For posts on bullying, visit The Learn to be Buddies Series Blog.
All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

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


About This Blog

You are welcome to browse as you like... but please remember that everything here is copyrighted. To receive printable copies of articles that you can hand out to others, subscribe to the Learn to be Buddies newsletter at

Copyright Amanda Gray 2009-11

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP