Learning to Succeed


Every culture has its own expectations. People who are new to the culture have to learn these expectations in conjunction with the language which expresses them. Expectations are generally based on the values of the culture that sets them, and learning them is difficult. Teachers can help ease this transition for students by understanding what values are unique to America — or the region where they’re from — and help ELL students understand the foundation for these unique values.

To define what we value in a classroom, let’s start with some basic questions.


Success is very subjective. For some students, getting 60s is a success. For some families, keeping the lights on is a success. For many people throughout the world, success means keeping your head above water.

Yet, many Americans define success based on the cultural values of the middle class Western ideals of being the best. In other words, as a culture, success is represented by having more than necessary and meeting or exceeding expectations.


For many people around the world, if you can’t succeed, you’ve failed.

These cultures don’t value failure because it’s evidence of having wasted time. Time that could have been spent more profitably doing something you already know how to do. Time that could have been spent earning money to help the family survive, because success = survival.


One concept that makes English speakers unique is an acceptance of failure. We say things like:

  • “At least you tried”
  • “If at first you don’t succeed, try again”
  • “The only way you fail is to fail to try.”

We value failure because it is evidence of effort. But valuing failure seems, in many ways, to be in direct opposition with our value of success. In fact, people from other cultures don’t see this connection, that we try and fail and try again before attaining success. They strive for the results of success without understanding the process it takes to achieve success.

In American schools, and in many industries, success is the evidence of effort and progress. We value that effort so much that we value the evidence of it, even if it doesn’t work. Because you can’t measure effort and progress without failure. How else will you know how far you’ve come?

A student who is trying, will occasionally have failed attempts. This failure helps us evaluate areas of weakness so we don’t waste our time teaching things or practicing skills that have already been mastered.




Hopefully, by now you’re realizing that there’s a difference between the definition of success (having more than necessary) and the fundamental value of success (putting in effort even if it fails).

People from cultures with a more utilitarian understanding of success (ie. success=survival) typically don’t have habits that would lead to a Western ideal of success. Cultures that don’t value play, for example, generally don’t value failure because they’re both “evidence” of wasting time. This means people don’t learn to put forth effort for the sake of putting forth effort because the pressure to succeed (or survive) is always on. In order to teach non-American students (and low achieving students) how to succeed according to this American value (ie. success comes from effort and failed attempts demonstrate effort), we have to teach them new habits.



Encourage: Teach new habits

  • Give some incentive for trying.
  • Grade notebooks for completeness and organization.
  • Give grades for participation
  • Grade tests based on the number of questions answered, or require students to answer fewer questions and give bonus points for answering additional questions. (ie. Each correct answer is worth 5 points, but there are actually 25 questions available)
  • Celebrate achievements and diversity. It’s tough being new or different, but being unique is something to be proud of.
  • Let kids figure things out together and find answers for themselves. By doing this, you’re teaching them to muddle through a problem and how to be lifelong learners.
  • Give incentives that are reasonable. Studies show that in almost all cultures, when there is a high stakes incentive, a person’s focus will narrow. On mechanical problems — things that have an obvious solution — high incentive led to high productivity because the focus is narrow and the participants could go into “auto-pilot.” On creative problems — things that required higher order thinking skills — these high stakes incentives actually stifle success because the focus of participants was too narrow and a solution wasn’t obvious. In a classroom, this may mean that an A is too high to shoot for, but a passing grade is not. For a student who is learning to succeed, it may be better to emphasize the success of passing.


Engage: Vary your assessment
  • Use projects as often as possible. They allow creativity, there’s rarely a “right” answer (or at least there’s more than one right answer), and often, the only way you fail is to not complete all the elements required.
  • Allow group work and pair learning. Community learning is one of the most effective methods of learning – particularly for ELLs.

Assist: Bridge the gap

Some of your students have a great deal of content knowledge, but lack the ability to communicate that knowledge in English.

  • Provide students with the accommodations necessary to demonstrate what they know.
  • Modify your test format to avoid confusion. The more a student has to translate, the harder the test is because it requires more knowledge of English than the content.
  • Allow students to WRITE ON THE PAPER!
  • Some of your students have huge gaps in their educational backgrounds and need remediation. Don’t assume that they know everything everyone else does. Especially if this is social studies.
  • Use videos, links on your website, first language resources, and peer tutoring whenever possible.
  • Take advantage of the ESOL teacher’s offers for assistance.

Remember that academic English is not the same as social English. These students are balancing two cultures at once and this is a difficult transition. A student who has given up, may not be lazy, s/he may just be tired of failing. If your students believe you don’t care about them, or their success, they won’t see a reason to try. So, be kind!


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