Grit: The Missing Link

Angela Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (2007).  The idea of humans having said grit is nothing remarkable, as many have proven their ability of resilience for centuries.  However, the question as to why people have grit, and how one can instill grit is a mystery.  Where there is passion, there is purpose.  Where there is purpose, there is a will to help this purpose survive.  Survival in today’s world has certainly evolved, and as the world continues to turn, people need to adapt and evolve with it.  In the intellectual realm, literacy skills are vital to a human being’s survival.  Humans utilize literacy skills in nearly every area of their lives, and in turn need it for survival.  From how literacy skills are developed, to being used on a daily basis, it is evolving at an incredible rate.  However, the literacy achievement gap continues to part even though it is needed for survival.  The question regarding grit insists an answer, before it is too late: Why do people have grit, and how can one instill grit in the educational setting toward evolving literacy skills? If the answers can be found to these questions, it is possible the literacy achievement gap can begin to close.  This paper will be looking at how literacy has evolved and how education can continue to adapt and instill a purpose in all realms of the skills with grit in order to help close the literacy achievement gap. 

Literacy in the 21st Century

Acquired literacy skills are the prerequisites to learning.  They are the antecedent to opening new doors of opportunities.  However, literacy skills cannot be defined by standards of practical survival.  Functional literacy (Gray, 1956), which asks for one to meet minimal levels of competency in accordance to their cultural setting, does not prepare people to survive in a diverse world aside from their own.  This then creates stagnation, causing those who only have acquired literacy skills for minimal means within their own society the inability to adapt or evolve, which will in turn impact their society, those within it, and inevitably those outside of it.  The ability to adapt and evolve is a skill in itself.  Intellectually, learning is to adapt and evolve. 

Research has suggested that learners who had “significant reading problems in the elementary grades continued to have deficits in high school” (Foster & Miller, 2007, p. 173).  Though the results that prove this study has persisted for years, the literacy achievement gap has not narrowed.  Yes, today’s literacy skills go beyond reading, writing, and communicative abilities.  They ask for individuals to be information literate, in which “…a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information” (Martinez & Pilgrim, 2013, p. 61).  Organizing textual information, evaluating what information is necessary and unnecessary, collaborating, thinking critically, and problem solving are necessary, as well as applying digital literacy with technologies of today.  That is where survival is evolving, from functionality to how one will provide for themselves.  “Good jobs in the nation’s twenty-first-century economy require advanced literacy skills such as categorizing, evaluating, and drawing conclusions from written texts” (Haskins, Murnane, Sawhill, & Snow, 2012, p. 1).  However, if the literacy achievement gap persists, leaving learners without the necessary literacy skills of the twenty-first-century, the end will result in an extensive “rich get richer- poor get poorer” (Foster & Miller, 2007, p. 174) effect. 

With all of that said, schools must prepare their learners to adapt and evolve within the literacy skills of today throughout their curricula.  Moreover, schools need to prepare their learners to adapt and evolve within literacy skills while facing adversity.  It has been pointed out that “although it seems reasonable to assume that there is a relative homogeneity in the grade-level cirricula across the United States, it may not be reasonable to assume that there is homogeneity in the level of resources that are available across schools in this country” (Foster & Miller, 2007, p. 179).  However, a lack of resources does not equal a lack of resourcefulness.  The twenty-first-century learner does indeed have technologies and digital literacy skills to apply, but it does not mean that those tools are the only way to acquire the rest of today’s literacy skills.  Martinez and Pilgrim remind us that “the greatest challenge is moving beyond the glitz and pizazz of the flashy technology to teach [new] literacy in this new milieu.  Using the same skills used for centuries analysis, synthesis, and evaluation we must look at digital literacy as another realm within which to apply elements of critical thinking” (2013, p. 64).  What the education system is missing when attempting to bridge the literacy achievement gap for today’s learners are “the conditions in which students learn” (Alvermann, 2005, p. 10).  Rather, schools look at ways to fix the learner while never fixing itself.  Skills can only be developed when the motivation to learn succeeds.  Therefore, in order to begin looking at closing the literacy gap, schools must look at how they teach their learners “whose motivations to read (or not read) hinge on a variety of factors…” (Alvermann, 2005, p. 10). 

Building a Bridge with Grit

“Students who persevere when faced with challenges and adversity seem to have what Duckworth calls grit” (Finamore & Hochanadel, 2015, p. 48).  In understanding that the literacy achievement gap has not seen changes in years, as well as confronting the idea that learners face a multitude of adversities every day, grit might be the culture schools need to adopt.  Achieving the many literacy skills of the twenty-first-century may seem like a daunting and tiring journey because it is.  An appreciation for efficacy of effort is needed as learners endure this journey of survival, and grit gives meaning to it.  Grit is not only asked for when failures occur.  Rather, grit demands a certain loyalty to learning.  It is not a strategy schools can teach to their learners, but a quality they must nurture. 

As said before, a lack of resources does not mean a lack of resourcefulness.  This resourcefulness is the essence of grit.  When a learner needs to locate an answer to a question within a text, they may utilize their problem solving and critical thinking skills while sifting their way through.  As they encounter more challenging texts while being asked to apply literacy skills, grit is needed to provide them the ability to access those skills and stay tenacious. 

Before learners can acquire higher literacy skills, they must build their own bridge with the skills and tools teachers have provided them, because “literacy skill development must meet certain levels before students can fully access subsequent stages” (Foster & Miller, 2007, p. 179).  A tool schools must equip their learners with is when and how to be gritty.  For those learners who struggle early on, along with the fact “that after the fourth grade, literacy intervention and remediation programs are only beneficial for approximately 13% of students who are struggling with reading” (Foster & Miller, 2007, p. 174), failure has become synonymous with dumb as success has become synonymous with smart.  A learner’s personal best in a skill may be seen by them as their threshold, and once that personal best is not met, motivation is eradicated.  Cultivating and nurturing a gritty culture in schools changes the focus from personal best to persistence.  Having this tool and quality is essential to motivation and purpose.

A Loyalty to Learning Literacy Skills

Though early literacy intervention is best practice for early grades, it still “remains a significant problem there as well as in the middle grades and beyond” (Alvermann, 2005, p. 8).  When confronted with literacy skills that may be too challenging for learners to execute, teachers may want to change the way their learners think about difficult tasks.  A study suggested that grittier learners were those who were motivated to help others and make a difference in the world.  In knowing that, teachers should provide meaningful opportunities to their learners within their curricula that is relevant to the learners themselves.  Schoolwork being more meaningful to a learner could make all the difference in how they confront difficult tasks.  Some part of teaching literacy in hopes to close the literacy achievement gap should be helping learners find their passions, encourage them to pursue such passions, hold practice and persistence on a pedestal, and to understand that the skills of survival in the twenty-first-century come with these components.  This is said, however, with caution, as content within a classroom should not be the only main focus for a learner.  The process of learning and understanding should trump compliancy and benchmarks.  Take, for instance, Christian Long’s Wonder, by Design (2013) vision.  His idea is that schools cannot transform a mindset or culture without transforming the school itself. 

Schools must change their cultures as well while attempting to close the literacy achievement gap.  Teachers need to think “about different ways that teachers might intervene in their students’ reading lives… It calls for moving beyond fruitless searches for some method (or magic bullet, if you will) that promises to fix students’ so-called deficits in reading…” (Alvermann, 2005, p. 10).  Though there are a multitude of supplemental materials out there in the education world that insists it will help remediate literacy deficits, a child is still a human being and that must be taken into account as well.  Facing adversity and seeing failures as dumb requires a culture-shift to be made so that the belief and understanding that one can persevere can help motivate the learner through their journey of surviving their acquiring of literacy skills. 

Angela Duckworth’s grit scale (2007) can be used to give insight for an intervention plan in regards to learners’ literacy skills.  Regardless of whether or not the learner is high or low on the grit scale, it can give the teacher insight as to the efficacy of effort this learner has, how self-aware they are, and how to begin differentiating for them in the areas they need help with in literacy.  For example, a learner may be struggling with comprehension skills, and score fairly low on the grit scale.  However, “many struggling or reluctant readers find their own reasons for becoming literate…” (Alvermann, 2005, p. 12), which comes in the form of their own survival skills for today’s world: being engrossed in their passions.  Finding and supplying their passions to practice literacy skills is the key to uncovering their ability to learn and help them gain confidence in it.  From there, teachers can begin praising their effort and grit, giving the learner insight into focusing more on their abilities and moving into a variety of reading materials.  To transform the school and the content is to transform the learner and their approach to learning.

Instilling grit is not a curriculum or strategy.  Rather, it is a quality a school and its teachers and learners share.  “Good teachers anywhere are good teachers everywhere” (Au, 2011, p. 65) is indeed a misconception, and must be reminded “that standards of goodness in teaching and learning are culturally determined and are not the same for all groups” (Au, 2011, p. 65).  It is important to note that when cultivating a gritty culture within schools, that not one is like the other.  There is no one way that school can nurture this type of culture.  Grit in a school must be differentiated in accordance to the learners within it.  In this way, a universal belief is held amongst the diverse learners and educators, and together they can begin to see their resourcefulness and abilities in literacy education because it is differentiated to their needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all program to fix the learner.


Why do people have grit, and how can one instill grit in the educational setting toward evolving literacy skills? There is still more work to be done in regards to closing the literacy achievement gap and finding meaningful ways in which schools can encourage a gritty culture.  Both are correlated and can impact one another.  However, it begins with a mutual understanding of expectations between schools and their learners.  Differentiation must always play a role in any literacy intervention taking place.  And within that intervention, there must be opportunities for passions to be sought out and perseverance expected of each learner.  All learners face a number of adversities each day, and to allow them to approach each one with a gritty methodology is empowering.  Learning is a skill in itself, and in order to get there, learners must be able to travel the long journey with persistence.  This culture of grit will be the belief that closes the literacy achievement gap.

Au, S.  H.  (2011).  Literacy achievement and diversity: Keys to success for students, teachers, and schools.  New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Alvermann, D.  E.  (2005).  Literacy on the edge: How close are we to closing the literacy achievement gap? Voices from the Middle, 13 (1), 8-14.

Finamore, D. , & Hochanadel, A.  (2015).  Fixed and growth mindset in education and how grit helps students persist in the face of adversity.  Journal of International Education Research, 11 (1), 47-50.

Gray, W.  S.  (1956).  The teaching of reading and writing.  Unesco, 9-319.

Haskins, R. , Murnane, R. , Sawhill, I. , & Snow, C.  (2012).  Can academic standards boost literacy and close the achievement gap? Brookings Institution, 1-8.

Long, C.  (2013).  Wonder by design.  Retrieved from http://www. wonderbydesign. org

Martinez E.  E. , & Pilgrim, J.  (2013).  Defining literacy in the 21st century: A guide to terminology and skills.  Texas Journal of Literacy Education, 1 (1), 60-69.

Miller, M. , & Foster, W.  A.  (2007).  Development of the literacy achievement gap: a longitudinal study of kindergarten through third grade.  Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38 (1), 173-181.