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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Helping struggling readers experience success

In the last post I mentioned an article by Dyck and Pemberton (2002) that provides a good discussion of the different ways you can adapt texts so that children with literacy difficulties can more successfully interact with them. In this post I want to outline some of those key strategies.

Functional Reading

When supporting children who have literacy difficulties, especially if they are older and moving into high school, we should challenge ourselves to think differently about teaching literacy. Instead of focusing primarily on teaching literacy for literacy's sake, we should focus on teaching literacy skills that will help the child or youth learn and succeed in any literacy-based task that they come across - in the classroom and outside the classroom.

This is called functional literacy (Mercer & Mercer, 2001).

Why we read

Reading is usually done for a purpose. You may read to entertain yourself, to find out information or to find out how to make something. Knowing this purpose is an important first step in reading. This means that the emotional experience of reading is usually defined by the reader's ability to achieve that purpose.

So if you sit down in a restaurant and pick up the menu for the purpose of ordering your meal, and you find you can't read it due to unfamiliar words or poor presentation, you are likely to find it a very frustrating experience - and one which you will not be in a hurry to repeat.

Choosing and adapting texts

To ensure that we don't put children or youth into the position of feeling this frustration, and doing everything they can to avoid the reading experience, we need to make sure they know why they are reading and that they can achieve this purpose. As Dyck and Pemberton (2002) suggest, when giving a student a text to read - whether it is a novel, a text book or anything else they will need to read on their own in order to succeed with a task - the first thing we should ask ourselves is whether the student can read the text with enough speed and understanding to use it. We should be aiming to ensure that they have an equal opportunity to achieve in the task they have been given.

To get a sense of whether the student will be able to read the text, you could do one of two things:
  1. Circle every word you think they may find difficult. If this indicates that they cannot read the majority of the text without your help, then you need to adapt the text.
  2. Get them to read a small section of the text. Again, if this indicates that they cannot read the majority of the text without your help, then you need to adapt the text.

Ways we can adapt any tasks involving reading and writing

Dyck and Pemberton (2002) discuss a range of ways we can adapt literacy tasks. These are discussed below:
  1. Using alternative texts: Support groups such as SPELD NSW can help provide information and catalogues of books that are described as "high interest, low ability." These books are written with simpler language, and use age appropriate images and content especially for older primary school students.
  2. By-passing reading: In some cases it is more important for students to be able to learn content and display their knowledge than struggling to read and/or write. For this reason, students with significant literacy difficulties are eligible for readers and scribes in formal exam situations. By-passing reading in class can be done through buddy reading, using audio books and text to speech technology which is becoming more and more freely available in schools.
  3. Decreasing reading: In other cases students can achieve the purpose of a task through the reduction of reading/writing demands. For example, copying notes off the board can be one of the most demoralising and meaningless experiences for a student struggling with literacy. Instead, the student could have a fill-in-the-blank worksheet which helps them become familiar with key terms. Using mind maps, cartoon strips and a whole range of other advanced organisers can also be of great help for a student to learn rather than struggle through trying to read.
  4. Supporting reading: The use of glossaries, personal dictionaries, notes in margins, colour-coding, images, diagrams and so on are great ways to help struggling readers focus on the key points of a text and achieve the purpose of an activity rather than being bogged down in decoding words on a page.
  5. Organise reading: Organising the information on the page differently can help students who are struggling to read. For example, using dot points instead of lengthy paragraphs. Enlarging the font, using numbering or a flow chart to clarify a sequence, and adding any images will help the student again focus on the content of the text.
  6. Guided reading: Reading a text together is a good way of helping a student focus on meaning. This can be done at home, or through small group reading in class. It could also involve choral reading, where everyone in a class reads along with the teacher.


Dyck, N. & Pemberton, J.B. (2002). A model for making decisions about text adaptations. Intervention in School and Clinic, 38(1), pp28-35.

Mercer, C.D., Mercer, A.R. (2001). Teaching Students with Learning Problems. Ohio: Prentice Hall.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Addressing the emotional scars left by reading failure

So how can we address "the emotional scars of frustration, shame and depression that can result from a lack of identification and appropriate support for young people" (Long, MacBlain & MacBlain, 2007, p125)?

Long et al discuss a case study where a secondary student (Matthew) with long-standing literacy difficulties was supported, both academically and emotionally, in their academic context. Here are some of the strategies that worked for him:

1. Bypass strategies: Dyck and Pemberton (2002) provide a great discussion of key strategies that ensure a student can work towards the outcomes set in the curriculum without being disadvantaged by their difficulty with literacy. Some of these strategies include presenting information in different ways (flow charts, images, video) or using supports such as readers (text to speech technology, or a peer reader). I will discuss these further in a future post.

2. Empowerment strategies
: Long et al. discuss the importance of helping Matthew identify his learning style. This turned out to be visual, which is common for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The next step was teaching him to independently identify and use a range of strategies, such as graphic organisers, to assist in any literacy based task.

3. Staff training:
Empathy from a teacher was identified as a key element of success in addressing the emotional scars of literacy difficulties. Teachers who understand the difficulties these students face, and who are flexible in their teaching approach because of this understanding, can have a significant influence in the healing process. When training staff, it is important that ALL staff be trained in understanding literacy difficulties and conditions such as dyslexia and dysgraphia, especially in a high school context. This means that the student feels supported across subjects and years, not just on one teacher's class.

4. A whole school approach
: Again, for consistency of support, Long et al. identify the importance of a whole school policy when supporting children with significant literacy difficulties. They identified that the policy included specifications that:

  • The student not be asked to read aloud in class
  • The student not be required to complete dictation tasks
  • That to avoid copying copious notes off the board the student be expected only to copy a summary of key points or be provided with a handout in advance of the lesson.
  • The student use a personal dictionary in which to record subject-specific words, to be provided to him at the beginning of each topic.
  • That teachers increase the use of summaries, mind maps, diagrams and charts.
  • That teachers would, wherever possible, mark Matthew's work in his presence and emphasise learning rather than marks.
  • That each department would identify a "collective belief system regarding dyslexia and how each might support students... who were experiencing anxiety caused by failure."
5. Mentoring: Having a weekly, one-on-one session with a teacher mentor (not necessarily a specialist trained teacher) allowed Matthew to ask any questions he considered too embarrassing or humiliating to ask in the more public setting of the classroom. This mentor also helped him with organisation (eg. colour coding books and folders according to subjects) and time management.

6. Explicit instruction on study skills
: This was made available to any student within the school.

7. Collaboration with parents: Matthew, his parents and the school worked together to set realistic goals, processes to achieve these goals and a rewards system for recognition of success. This allowed Matthew to feel successful as he made improvements, rather than always feeling like a failure because he wasn't "keeping up" or demonstrating the same skills as his peers.


Dyck, N. & Pemberton, J.B. (2002). A model for making decisions about text adaptations. Intervention in School and Clinic, 38(1), pp28-35.

Long, L., MacBlain, S. and MacBlain, M. (2007). Supporting Students with Dyslexia at the Secondary Level: An Emotional Model of Literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 51(2), pp. 124-134.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Literacy difficulties, self-esteem and behaviour

Literacy difficulties can be devastating for a child's self-efficacy in the context of any activity relating to reading and writing. Because so much of our lives - study, work and general life activities - involve literacy, people who struggle in this area can be at great risk of issues such as anxiety, depression, anger and generally poor self-esteem (Ryan, 2004). This applies to children diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia... or those with no diagnosis at all.

The Gap between Ability and Performance

"...students with dyslexia internalize feelings of failure as a result of their dyslexia and not as a result of their lack of effort or commitment." (Long, MacBlain & MacBlain, 2007 p181)
There is nothing more frustrating than knowing something and not being able to follow it through. This is why we value freedom so much... it means that we can fulfill our potential, that the effort we put into things leads to the results we expect.

If we want to run a marathon, and we train hard and have a good sense of our abilities as a marathon runner, then we will have reasonable expectations of ourselves. And so long as we don't get injured, we probably will live up to those expectations.

Frustration, anger and even depression can come out of repeatedly unmet expectations.

What Shapes our Expectations?

When thinking about literacy and learning, we need to think about expectations of families and teachers as well as the child themselves (Ryan, 2004). Expectations about a child's potential performance at school or in literacy tasks are shaped by many things.

A family's expectations of a child's literacy performance may come from their communication, story-telling and reasoning ability. For example, I worked with one family whose child would entertain them for hours with highly engaging, convoluted stories. The frustration for that family was that when the child was asked to write down their stories, they wrote very short passages of sometimes meaningless text.

A teacher's expectations may be shaped by what they see in class. For example, the child mentioned above was very entertaining and articulate in class. However, his lack of task completion was mainly put down to the fact that he was "the class clown" and was not motivated to concentrate on individual, written tasks.

The child's expectations were shaped by their experience. They knew there was a lot going on in their head... but they were not able to succeed when it came to written literacy tasks. This was starting to lead to thoughts that they were somehow "dumb" or "stupid" or at least very different to their peers (Lyons, 2005-2010).

The Danger of Unmet Expectations

If we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs we recognise the significance of repeatedly unmet expectations.

Diagram Adapted from Gorman, 2010 Table 1

For a child who is unable to achieve self-esteem through recognition from teachers and/or parents, or through achievement in class, they will find it very difficult to progress to achieve their full potential. This can have a crippling effect on their life in the community and post-school. There is some evidence that literacy issues, unaddressed, can (in the worst case scenarios) even lead to such outcomes as unemployment, poverty, violence and/or imprisonment (Robinson & Dally, 2008).

Children whose literacy abilities do not match their learning abilities are also at risk of being trapped in what we call the failure cycle (Robinson & Dally, 2008). This means that as they experience progressively more failure, they are less and less likely to even make an attempt to achieve at school. This can lead to disruptive and avoidance behaviour, and possibly dropping out of school early.

Some Signs of the Emotional Impact of Literacy Difficulties

In my experience I have seen a range of behaviours that have primarily signalled a struggle with literacy. These included:
  • The Class Clown: Talking, making jokes and generally benign but disruptive behaviour in class that leads to lack of completion of tasks. Much of this behaviour can be either an avoidance or delay tactic and can signal anxiety.
  • The Refuser: Generally refusing to complete tasks, or using avoidance techniques such as trips to the toilet to get out of completing tasks. This can also escalate into "meltdowns" and more aggressive verbal or physical incidents if the child is pushed to complete the task.
  • The Delay Technician: This child was very skilled in delaying the task so long that adults or peers would complete the task for them. For example, they would uhm-ahh and repeatedly say "I can't do it" until the "helper" took pity on them (and anyone else waiting for them to finish so the group could move on to the next task) and told them what the word was.
These are only some of the behaviours that should ring warning bells for us when supporting children with literacy difficulties. It is important for us not to think of the child as lazy if they are not living up to their potential. We should first examine if it is signalling anxiety, depression, anger and poor self-esteem as a result of expectations that are unreachable due to their literacy difficulties (Ryan, 2004).

Wholistic Literacy Support... Addressing the Emotional Child

The upshot of this is that, with any literacy support program, we should be factoring in the emotional and motivational side of reading (Long, MacBlain & MacBlain, 2007). Just teaching a child phonics or how to use technology will not necessarily undo all the effects of repeated failure in the past. We need to address their need for self-esteem to ensure they can reach their personal potential.


Gorman, D. (2010) Maslow's hierarchy and social and emotional wellbeing. Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal, 33(5), pp. 27-9. Retrieved from

Long, L., MacBlain, S. and MacBlain, M. (2007). Supporting Students with Dyslexia at the Secondary Level: An Emotional Model of Literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 51(2), pp. 124-134.

Lyons, A. (2005-2010). Self-Esteem and Learning Difficulties. Retrieved 12/10/2010 from

Robinson, G. and Dally, K. (2005). Understanding literacy and numeracy. In P. Foreman (Ed), Inclusion in Action, pp 246-301. Thomson Learning: Victoria.

Ryan, M. (2004). Social and Emotional Problems Related to Dyslexia. Retrieved 12/10/2010 from


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