Skip to main content

This article was first published in The Conversation, here, on 29 April 2021

School quality is important in determining children’s success at school. But individual characteristics of the child also play a role. In particular, researchers and teachers are starting to pay more attention to the part that social and emotional skills play in academic success. These are also known as character skills or soft skills.

This interest in the “softer” side of learning stems from a movement in economics. It looks for statistical evidence of the importance of soft skills in a number of domains, including the labour market and even marriage.

One question this research hasn’t answered yet is whether social and emotional skills also matter in contexts where resources are severely lacking. It’s known from high-income countries that these skills are important for student achievement.

But are they important in schools that don’t have basic instructional materials, or when a child’s teacher lacks content knowledge and pedagogical skill? Is there a benefit to having these skills when there’s limited time and opportunity to learn in the school day?

I set out to answer these questions, looking specifically at the skill of grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. I examined the association between grit and reading achievement among 2,300 pupils in poorly resourced South African schools.

South Africa’s reading achievement is notoriously poor. The 2016 round of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study showed that 78% of Grade 4 children could not read. When children at this level can’t read, they can’t learn anything in the curriculum.

My study is the first to estimate the relationship between grit and reading among primary school learners in an African context. I found that grit was the strongest predictor of reading achievement, regardless of the influence of other factors at home and school. Grit is indeed associated with academic achievement, even in schools with very few resources.

I also found that school characteristics interact with grit to produce learning outcomes. These findings have important implications for education policy makers and practitioners.

They suggest that focusing on social and emotional skills such as grit may help more children to succeed in school. But also, the findings show that efforts to improve “soft” skills shouldn’t detract from efforts to reduce inequalities in education systems.

The grit debate

There has been much public debate around the idea that “keeping up the hard work” is useful where resources are scarce. Critics argue that systemic inequality, and not lack of effort by individual students, is the root of underachievement in schools.

Critics have also raised concerns about measuring grit. Identifying “gritty” individuals relies on questionnaire items where respondents have to rate themselves on items such as “I finish whatever I start” and “Problems and challenges don’t discourage me”.

My study aimed to add empirical evidence to this debate by investigating whether there was an association between grit and reading achievement among Grade 6 learners (aged 12 years) in 60 urban and rural schools in three South African provinces (Limpopo, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal).

These schools were overcrowded and severely deprived of resources. Half of the Grade 6 classrooms didn’t have enough chairs, desks or textbooks for all learners. Almost a quarter (23%) of the classrooms had more than 50 learners per class. According to the Department of Basic Education’s post provisioning policy, the learner-educator ratio should not exceed 40 learners to each educator in public ordinary primary schools.

The research

I also investigated whether the strength of the association between grit and achievement differed by school functionality. I wanted to establish whether grit mattered more (or less) in more functional schools.

To do this, I split the original sample into three groups of functionality: low, medium, and high. I estimated the association between grit and achievement separately for each group. Although all schools in the sample were no-fee schools, there was significant variation in how the schools managed the few resources they had.

Reading achievement was measured as silent reading comprehension test scores on items from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study. Although almost all students in the sample spoke English as a second language, the test was administered in English. South African schools are required to teach in English or Afrikaans from Grade 4 onwards.

Given that students wrote the test in a second language, test items that were intended for Grade 4 learners were used to test the reading ability of this sample of Grade 6 students. Even so, overall reading achievement on the comprehension test was low. The majority of learners were not able to answer basic inferential questions from the text.

Grit was measured using responses to an adapted version of the short grit scale (Grit-S) where pupils had to rate themselves on eight items. Four of the items in the questionnaire are intended to measure perseverance (items such as “I work hard to do things well”) and four items are intended to measure maintained interest (items such as “I find it difficult to keep working on the same thing for a long time”).

We’d expect perseverance and maintained interest (grit) together to help children learn to read. Learners who consistently work hard to improve in reading should achieve better results than their peers who are less “gritty”.

The data analysed in my study supports this hypothesis. Grit was the strongest predictor of reading achievement among a number of factors at the home and school level. A higher grit score was associated with superior reading achievement, even in very dysfunctional schools.

But the results also showed that school functionality influenced the association between grit and reading achievement. Children who already had the benefit of attending more functional schools achieved more by being “gritty” than learners in less functional schools. The school system does have an impact.

Going forward

This evidence is preliminary, but it has important implications for education research and practice. The finding that grit is the strongest predictor of reading achievement suggests that social and emotional skills are important for student achievement, even in contexts of poverty.

Evidence from high-income countries indicates that these skills can be fostered through targeted interventions. My study adds that developing learners’ soft skills could be a powerful lever for raising learning outcomes in low-and middle-income countries. Teachers and parents can foster grit in children by modelling it, praising effort (rather than talent), and encouraging children to persevere at difficult tasks.

At the same time, the country needs to reduce inequalities in the education system.