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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.


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