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by Erica Fischer on Sep 7, 2012

Helping Struggling Students Succeed in the World Language Classroom

Last weeks participants discussed ways to reach out to struggling students to help them succeed. We recognized the fact that the world language classroom can be a very intimidating place for some students, but also that there are things teachers can do to ensure that all students feel comfortable and confident in the classroom, so that all can succeed.

What is a “struggling student?”

Participants began by asking what the term “struggling student” really means. The general consensus was that while some students have an identifiable deficiency, any students might struggle in a classroom – and especially a world language classroom. The nature of the world language learning process can be very intimidating and frustrating for beginners and more advanced students alike. It is all the more important, then, that the world language teacher seek to make connections with his or her students and improve interpersonal communication.

As @senoraCMT pointed out, some students are slower processors than others. This can lead to frustration, causing these students to zone out and give up. For these students, @Lauren_Scheller recommends TPR, using thumbs up and thumbs down for communication to help students participate even if they can’t find the words to do so. Ample use of visuals helps, too!

@DiegoOjeda66 made a bold statement: unless there’s an identifiable deficiency, there are no struggling students – only struggling teachers. He argues that “struggling students” struggle because they have low motivation, and that teachers can control that factor. With that in mind, participants shared their ideas for how they as teachers can be the best they can be, thus reaching every student.

When it comes to identifying struggling students early on, several participants advocated the use of diagnostic assessments. @MartinaBex stressed the need to determine where the breakdown is (RTI) and whether or not students can identify the meaning of written word as well as a spoken one. @Lauren_Scheller suggested assessing proficiency before diving into teaching, and continuing to use portfolios throughout the year for teacher assessment and peer assessment.

  • @dr_dmd suggested that interpersonal communication if often the biggest challenge for students; they feel shy in the classroom.

Anticipating Students’ Struggles

Co-moderator @DiegoOjeda66 wrote up a useful list of fears that “struggling” students suffer from. These fears close students to learning, and keep them from engaging and getting the most out of their L2 class. He advised that we keep in mind these fears so that we as educators can stay one step ahead of them.

  • “I know I’m going to make a mistake.”
  • “I’m afraid of being called on.”
  • “I don’t understand all the things the teacher says in L2.”
  • “The other students are already better at L2 than me.”
  • “I don’t want to get a bad grade.”
  • “I forget things I already know when I’m nervous.”
  • “I don’t want to speak in front of the rest of the class. I’m afraid my classmates will laugh at me, and I don’t want the teacher to correct me.”
  • “The class moves too fast – I can’t keep up.”

World language teachers would be advised to keep these fears in mind, and to remember what it is like to be a novice language learner so that they can better serve their students.

Addressing Struggling Students’ Fears

Based on this list, it appears that the fears that cause students to struggle can all be addressed by making sure students feel comfortable in the classroom and have confidence in themselves. Participants shared tips and techniques to help all students get the most out of their time in the world language classroom.

One of the main barriers to student achievement in the world language classroom is students’ belief that they are not capable of learning a new language. Participants discussed ways to change that perception:

  • @senoraCMT suggested reminding students that have already learned one language – English – and are thus capable of learning any other language, too!
  • Some languages may be harder to acquire than others, but none is impossible. As @Lauren_Scheller pointed out, “Even the village idiot speaks the language.”
  • L2 teachers who are not native L1 speakers should let students know about their own struggles, setting an example by being open to making mistakes. For example, @dr_dmd shared that his English is “terrible,” and lets his students know that they can laugh at him when he makes mistakes; he encourages them to help him learn.

Fear and anxiety about grades can also be an inhibitor to student success. It is inevitable that novice language learners will make mistakes, but many students let the fear of making mistakes keep them from making an effort to speak – which is such an important part of language acquisition!. A point-based grading system only exacerbates that fear.

  • @MartinaBex advocated proficiency-based grading rather than point-based grading. @senoralopez begins her school year with her students by talking about proficiency instead of grades; this helps give students motivation to speak in the target language.
  • @Lauren_Scheller creates open-ended assessments that show what students can do, rather than what they can’t do; that way, everyone has a chance to be successful.
  • @Lauren_Scheller also reminds students that they don’t need to understand everything immediately – the important thing is just to listen.
  • @Catherineku1972 shared that point-based grading is bad for teachers, too – they spend so much time grading and doing paperwork that it can take the joy out of teaching!

Recognizing Student Success

Similarly, it is important that teachers celebrate success, and that students learn to recognize their own successes, too! @Chalkbrd shared a valuable quote from Susan Gross, “Nothing motivates like success,” and explained that many students struggle because they don’t feel successful.

@tmsaue1 reminded us of the need to celebrate success from Day 1. As @CoLeeSensei reminded us, feeling like they have a small “win” early on in the class encourages students to keep trying; without it, some students will just shut down and decide not to try. @suarez712002 pointed out that this means more than a teacher just saying “good job;” students need frequent, detailed feedback.

Getting students engaged in their own learning process enables them to recognize their own successes, and thus become more self-motivated.

  • @suarez712002 advised having “the talk” about proficiency levels early on, so that students are clear about expectations and can have a sense of their own progress.
  • @dr_dmd recommends Edmodo as a way for students to reflect on their learning. It even has a phone app, which students love!
  • @Lauren_Scheller has had her students use GoogleVoice to record themselves; students can listen to their recordings a few weeks later and note their progress, giving them motivation to keep working hard.

Teachers can also help students’ confidence by breaking down activities into do-able chunks, as @dr_dmd suggested.


In keeping with the theme of recognizing all types of student success, many participants agreed that differentiation in the classroom can be a way to engage all students, and to keep students from feeling like they are struggling. @dr_dmd argued that differentiation should be more about offering student choice – giving students choices of activities to teach them to let them drive their own learning. @Lauren_Scheller thinks of differentiation as creating opportunities for all students to shine. @tmsaue1 advised teachers to focus on differentiated learning, not differentiated instruction. @senoraCMT advocates TPRS because of its emphasis on daily differentiation. She shares that that’s why she never regretted leaving textbooks behind.

Interpersonal Relationships: Making All Students Feel Comfortable in the Classroom

@dr_dmd reminded us that an effective world language classroom is a zone of law affective filters. Teachers create such a place through positive interaction with their students, putting them at ease.

  • As @placido pointed out, many students have problems in school because of a lack of relationships there. Thus, telling students that you care about them and showing them compassion and patience can go further than any instructional strategy, according to @Lauren_Scheller.
  • @SenoritaALopez has found that listening to students and asking them about their lives helps build the trust needed to have confidence and succeed in the classroom.
  • @placido stressed the importance of making eye contact with students. Eye contact makes students feel more engaged and connected to what’s going on in class; additionally, it helps teachers gauge student comprehension.
  • @DiegoOjeda66 believes that interpersonal skills are the “first and foremost” most important skills of the 21st century teacher.

This foundation of trust in the classroom helps students get more out of communicative activities in the target language – communication that can be between teacher and student, as well as amongst students themselves. @MartinaBex suggested that good interpersonal communication starts with the teacher, who sets the example and can facilitate conversation between students. Students must trust both the teacher and their classmates so that they don’t have to fear making mistakes. @CoLeeSensei has her students work in pairs, and switch every two weeks; this relieves student anxiety by giving them a partner to work with. She believes that interpersonal and communicative activities actually motivate students – students use the target language without even noticing that it’s not their native language!

Some Perspective

Towards the end of the discussion, participants offered some perspective that can help both struggling students and teachers alike. @dr_dmd asked why do some teachers think of perfection as the end goal of world language teaching. He reminded us that no one – not even native speakers – speak any language perfectly! @tmsaue1 shared his “aha!” moment that he had the other day: students aren’t behind or ahead, they just are where they are. Teachers should relax and not worry so much about having all students be at the same place in their journey of learning.

For more on the topic of struggling students, @dr_dmd recommended an ASCD book titled, How to Support Struggling Students by Robyn R. Jackson and Claire Lambert. More information can be found here:

Finally, @CoLeeSensei shared a link to a video that she shows all her students before they begin learning Japanese. Made by a Canadian student who learned Japanese, it gives some good advice for novice learners of all languages:

Many thanks to all our participants for their thoughtful and enthusiastic contributions! A special thanks to our co-moderators, @dr_dmd and @DiegoOjeda66.

Next Thursday at 8pm EST / 5pm PST for another exciting #LangChat!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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