Reading Grit: Advice from Real-Life Readers

Stack of books in Babelplatz

There’s a new buzzword surrounding the idea of success: Grit.  I first heard the word “grit” applied to academic success in this TED talk by Angela Lee Duckworth.  This article by Jonah Lehrer also gives a succinct overview of the concept.

I want my students to be able to develop reading “grit.”  While many of my students can and do read well and widely at their independent reading level, they give up way too easily when the reading gets tough.

Resignation in the face of difficulty may pose a problem not only in students’ personal reading lives as they shy away from books outside of their comfort zones, but also in their academic and professional reading lives as they give up on texts that will help them grow in their chosen fields.

To get some new ideas for helping adolescents develop reading grit, I wanted to see what more expert readers do when they are tempted to give up on a difficult read.

For this post, I polled my friends and colleagues.  Here is the context as presented to my Facebook friends:

What are your strategies for persevering through a difficult text? I want to create a list of advice for my students. Some of my students (not all, of course) tend to just give up and quit reading when a text seems too difficult. I want to give them some strategies to try to develop their reading “grit.” This may not be something you’ve ever thought about before, so I’m needing a little metacognition here. If you’ve ever struggled with reading, this may actually be easier for you to identify. I’m not talking specifically fiction here, but ANY text that is difficult but that you have a need or a reason to read. Could be a textbook, work document, legal paperwork, etc. Thanks!

As you will read in the following responses from my Facebook and Twitter feeds, my friends have some great strategies for developing reading perseverance:

  • Elise: Yes! Sometimes I take notes during my reading to jot down words that I don’t fully understand, a reaction to something in the text, or even if something i’m reading reminds me or another thing. I eventually take a break to review what I wrote,define terms etc. Once the info is digested, I am more encouraged to move forward with understanding rather than just getting through the pages. This helped in my higher-ed law class because I wasn’t familiar with all the legal terminology.My notes served as a good tool for discussion in the classroom.

  • Rebecca: As a dyslexic reader, I read slow, take notes, and summarize as I read.

  • Christina: Use a dictionary and read with a pen so you can annotate questions. That’s how I survived an entire semester of Chaucer.

  • Jasmine: I jot down a short phrase next to each paragraph to summarize what I just read, so I can identify what each paragraph was saying at quick glance. Jotting down notes also helps ensure that I understand what the text was saying.

    • If there’s a subject change and the author didn’t indicate a change with a heading or something, I’ll create my own heading or use a different colored pen to point out the switch.

    • If I realize that I start to drift off and that I’m not really reading but glazing over the words, I’ll pause and ask myself, “what was the last thing I understood?” and go back that way.

    • If I encounter a word I’m not familiar with, I’ll highlight it, stop to look it up, and then read that sentence again with the definition so I can fully understand that part of the text.

    • Most of these techniques have been helpful with the kind of readings I’ve done so far in law school – hope it helps!

  • Lisa: I search the web for chapter summaries and that usually helps get me (and the kids) through the sludge.

  • Audrey: Hear it while you see it. When I find my mind wandering or feel my eyes crossing I start reading out loud to myself…there’s usually some finger-pointing going in at the same time. It’s my own version if the follow-the-dot sing along. But really, the more senses you can get involved the more involved your brain will be. (I don’t, however, recommend licking the page…).

  • Brandon: Active reading with a pen! Take notes and look up opinions to see how others interpret the text.

  • Betsy: I like to make a character chart (like a family tree) for texts like As I Lay Dying that have a lot of characters. I think this could work for other kinds of texts, too!

    • Finding readings/performances on youtube helps me a lot.

    • Talking about what I’m reading is good for working things out, too.

  • Donalyn: Rereading, breaking polysyllabic words into parts, asking myself questions.

  • Christy: Not being overwhelmed by new vocabulary helps. I try to sort new words into categories, sometimes based on parts of speech. If it’s a new word that seems to be a NOUN, that’s an URGENT word. If it’s a VERB, that’s a NECESSARY word. If it’s an ADJECTIVE, that’s aN ASAP word. Now, that’s my personal rule for when I personally read difficult texts. However, I think that kids, often are most stressed out by unfamiliar words.  Come to think of it…I think that often a verb is more necessary than a noun. I think sometimes context determines the necessity of vocabulary acquisition.

  • Bailey: This may be a stupid idea, but I did it Freshman year with Mrs. Hawkins and it made me completely understand/like Shakespeare.

    • At the beginning of the year, you can take a text and spend a class period interpreting it as if the setting were in a High School. One of the lines that my group did for R&J freshman year (we did a rapper theme) was “Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou Romeo” which became “yo Romeo! Romeo! Where you at Dawg!” (I was a freshman… Don’t judge). It sounds stupid, but if the student interprets what ever they are reading and tries to guess what it would sound like in modern times, then it can become kind of fun. You could do it with just one scene from Hamlet and have it be a group activity and then tell them to do something like that with their texts every time they get stuck. (It’s fun for each group to read/act the scene out with the new lines)

  • Danny: Write on it with a color other than black and gray.  When I need to understand something and am having a hard time I try to define words I don’t know or write my own questions in the book/whatever. If I can visualize my thoughts in the same plane as the words on the page it feels more like an interaction with the text, and helps me retain and understand. Also, it feels much more personal this way.  I say use another color so it doesn’t all blend together with what is already there. I like blue the best.

  • Karli: In my Chaucer class, it helped me massively to just make bullet points as I read. I would make two columns: plot and literary significance. After I read I would google sparknotes or shmoop to make sure I understood it correctly. And then of course I would get something wrong and could correct it.

  • Lauren: Write about what I’m reading or stop and talk about what I’m reading either with others or to myself

  • Barret: When I am reading something very technical or even just doing something that is monotonous or requires intense thought and concentration, I will take a break when I start feeling overwhelmed. Just a quick break, maybe 5 to 10 minutes, to do something else. It can be as simple as getting a drink, stretching, talking to someone, or even doing a different type of work that might be less demanding. I think the brain is like a computer that just needs to be rebooted every now and then. With my own get kids, sometimes I will have them be silly or move around. Not sure if that would work with teenagers or not.

  • Alex: I learned to start reading out loud when I find it hard to concentrate on what I’m reading, usually with text books or scientific papers. When I’m reading scientific papers out loud, I make sure I have a hard copy out that I can mark up, underline what I can use for my paper and boxing words that I don’t know and need to go back to and define. One of my professor’s gave great advice to read it once and make a list of words you don’t know and need to define then go back and reread it again (for scientific papers).

  • Jessica: Yep, I agree with the annotating. I write down a short summary of what is going on as I read, words I don’t understand, and my own thoughts. When I have to write an essay, I do that in addition to writing down quotes that evoke some insight. Then I analyze them and try to find some themes. My first Composition II essay was written entirely in annotations!

  • Jeremy: Bring your text with you wherever you go- especially if you can electronically. I bring all kinds of books to work that I’d never read unless I was trapped here on slow business days

  • Timothy: For really difficult texts I have found it useful to listen to the audio while reading along. I find it will keep me going and improve comprehension.

  • Krista: As someone who got their degree in literature I can relate! I always highlight passages I don’t understand, words I am unsure of and i write IN my book. This way I can look back later on and when reviewing in class to better help my understanding. I know spark notes are generally the worst place to get any ideas on how to analyze a text but they do give great chapter by chapter beak downs. If I need to understand what is going on (I took an entire two semesters in college on Shakespeare) I would read the summary and then re read the chapter. Finally, reading the passage out loud oftentimes helps better than trying to read in my head!

  • Carol: Reading aloud, rereading, and audios help me with hard texts, but with VERY VERY difficult texts that I really need to understand and I recognize as beyond my ability (it happens sometimes with very technical or scientific topics), sometimes I highlight the parts I DO understand on my first read through, then I read the parts I highlighted as a type of CliffNotes/SparkNotes before reading the whole thing again. I don’t make this much effort often, but you can bet I take notes as I go, so I won’t have to do it again.

  • Taylor: I recently started reading a book that I now halfway through it and I have to inch through it. I usually will pick up a book I have already read and enjoyed and started reading it. Or I’ll listen to some classical music and it will help me clear my head.

  • Karise: Begin with the idea that you may not understand everything and that’s ok. Relax!

  • Iona:  Guided reading also helped me. I would read a few lines and then research interpretations and meanings. It took longer but it cleared it up for me.

  • Anuj: I know this probably isn’t the best, but I found that after reading sparknotes, or having a simple shortened summary of what I’m reading, that it makes it easier to understand what I’m reading.  For me reading a difficult book is like trying to solve a difficult puzzle, without a picture of what the puzzle is. The summary would be like having a picture of the completed puzzle, so you know where all the pieces will fit in.

  • Kera: When I am reading peer reviewed articles and experimental designs for some of my courses, I write a summary of every paragraph when reading. I highlight in the paragraphs the aspects of the research I didn’t understand and that enables me to either go to other sources, or read more closely and compare to the summary of the paragraph I had previously written. I will admit, this is very tedious and time consuming, but if one truly has the will and desire to learn and understand, this is what I have found works best, for me at least. For me, this usually leads to finding additional research or textbooks so that I learn the concepts of the subject matter, then going back to the original document with another perspective and having more knowledge on the subject.

  • Christina: I always know that I understand something when I can teach it to someone else. Maybe keep a video diary of chapter summaries.

  • Leslie: Read a difficult portion aloud: you see, hear and speak it all at once. it helps with dense text

  • Rebekah: break out the pens and highlighters. Make decoding the puzzle a game for myself.

  • Allison: Read aloud. Forwards and backwards. Look for patterns, esp. repetition. Research background info. Ask q’s. Talk w/ others.

I thought all of these were great suggestions, and I plan to give a copy of this compilation of advice to all of my students as part of our ongoing pursuit of reading grit.

What do you do when you’re stuck in a difficult text? What are your strategies for perseverance?

1 Comment

  1. Mara: When reading a difficult text, I use Post-It Notes. I write the word I don’t understand, the page number, & align the note under the line. This is especially good for texts that you are unable to write your own notes on. I use a different colored note for words, quotes I identify with, characters, etc.–makes it easy to visually reference. Then I use those to take notes (create a little catalog) and then use them to write papers or to ask questions.


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