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Helping Slow Learners: Implications for the Classroom

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 14, 2011

What can we do for slow learners? The point of this chapter is to emphasize that slow learners are not dumb. They probably differ little from other students in terms of their potential. Intelligence can be changed.

This conclusion should not be taken to mean that these students can easily catch up. Slow students have the same potential as bright students, but they probably differ in what they know, in their motivation, in their persistence in the face of academic setbacks, and in their self-image as students. I fully believe that these students can catch up, but it must be acknowledged that they are far behind, and that catching up will take enormous effort. How can we help? To help slow learners catch up, we must first be sure they believe that they can improve, and next we must try to persuade them that it will be worth it.

Praise Effort, Not Ability

This principle should be obvious from the research I've described. You want to encourage your students to think of their intelligence as under their control, and especially that they can develop their intelligence through hard work. Therefore, you should praise processes rather than ability. In addition to praising effort (if appropriate), you might praise a student for persistence in the face of challenges, or for taking responsibility for her work. Avoid insincere praise, however. Dishonest praise is actually destructive. If you tell a student, "Wow, you really worked hard on this project!" when the student knows good and well that she didn't, you lose credibility.

Tell Them That Hard Work Pays Off

Praising process rather than ability sends the unspoken message that intelligence is under the student's control. There is no reason not to make that message explicit as well, especially as children approach upper elementary school. Tell your students how hard famous scientists, inventors, authors, and other "geniuses" must work in order to be so smart; but even more important, make that lesson apply to the work your students do. If some students in your school brag about not studying, explode that myth; tell them that most students who do well in school work quite hard.

Persuading students of that truth may not be easy. I once had a student who was on the football team and devoted a great deal of time to practice, with little time left over for academics. He attributed his poor grades to his being "a dumb jock." I had a conversation with him that went something like this:

DTW: Is there a player on the team who has a lot of natural ability but who just doesn't work very hard, goofs off during practices, and that sort of thing?

STUDENT: Of course. There's a guy like that on every team.

DTW: Do the other players respect him?

STUDENT: Of course not. They think he's an idiot because he's got talent that he's not developing.

DTW: But don't they respect him because he's the best player?

STUDENT: He's not the best. He's good, but lots of other guys are better.

DTW: Academics is just the same. Most people have to work really hard at it. There are a few who get by without working very hard, but not many. And nobody likes or respects them very much.

Academics is not always analogous to sports, but in this case I think the analogy holds, and for whatever reason, it has usually made sense to my students, even the nonathletes.

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