday you read a fourth-grade chapter and answered 7 of 7 questions correctly. That’s great progress. You can be proud of your efforts.”
  • Show struggling learners what they successfully accomplished: “Gretchen, here’s yesterday’s assignment. Look at what I wrote: ‘Excellent. I’m proud of your effort and correct use of the Visualization Strategy.’”

When used daily, these suggestions can have positive effects on struggling learners’ motivation, achievements, and emotional well-being.

Respond to Problems

As soon as school personnel identify a problem — a barrier to success — schools need to identify the causes and initiate solutions. This may require one or several carefully coordinated services.

To succeed, the effects of each solution needs to be closely monitored, like the fuel in a propeller plane with a history of leaks. In reading, for example, struggling learners at a third grade instructional level need to have their reading fluency (i.e., the per-minute number of words in passages read correctly) assessed once or twice weekly. Generally, a trained aide can administer and mark each fluency reading in six or so minutes.

If, over five successive probes, the average number of words per-minute stagnates or regresses, red lights should flash: Something is impeding progress. It’s time to pull the struggling learner out of the quicksand. It’s time to investigate the reasons and assess the changes needed. Failure to do so may well keep the learner in a program that’s failing him, a program that may harm him severely.

For further information on progress monitoring, see and

Be Realistic

Though much of the above may sound “pie-in-the-sky” unrealistic, it’s all realistic. It’s all based on research, personal teaching experiences, and countless teaching observations.

Many of the suggestions, like personal notes, are easy to implement. Some, like identifying an exceptionally anxious learner’s instructional level, might prove difficult. But with planning, support, practice, reflection, and fine-tuning, all can prove as easy as brewing a drip-pot of coffee.

When struggling learners engage in the suggestions above and feel good about doing so, motivation and cooperation benefit. Think of it this way. If you’re a third-grade teacher dedicated to helping struggling learners thrive, would you rather spend 45 minutes a day studying the intricacies of fish scales or improving your teaching abilities?

Obviously, my question was rhetorical. It ham-handedly tried to show that focus, motivation, and determination are built on foundations of interest. Thus, it’s realistic to strengthen struggling learners’ focus, motivation, and determination. The paybacks are real. (Not surprisingly, a water research scientist I know preferred fish scales.)

Make the Case

So, what should teachers do for struggling learners who are failing their subjects? Here are a few answers:

  • Implement, monitor, reflect, and fine-tune the suggestions in this article.
  • Do whatever is legal and ethical to pass your struggling learners.
  • Do whatever is legal and ethical to ensure that once passed, they’ll be in an interesting and supportive environment.
  • Share the research showing that retention, over time, will jeopardize and psychologically scar many struggling learners.
  • Make the case that it’s better to spend money on programs that work, like small, daily tutoring groups, than to waste money on retention.
  • Make the case that any time a child struggles, he should get whatever educational services he needs.
  • Identify the services you think the struggling learner needs, and the resources teachers will need to ensure his success.

Will following the suggestions in this article guarantee success for all Gretchen’s? No. But for many, they’ll produce far better outcomes than the fail-retain-and-repeat model. In other words, they’re well worth the effort.