The challenge of teaching literacy when you have #dyslexia

New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 1.c

Graduating teachers know how to develop metacognitive strategies of diverse learners.

Pencil or torture device? (photo by author)

Primary teachers are expected to teach a very broad curriculum. Throw together some reading, dancing, writing, maths, science, music with a bit of technology thrown in for good measure and you might have a school teacher’s week. But if scratch underneath this broad curriculum and you’ll find that just about every teacher will have a problem area that they don’t feel confident in teaching in. Maths daunts so many learners that there was a component of my teaching diploma  on mathsphobia.

But what about literacy?

I’m guessing that there aren’t many teachers out there who have problems with literacy because our education system can be brutal on learners who struggle with reading and writing.

Enter the dyslexic student teacher.

Having spent almost all my schooling life being labelled illiterate, the idea of teaching reading and writing was not a prospect I was looking forward to. The shame of having *THESE EXAMS WERE SAT UNDER SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS* emboldened underneath my grades on bursary certificate still burns brightly despite having since gained an Honours degree. In fact I have never sat another exam under those special considerations least that label pop up again. But this placement I finally had to come to confront this particular demon.

What my dyslexia looks like.

I frequent mix up the letters b, d, p, q and for some reason e and 3 also befuddle me. When I’m reading, especially out loud, I’ll often omit words or substitute words that look the same, for example accept/except or won’t/want but it is writing that really causes me problems.

My spelling is atrocious and the most accurate description of my handwriting is that it is like a drunken chicken making its way across the page (an actual quote from my school report). I can write neatly but only if I am concentrating on letter formation and nothing else. However if I want to write anything of any substance, the writing process for me is a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting. Bits of sentences and ideas get thrown around in no particular order and somehow a coherent argument emerges at the end of it.

Most of the time.

I’m sure at times I come across as a bit of evangelist when it comes to technology in education but the only reason I didn’t fail out of school altogether is because someone gave me access to a word processor in year 12 to write a story and I found away to get my thoughts into written form.

To say that was a game changer is an understatement.

When I am writing by hand I struggle to write a coherent sentence much less a paragraph, the words just seem to get stuck. However when I’m put in front of keyboard little snippets of ideas come out, they might not be in any order but once they are out for me to see I can start taking my garbled thoughts and putting them into a logical order.

This makes me wonder how many children there are out there educational system has previously discarded because  their physical or cognitive differences didn’t fit the model of educational success which involved putting pen to paper in order pass exams. Every time I’ve seen technology used in the classroom, whether its an ipad for a student with cerebal palsey or blogging with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, the result has been a child who had the potental to be marginalized in a classroom engaged in learning.  That’s a hugely exciting development in education, learners our education system once deemed defective now get a chance to succeed.

But now I’m back in the classroom and sometimes I wonder if I have any business being in there, especially as I tried to adapt my Associate Teacher’s classroom processes into my own practice. Then one morning I plugged a USB into the classroom’s laptop and had a sudden moment of clarity. The processes I was using to teach were the very same ones that cause me so many problems as a learner. What was I doing copying down a learning intention in a modelling book during a guided reading lesson when I could throw the ideas up onto the classroom’s two-touch along with some pictures to help illustrate the vocabulary that needed to be pre-taught? If I use technology to learn, it make sense that I should also use it to teach.

What’s more maybe the internal conversation I have with myself when I read, ‘go back that doesn’t make sense’ or ‘I’m not sure how to pronounce that word but I know what it means,’ are thoughts that the other learners in my classroom need to hear because I’m using decoding strategies. Handwriting continues to be my bugbear, my students often comment that my letters sometimes come out a bit wonky. I really have to think hard about how each letter is formed when I’m teaching in order to model something legible for them. But perhaps the fact that I have to struggle puts me on an equal footing with my students, we are literally learning together.


27 thoughts on “The challenge of teaching literacy when you have #dyslexia

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  1. Stephanie
    A powerful post, from a very literate person. I never would have guessed. In the last ten years it has been my privilege and in turns delight and despair, working with the students with dyslexia varied literacy challenges. As these children began to find their way into my classroom, my heart went out to them, and I just had to learn about how I could help. Its different for each one. At present I have one that has been a big challenge. Came to my class at 9yrs of age totally illiterate. Can you believe it. With the help of the RTLit we are making slow progress, but at least its some progress.

    I think it makes you the perfect person to be a teacher and in the second to last paragraph of this post you make an excellent point – do it your way. Its the way that will work. There are going to be some very fortunate learners who have the good luck to find their way into your classroom. You are definitely what learners need.

    My weak point is music. Hate it, hate it. Total ditz. Always embarrassed by it at school, teacher’s college and since.



    1. Kathryn,
      You are right that students with dyslexia are both a delight and a despair to teach and I can believe that a student can come in at 9 years totally illiterate. I wasn’t diagnosed until first year of university despite knowing something was wrong from very early on!

      But it is interesting to be aware of it and start using it.Even today when I was reading out loud a student caught a mistake when I was reading out loud and I realized that actually my job as a teacher is turn that into a learning opportunity. Why did I make that mistake? How would I know that I made the mistake? What strategies can I use to decode that piece of text?



  2. Hi Stephanie,

    This is a great post! Like Wendy, I think it is brave of you to share your personal obstacles to learning on this public level.

    I think your own experiences with learning will make you a better teacher. You might understand the learning process more than someone who takes things for granted (and I’m probably one of those). It’s only now that I am teaching, that I think a lot more about processes and strategies that I never thought of when I was a student. Because these weren’t pointed out to me, I’m quite big on explicit teaching now!

    For example, when I was at school I don’t remember anyone actually teaching me what makes a good reader or what strategies you can use if you are having trouble reading a text…. apart from the old cliche “sound it out” of course. Now I try to take the guess work out of learning for kids and encourage everyone in the class to explicitly share the tips, strategies and processes for learning that work for them – and might work for others.

    Thanks for mentioning my ASD post – I just love that we can use technology to meet so many unique learning styles!



    1. Kath,
      I find the same things with maths. I always loved maths and it is only now that I’m finding the strategies to help decode the mystery for other learners. We all have our strengths and weaknesses as learners and as teachers.

      Turing a weakness into a strength is where the learning lies.

      I loved your ASD post as again it was about opening up the doors to learning for those who might have been marginalized to others.I also think that as we open the door to learning to those who aren’t mainstream, they in turn inform mainstream learning practices. Who knows that ASD blogger could turn out to be an expert in teaching ASD kids in a few decades!



      1. You could be right – we have to have faith in our kids don’t we! Try new things, rather than throwing them in the too hard basket. Let’s hope Master ASD is just at the beginning of achieving great things with education and learning.

        I often think the same things with maths too. All the strategies we now articulate I’d never thought about as a learner. You just do it! But while that works for some, it certainly doesn’t work for others and we need to decode the mystery as you say. 🙂


  3. This is a great blog, and shows a different perspective. So often there are blogs about how to teach children who have problems with reading and writing, and yet we forget that the teacher might be struggling.

    We post quite a few teacher blogs about SEN teaching – here is the latest one, about inclusion

    I hope you enjoy it!


  4. Hi Stephanie,
    Thank you. Thank you as a learner, and thank you as a teacher. I have recently had a student of mine diagnosed, and this post has opened my eyes even wider.
    You have a unique and privileged view on the explicit strategies that both you and Kath previously mentioned. I know that I was inspired to be better at teaching maths, because it was my nemesis at primary school. Having had a hate-hate relationship has allowed me to see my students’ learning through different eyes. Much like you are able to.
    Thank you. 🙂


    1. Hi Erin,
      Thanks so much for such a lovely comment. To be honest this post has been sitting in drafts for a couple of weeks as I pondered whether to post or not. But bloggers love to share and I’m really touched by the wonderful response to this post.

      Good luck to your learner, I often ponder if I had been diagnosed earlier what might have been. But you can’t change the past just your reaction to the present in order to influence the future.



  5. Dear Stephanie,

    Thank you for such an eloquent and apposite article. You articulate exactly the syndrome of our granddaughter, now 13, whom teachers do not recognise as ‘dyslexic’. I’m going to present your post to the teachers who are responsible for her SEN support!


  6. Thank you so much for sharing this Stephanie. As a teacher myself and with an 11 year old dyslexic son, I can appreciate your struggles and think it is wonderful that it can help you meet your students where they need to be met.



  7. Hi Stephanie,

    As a student first & a previous student teacher, I really appreciate this post. I personally struggled with dyslexia as a child, mostly with numbers, and it brought an immense amount of anxiety. Even now i still feel stress when I know that I will have to deal with numbers. It used to take me an hour for an assignment that my peers could do in 30 min. I just needed, and sometimes still do need that extra time to focus. & as a past student teacher & tutor, I’ve encountered children who have struggled with this exceptionality. Some managed quite well, however some didn’t & were not getting the specific attention needed to help them advance in academia.
    I loved how you used the use of technology as way to enable students who are struggling. I can see how it would help the students to produce and also raise the confidence in their own abilities that they sometimes lack. I believe that this could increase their interest in the content as well! I would hate for anyone to grow up hating math the way I did simply because I had so many issues with it. Great Post!


  8. Thanks for stopping by.
    I certainly struggle with exams and hope that after I am finished I never have to take one again.

    I agree technology has so much potential to personalize learning for the better!


  9. I can relate! My problems though come from being taught to spell in a way that didn’t suit my brain! I actually need mnemonic “tricks” etc. Now as an adult I’ve come to realize that I can spell words if I use methods that suit me. But, years of being taught to spell in traditional ways i.e. the dreaded Friday test (where I remembered the words until I finished spelling them and then they flew out of my head lol) has left me with gaps in my spelling that often rise up to meet me, which can be mortifying. But, you know when I can’t “find” a word in my head or I’m unsure if I’m spelling a word correctly children love to help me! The other day I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to aeroplane. I started to write it on the interactive white board “air..” and I turned around and said. That’s not right! Let’s find the right spelling and of course we did lol. I’ve also written a pamphlet on teaching spelling for teachers (my college inquiry), which I think is in the TKI literacy community archives (worth joining if you haven’t already). There are few teachers around NZ using it I think. I can also e-mail it to you of course! It’s not so much about dyslexia as just taking a multi-linguistic approach to teaching spelling. Anyway, you might find it helpful :-). Good luck with your new job I know you will be fabulous!


    1. Hi Katrina,
      Thanks for your wonderful comment. I’ll take a look into the TKI archives, literacy and I still have a bad relationship. Which is part of the reason I blog, writing practice!



  10. I think your amazing to be in teaching and be dislexic. I am too and have stopped teaching because i feel a fraud but i really really miss it. Just can’t figure out how to make it work. Your tutor teacher sound great. I read some of your other posts you are very bright not that you should be doubting that but you also express yourself in the written form really well.


  11. Thank you for sharing, I too have dyslexia and it has been my battle for completing my B.A in English Rhetoric & Composition. Now to find a fulfilling job in helping others is another task I have to overcome. Once again thank you for being an inspiration. God Bless you.


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