Dyslexia and Grit: What You Need to Know Now

Those of us with dyslexia know (as do parents and teachers of dyslexics) that one of the frequent hallmarks of dyslexia is that accomplishing anything requires sustained levels of intensive effort with slower-than-usual-appearing results. As I’ve discussed before (see my archived blogs on dyslexia) some of the greatest frustrations with this condition revolve around the extreme levels of effort required to perform seemingly simple tasks. If you are dyslexic, or love someone who is, how can you help yourself or that special someone keep doggedly showing up for your (their) best life? Enter grit.

What is grit, anyway? Angela Duckworth, author of the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, defines it this way: the combination of intense passion plus intense perseverance toward a long-term goal that matters to you. As the cover of her book states, “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who found it.” In her study and analysis of what makes high achievers so remarkable, she observes, “Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn’t dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.”

Boring. Frustrating. Painful.

Sure sounds like the fabric of life with dyslexia to me.

Illustration of a sign saying "Keep going, you CAN do this," illustrating how vital it is for dyslexic children to learn how to have grit.
Are you teaching your children to have grit?

Let’s read on: “In sum, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking.  Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction. In a word, they had grit.”

Duckworth defines the psychology of achievement thus:

Talent × Effort = Skill

Skill × Effort = Achievement

Skill is how your talent improves when you invest effort. Achievement is when you take your acquired skills and use them repeatedly. Duckworth also states, “Talent—how fast we can improve a skill—absolutely matters. But effort factors into the calculation twice, not once. Effort builds skill. At the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”

This was one of the passages of the book that resonated with me the most, because an effortful life is something I really relate to as a dyslexic. In other words, it takes greater-than-normal effort to develop skill and eventually achievement with dyslexia because reading and writing never become automatic, and everything always, always, always takes much more time than I want it to. Accepting this reality, even learning to embrace it, is part of our growth as human beings and is one of the key coping skills to teach our young ones who are just starting to get to know their learning challenge.

A young carton student climbs a mountainous staircase of books toward a graduation cap.

Duckworth then describes four psychological assets we can cultivate (and help our kids cultivate) to get the grit on.

  • Interest
  • Practice
  • Purpose
  • Hope

Interest: If our passion is to prove sustainable, it needs to be deeply meaningful to us. We need to get fired up about it. There may be aspects of it that are a little less interesting, engaging, or glamorous, but we need to have “an enduring fascination and childlike curiosity” about our pursuit. In raising readers, one of our biggest opportunities is creating a love of story, and another is reading books to your child that offer heroes of self-reference. These two tools can make all the difference in helping struggling readers develop a passion for reading.

Practice: Duckworth refers to Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice to show that one key aspect of grit and its attendant perseverance is the ability to show up every single day with a winning attitude. “Whatever it takes, I want to improve!” Are you reading to your child every day, no matter what?

Purpose: This aspect means seeing that our work matters in the world. Bringing our best self to the table every day, and seeing how that impacts others in a positive way, is key to sustaining long-term effort. Duckworth states, “In my grit lexicon, purpose means ‘the intention to contribute to the well-being of others.’”

Hope: Duckworth says that hope defines every single stage of grit. It lives in the unshakeable knowledge that we have the ability to achieve what we set out to do when we keep showing up. Are we assisting our struggling readers to build hope in themselves by demonstrating that we believe in them?

A father and son carrying luggage head down a long road toward the horizon. At their feet is the word "start." Working with dyslexia is a long road, and it takes true perseverance to keep going.

Duckworth quotes author James Baldwin, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” We can each ask ourselves how well we are demonstrating grit for the tender, impressionable youth in our lives. In the Duckworth household, they have what she calls “The Hard Thing Rule.” Everyone in the family picks something challenging that they’re committed to mastering. And then they work on it every day. No quitting allowed.

She states, “Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. ‘I have a feeling tomorrow will be better’ is different from ‘I resolve to make tomorrow better.’ The hope that gritty people have has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with getting up again,” after a failure, struggle, or fall.

Duckworth quotes an old Japanese saying, “Fall seven, rise eight” to encapsulate what grit looks like in practice. May we all rise one more time, and teach our children this invaluable trait.

For a thorough discussion of the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require, read my award-winning book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Don M. Winn Amazon author page for more information.