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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers:

Identifying and Addressing Why They Struggle

Suzanne Carreker, Ph.D., CALT, QI, Principal Educational Content Lead

Proficiency in reading impacts all subjects across the secondary curriculum. Adolescents differ in

their reading proficiency (Snow, 2002) and, therefore, differ in their levels of academic success.

Some students demonstrate deep knowledge and vocabulary in class discussions but read slowly

and inaccurately. Other students are fluent readers who nevertheless do not understand what they

read. These students seem to be proficient readers yet fail to meet grade-level expectations. The

variability in reading proficiency among adolescent readers is clear—word recognition, fluency, oral

language, vocabulary, general knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, cognitive capabilities, and

motivation (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006; Snow, 2002)—but it is not always easy to pinpoint exactly

why an adolescent reader struggles. One thing is certain, though: students in grades 6 and above

who read proficiently can expect greater academic success and economic opportunities.

Across the country, states have implemented college- and career-readiness standards to ensure

that by high school graduation, all students have acquired the knowledge, skills, and work habits

they need to succeed in college, career, and life. The overarching goal of instruction is for students

to read increasingly complex grade-level-appropriate materials independently and proficiently.

Students’ progress toward meeting this critical goal is measured by end-of-year assessments of

reading.

Each year, secondary teachers await the assessment scores for validation of students’

achievement, administrators anticipate improved scores and higher graduation projections, and

parents hope their children’s academic performance is on track. Each year’s results indicate mixed

results—success for some, improvement for others—but still too many adolescent readers remain

non-proficient. The end-of-year assessment results tell which students are not reading proficiently,

but fail to answer the critical question of why . Without knowing and addressing the why , educators

cannot improve the proficiency of adolescent readers. The purpose of this paper is to explore the

causes of non-proficient reading as well as possible solutions for helping adolescent students in

grades 6 and above learn to read well and find reward in reading.

Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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What Are the Necessary Components of Reading?

The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990) proposed that

reading comprehension is the product of two mutually dependent components: decoding and

linguistic comprehension . Each component is necessary but not sufficient alone. This means that

inefficiency in one or both components leads to overall reading failure.

Decoding

The ability to read increasingly complex grade-level-appropriate material assumes that

students have mastered the lower-level skills of reading, such as decoding and fluency.

Decoding is the ability to translate symbols on a printed page into their spoken equivalents.

The goal of decoding instruction is for the reader to be able to recognize words accurately

and instantly (Ehri, 1991). Instant word recognition, or automaticity, leads to fluency. Fluent

reading frees the reader’s cognitive resources to attend to meaning (Perfetti, 1985).

Adequate decoding provides the reader access to the meaning on a printed page, but

increased decoding ability alone will not increase reading comprehension without a

corresponding level of linguistic comprehension.

Linguistic Comprehension

Linguistic comprehension is the ability to derive meaning from sentences and texts through

listening. Meaning is dependent on the reader’s general vocabulary and prior knowledge.

For literary and informational text, meaning is also dependent on a specialized language

that is different from the language of everyday conversation. This complex and necessary

language is known as academic language. Literary and content-specific vocabulary and

morphology (e.g., prefixes, roots, suffixes) as well as grammar and syntax comprise

academic language (Nagy & Townsend, 2012; Schleppegrell, 2012; Snow & Uccelli, 2009).

Without adequate linguistic comprehension, the reader receives little reward for his or her

effortless decoding. The contrast between the two components of reading distinguishes the

possible causes of non-proficient reading and creates four distinct learner profiles.

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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What Are Learner Profiles?

The table below presents the four different learner profiles that Simple View of Reading suggests.

Students may have 1) adequate linguistic comprehension and decoding, 2) adequate linguistic

comprehension but inadequate decoding, 3) inadequate linguistic comprehension but adequate

decoding, or 4) inadequate linguistic comprehension and decoding (Aaron, Joshi, & Williams, 1999;

Catts, Hogan, & Fey, 2003).

Profile 1

Adequate linguistic comprehension

Adequate decoding

Profile 2

Adequate linguistic comprehension

Inadequate decoding

Profile 3

Inadequate linguistic comprehension

Adequate decoding

Profile 4

Inadequate linguistic comprehension

Inadequate decoding

Four learner profiles based on the two components of reading comprehension (Aaron et al., 1999; Catts et al., 2003).

Profile 1

Students with adequate listening and reading comprehension are more than likely able to read

grade-level-appropriate and increasingly complex text independently and proficiently.

Profile 2

Students with adequate linguistic comprehension but inadequate decoding may be students with

diagnosed or undiagnosed dyslexia (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003). Here, inadequate reading

comprehension is unexpected in relation to adequate linguistic comprehension, which may be at or

above grade-level expectations. The cause of poor reading comprehension for these students is

probably the lack of automatic decoding and fluent reading.

Profile 3

Conversely, students with inadequate linguistic comprehension but adequate decoding are able to

read fluently and spell accurately. However, they struggle to understand what they are reading, or

what they are listening to (Hogan, Adlof, & Alonzo, 2014). Poor listening and reading

comprehension suggest that these students may have a language-based learning disability.

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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Profile 4

Students with inadequate linguistic comprehension and decoding may be garden-variety poor

readers (Stanovich, 1988) who may always struggle with either or both components. These

students may have strengths in other cognitive abilities (e.g., spatial-oriented skills, problem-solving

ability; musical ability).

Profile Considerations for English Language Learners

English Language Learners (ELLs) may exhibit any one of the four profiles. It is important to

ascertain their linguistic comprehension and decoding skills in their first language as well as in

English. Assuming ELLs have had sufficient instruction and experience to learn English, their

learner profiles in English most likely will mirror their learner profiles in the first language (García &

Godina, 2004). Consequently, if they have a history of linguistic comprehension or decoding

difficulties in learning to read in their first language, they will experience the same difficulties in

learning to read in English. ELLs with limited exposure to English may struggle to read English

simply because of lack of English language proficiency.

Additional Profile Considerations

The majority of non-proficient readers will match Profiles 2, 3, or 4, but some students may struggle

with reading for reasons other than linguistic comprehension or decoding. For example, they may

have executive function issues (e.g., attention, monitoring, remembering details, organizing

information); have difficulties quickly understanding and responding to information (i.e., slow

processing speed); or lack motivation; all of which, alone or in combination, can result in inadequate

reading comprehension, regardless of proficiency in linguistic comprehension and decoding. A

reader with adequate linguistic comprehension and adequate decoding could therefore exhibit

inadequate reading comprehension for one or more of these reasons.

What Are Learner Personas?

Learner personas are representations of students with the traits and behaviors of the four different

learner profiles. Learner personas can help identify the causes of non-proficient reading and the

instructional needs of real students who share the same traits and behaviors. Because the learner

persona who represents Profile 1 is a proficient reader, that persona is not described.

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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Darnell (Profile 2)

Darnell has inadequate decoding yet adequate linguistic comprehension. He is a conundrum to his

teachers. His hand is always the first one to go up to answer a question. He has a robust

vocabulary that he displays during class discussions. When engaged in a debate, his deep

knowledge and keen logic are evident. His arguments are sound and perceptive. For these

reasons, his teachers are perplexed by Darnell’s “unexpected underachievement“ (Ferrer,

Shaywitz, Holahan, Marchione, & Shaywitz, 2009). In spite of his strong oral language skills and

engagement during class discussions, Darnell’s written work demonstrates little initiative or effort.

Although he has worked diligently, his work is rarely complete and has many spelling errors. In a

self-effacing manner, he avoids reading aloud whenever possible by deferring to his peers. When

he does read aloud, he misreads words, and his reading is labored and disfluent. A less

self-assured student emerges.

Linda (Profile 3)

Unlike Darnell, Linda reads accurately and fluently and is eager to read aloud at any time. She

writes immaculately and is a competent speller. However, Linda does not comprehend most of what

she reads beyond a literal level of understanding. She is unable to integrate information in a text

with her background knowledge to infer an answer to a question about the text, and she does not

understand the nuances of language (i.e., shades of meaning) or nonliteral language (e.g., idioms.

metaphors, similes). She has difficulties following oral directions and processing and integrating

information during class discussions. Her written compositions are well organized but lack maturity

and depth. Her teachers see Linda as a motivated student, but they are concerned that she

eventually will give up in frustration. Linda exemplifies Profile 3, the learner with adequate decoding

but inadequate linguistic comprehension.

Tyler (Profile 4)

Tyler demonstrates inadequacies in both decoding and linguistic comprehension. Tyler’s

inadequacies are due to his high mobility, which has disrupted his learning, created gaps in his

knowledge, and impacted his motivation. His mother is a single parent who for years has taken

advantage of one-month free rent offers that have often required Tyler to cross school and district

zones several times during a school year. Inconsistency across various curriculums means that

Tyler is either bored and acts out because the same content is being presented, or he is lost and

stops paying attention because the content is more advanced. He will go to any length to avoid

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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reading and writing, both of which for Tyler are labored and full of errors. He prefers listening to text

read aloud and oral discussions and presentations, but he lacks Darnell’s overall depth of

knowledge and vocabulary. Tyler does display pockets of insightful knowledge and has gained

“street smarts” as a result of protecting his three younger siblings and assisting his mother with

household chores and responsibilities.

Izabella (Profile 4)

Izabella, whose first language is Spanish, sometimes has difficulties following oral directions and

the flow of a class discussion and does not always understand nonliteral language. Her decoding of

English words with reliable and frequently recurring patterns is improving, but she struggles with

less-frequent and irregular patterns. Her written work is progressing but continues to show spelling,

syntactic, and semantic errors that sometimes interfere with her communication. With her difficulties

in linguistic comprehension and decoding, she seems to exemplify Profile 4. Nonetheless, Izabella

reads fluently in Spanish and can comprehend texts at both literal and inferential levels in Spanish.

In her first language, Izabella exemplifies Profile 1. Currently, her English language proficiency

designation is Level 3, according to WIDA Performance Definitions. All her teachers are pleased

with her progress and realize that Izabella’s continued progress in understanding and decoding

English is paramount to her academic success. Because her greatest instructional need is to learn

to read and write English well, her persona at the present time mimics Profile 4. As she receives the

explicit instruction she needs in English, she will begin to exemplify Profile 1.

How Does Assessment Inform Instruction?

Many secondary students are just like Darnell, Linda, Tyler, and Izabella. Although state-mandated

assessments indicate these students have not met the standards, they do not provide information

about why. Fine-grained and valid assessments that measure the underpinnings of the components

of reading comprehension can identify the underlying issues. Both lower-level reading skills (e.g.,

word recognition, spelling, syntactic awareness) and higher-level reading skills (e.g., listening and

reading comprehension) should be measured. Students’ performance on these assessments will

identify their strengths and weaknesses, that is, identify the why . Addressing the underlying causes

of non-proficient reading through personalized evidence-based instruction will have a positive effect

on students’ understanding of course content and on their college and career readiness.

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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Darnell’s instructional focus:

On word recognition and reading comprehension assessments, Darnell’s scores were below those

of his peers. However, his score on a listening comprehension assessment was well above those of

his peers, which suggests that he has the necessary vocabulary, syntactic awareness, general

knowledge, and critical thinking to comprehend when the demands of decoding are removed. Lack

of accurate and automatic decoding is why Darnell seems to be underachieving. His most pressing

instructional needs are explicit, systematic decoding and spelling instruction that will develop

accurate and fluent reading and improve his spelling. He will benefit also from morphology

instruction (i.e., study of Latin and Greek word parts), which will serve two purposes: aid his

accurate and automatic decoding of long words and further his growth in academic vocabulary.

Decodable text will help Darnell build fluency. Exposure to grade-level-appropriate complex text will

continue the advancement of his vocabulary, syntactic and general knowledge, and critical thinking.

He may need to listen to this complex text, but it will be of greater interest to him than decodable

text.

Persona Strengths Weaknesses Instructional Needs

Darnell

(Profile 2)

● vocabulary

● syntactic

knowledge

● listening

comprehension

● word recognition

● spelling

● fluency

● reading

comprehension

● decoding and spelling

● fluency practice with decodable text

● morphology

● listening to and analyzing increasingly

complex text

Linda’s instructional focus:

Linda’s word recognition assessment score was well above those of her peers. But on vocabulary,

syntax, and reading comprehension assessments, Linda’s scores were below her peers’ scores,

which is why she is a non-proficient reader. She needs explicit, systematic instruction in grammar

and vocabulary. Morphology instruction will be helpful in furthering her academic vocabulary.

Most importantly, Linda needs to learn skills (e.g. , identifying and understanding similes) and

strategies (e.g. , making an inference based on a simile) that are needed to read increasingly

complex text. Initially, she will require intensive scaffolding when reading complex text. Concrete

examples (i.e., specific, picturable), graphics, and repetition are essential scaffolding strategies

for Linda.

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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Persona Strengths Weaknesses Instructional Needs

Linda

(Profile 3)

● Word

recognition

● spelling

● fluency

● integration of information

● vocabulary

● nonliteral language (e.g.,

idioms, metaphors, multiple

meanings)

● syntactic knowledge

● listening and reading

comprehension

● vocabulary and morphology

● nonliteral language

● grammar

● skills and strategies for understanding

increasingly complex text

● scaffolded reading of more complex text

● concrete examples, graphics, and

repetition

Tyler’s instructional focus:

Tyler’s assessment scores of lower- and higher-level reading skills are all below those of his peers.

The disruptions in his learning and the resulting gaps in his knowledge and lack of motivation

explain why Tyler is a non-proficient reader. His greatest instructional needs are intensive, explicit,

and systematic decoding and spelling instruction. Although, he does show a relative strength in

listening comprehension, he still needs explicit, systematic instruction in vocabulary, morphology,

and grammar. Decodable text is important for the development of his fluency. Listening to and

analyzing increasingly complex text will advance Tyler’s academic vocabulary, syntactic awareness,

and general knowledge. Text that matches his interests and pockets of knowledge will be

motivating. Most of all, Tyler needs consistent and sustained instruction.

Persona Strengths Weaknesses Instructional Needs

Tyler

(Profile 4)

● “street smarts”

● pockets of insightful

knowledge

● relative strength in

listening

comprehension

● oral discussion and

presentation

● motivation

● gaps in knowledge

● word recognition

● spelling

● fluency

● vocabulary

● syntactic knowledge

● reading comprehension

● decoding and spelling

● vocabulary and morphology

● grammar

● decodable text for fluency

● opportunities to listen to and analyze

complex text that matches interests

and pockets of knowledge

● consistent and sustained instruction

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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Izabella’s instructional focus:

Not surprisingly, Izabella’s scores on assessments of lower- and high-level reading skills in English

were below those of her English-speaking peers, which is why she struggles with reading

proficiency in English. Her instructional needs are explicit, systematic instruction in English

decoding, spelling, and grammar. Additionally, Izabella needs opportunities to read decodable texts

to increase fluency and appropriately texts in English to increase her vocabulary, background

knowledge, and understanding of nonliteral language. Morphology instruction will be helpful in

increasing her academic vocabulary and will be of interest to Izabella because many Latin-based

affixes and roots in English are the same or similar in Spanish. As Izabella gains fluency and

language proficiency in English, she can begin to read increasingly complex text with scaffolding

that will decrease as she gains reading proficiency in English.

Persona Strengths Weaknesses Instructional Needs

Izabella

(Profile 4)

● lower- and

high-level reading

skills in Spanish

● Level 3 English

language

proficiency

In English:

● word recognition

● spelling

● fluency

● vocabulary

● nonliteral language

● syntactic knowledge

● listening and reading

comprehension

In English:

● decoding, spelling, and fluency

● vocabulary and morphology

● nonliteral language

● grammar

● opportunities to read texts independently

● more complex text as fluency and language

proficiency increases

● scaffolding with concrete examples and graphics

The Appendix provides a master synopsis of all four personas’ strengths and weaknesses and instructional needs.

Summary

Reading proficiency is the key to academic success and economic opportunities, and time is of the

essence where non-proficient adolescent readers are concerned. Fine-grained assessments can

identify students’ strengths and weaknesses in critical reading skills and create learner profiles.

Learner profiles, exemplified by personas, can guide the delivery of the personalized instruction that

will meet the learning needs of non-proficient readers. Knowing and addressing the wh y, the

underlying cause, will improve students’ ability to analyze and comprehend increasingly complex

text, leading to greater proficiency and academic success, as well as the economic opportunities that

follow.

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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References

Aaron, P. G., Joshi, R. M., & Williams, K. A. (1999). Not all reading disabilities

are alike. Journal of Learning Disabilities , 32 , 120−127.

Biancarosa, C., & Snow, C. E. (2006). Reading next—A vision for action and research in middle

and high school literacy: A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York (2nd ed.).

Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Catts, H.W., Hogan, T.P., Fey, M.E. (2003). Subgrouping poor readers on the basis of

reading-related abilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities , 36 (2): 151-64.

Ehri, L.C. (1991). Development of the ability to read words. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal,

& P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 2, pp. 383–417). Reading, MA:

Addison Wesley Longman.

Ferrer, E., Shaywitz, B.A., Holahan, J.M., Marchione, K., & Shaywitz, S.E. (2009). Uncoupling of

reading and IQ over time: Empirical evidence for a definition of dyslexia. Association for

Psychological Science, 21 , 93–101.

García, G. E., & Godina, H. (2004). Addressing the literacy needs of adolescent English language

learners. In T. Jetton & J. Dole (Eds.), Adolescent literacy: Research and practice (pp.

304–320). New York: The Guilford Press.

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and

Special Education, 7 , 6-10.

Hogan, T. P., Adlof, S. M., & Alonzo, C. (2014). On the importance of listening comprehension.

International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 16 (3), 199–207.

Hoover, W. A., & Gough, P. B . (1990). The simple view of reading. Reading and Writing, 2 ,

127-160.

Kamil, M. L. (2003). Adolescents and literacy: Reading for the 21st century . Washington, DC:

Alliance for Excellent Education.

Lyon, G.R., Shaywitz, S.E., & Shaywitz, B.A. (2003). A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 53,

1–14.

Perfetti, C.A. (1985). Reading ability. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schleppegrell, M. J. (2012, March). Academic Language in teaching and learning. The Elementary

School Journal, 112 (3), pp. 409-418.

Snow, C. E. (2002) Reading for understanding: Toward a research and development program in

reading comprehension . Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Snow, C. E., & Uccelli, P. (2009). The challenge of academic language. In Olson, D. R., & N.

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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Torrance (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy (pp. 112-133). Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences

in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360–407.

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Supporting Non-Proficient Adolescent Readers: Identifying and Addressing the Why

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APPENDIX

Persona Strengths Weaknesses Instructional Needs

Darnell

(Profile 2)

● vocabulary

● syntactic knowledge

● listening

comprehension

● word recognition

● spelling

● fluency

● reading comprehension

● decoding and spelling

● fluency practice with decodable text

● morphology

● listening to and analyzing increasingly

complex text

Linda

(Profile 3)

● word recognition

● spelling

● fluency

● integration of information

● vocabulary

● nonliteral language (e.g.,

idioms, metaphors,

multiple meanings,)

● syntactic knowledge

● listening and reading

comprehension

● vocabulary and morphology

● nonliteral language

● grammar

● skills and strategies for understanding

increasingly complex text

● scaffolded reading of more complex

text

● concrete examples, graphics, and

repetition

Tyler

(Profile 4)

● “street smarts”

● pockets of insightful

knowledge

● relative strength in

listening

comprehension

● oral discussion and

presentation

● motivation

● gaps in knowledge

● word recognition

● spelling

● fluency

● vocabulary

● syntactic knowledge

● reading comprehension

● decoding and spelling

● vocabulary and morphology

● grammar

● decodable text for fluency

● opportunities to listen to and analyze

complex text that matches interests

and pockets of knowledge

● consistent and sustained instruction

Izabella

(Profile 4)

● lower- and

high-level reading

skills in Spanish

● Level 3 English

language proficiency

In English:

● word recognition

● spelling

● fluency

● vocabulary

● nonliteral language

● syntactic knowledge

● listening and reading

comprehension

In English:

● decoding, spelling, and fluency

● vocabulary and morphology

● nonliteral language

● grammar

● opportunities to read texts

independently

● more complex text as fluency and

language proficiency increases

● scaffolding with concrete examples

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Refresher on study skills for those…

Returning to school!

1. Get up early.

I know, it’s easier said than done. But it is going to be hard for the first 15-20 minutes, maybe even the first hour, but make yourself some coffee, and get the fuck out of that bed.

2. Do 3 useful things right after you get up.

This doesn’t have to be ‘cram one lesson’ or ‘take 500 pages of notes’. No. Brush your teeth, make yourself something nice to drink, comb your hair. Wash your face. Literally whatever you find useful, do it. It may take 10 minutes, but you will feel instantly better when you see you’ve done something.

3. Organize your study space.

I don’t mean organize all your highlighters by color. I mean arrange everything so it is within your reach. That means when you sit down to finally study, there won’t be any need for you to get up and get something.

4. Take breaks.

It’s easy to start scrolling through instagram, or facebook when you sit by a 200 page book. Trust me on this. But set an alarm when you plan on taking a break. Make the break your instagram time, or facebook time, or just chill time. Whatever you do, organize your time so you don’t leave anything out.

5. Divide your shit.

So you have a 300 page chapter to read. Or a 30 page paper to write. Divide it into smaller parts. For example, I will read through the first 30 pages and then take a break. Repeat. Or, I will write 3 pages and then relax. Repeat. Literally whatever shit you have, divide it into smaller chunks and then just tackle the chunks.

6. Don’t listen to music with lyrics.

There are a ton of ‘study music’ or ‘motivational music’ playlists on Youtube. Blast that. That way, you won’t find yourself mouthing the perfect lyrics to Shape of you, and not knowing shit about what you’ve been reading. I’ve been there one too many times and it’s just wasting time.

7. Don’t feel bad about not responding to texts, or not hanging out with friends.

There is time to study and time to play. No between. By all means you should go out and have fun. But your work time can only be your work time. That text can wait, that coffee date can wait. During the break you will have more than enough time to catch up. And your friends should understand that, after all, this is important to you so it should be for them too.

8. Drink water! ! !

This is the most used tip, but trust me, you get tired much quicker if you’re not hydrated. Get a nice ass bottle of water and fill that shit up. Everytime you finish a paragraph take a sip. (At least!)

9. Don’t worry too much.

I’ve lost countless hours by panicking and trying to reason with myself why I should just quit. And let me tell you, it’s very easy to get stuck in that vicious circle. But when you begin to worry, take a deep breath, drink some water and just do. Read that sentence. Write the opening line to your paper. Underline that unknown word. Just do. It will not go in vain. No effort is ever useless.

10. Relax.

You are not the first one to have trouble with this. You are not the only one struggling with this material. But you can do it. It is possible. In 10 years you won’t remember that godawful task or chapter. But you will remember taking shit into your hands. And that feeling when you accomplish your goal is going to be worth all the while.

That’s about it, worked for me. Just be real with yourself. Good luck and may the odds be ever in you favor!

Graceful Failure: How To Turn A Mistake Into An Asset

great read

https://www.thindifference.com/2017/12/graceful-failure-how-to-turn-a-mistake-into-an-asset/#.Wj0jA9LnS8g.email


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How Would You Like Your Leadership? Scrambled or Unscrambled?

words of wisdom

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