Dyslexia – not just a reading and writing problem

Most people regard dyslexia as just a reading and writing problem, and do not realise that just as importantly dyslexia can adversely affect a child’s feeling of well-being and self-esteem.

New Zealand was one of the last English speaking countries to officially recognise dyslexia and the difficulties about 10% of children have with reading and writing. Consequently many teachers are puzzled when these children do not respond to their teaching as the rest of the class does.

Some of these dyslexic children receive Reading Recovery, but this short term programme does not help most of them as it is based on more of the same teaching that is already failing them and the gains are not maintained (1). A number of children have similar difficulties to those with dyslexia but grow out of them. For children with dyslexia it is the number and persistence of problems that causes concern. Despite receiving the same teaching as classmates the dyslexic child finds school work harder and harder to cope with (2), as “learning to read” changes to “reading to learn”.

They start to feel failures and do not enjoy school. They may also experience low concentration, forgetfulness, and poor organisational skills. They can take a long time to finish work despite putting so much more effort into it than the average child.

A Masters’ thesis by Sheryn Marshall (3) stands out as giving a voice to eight young New Zealanders aged nine to 14 on their perspective on dyslexia and how it affected them.

  • Most children knew before their diagnosis they were not picking up literacy skills as well as their peers but did not understand why. They just thought that type of work was “hard”
  • Not keeping up with their peers began to compromise their sense of identity, well-being, and self-esteem leading to feelings of being “dumb”
  • The label “dyslexia” was helpful and a cause of relief on the whole as an explanation for their learning difficulties. However, there was reluctance to use the label “dyslexia’ as most just wanted to be seen as normal
  • None of the participants wanted to be dyslexic. They avoided saying they were dyslexic, except when a school was actively dyslexia-friendly, as they wanted to avoid negative reactions from friends and peers and possible social rejection
  • Most did not see dyslexia as a “challenge” or a “gift”, and some did not like adults reframing their difficulties this way by making dyslexia sound a positive attribute
  • Assistance from tutors was a positive experience for most. Tutoring was especially positive when it was one-on-one with an experienced tutor who knew how to assist them using spelling tricks to improve their skills, taught to their strengths, was fun, and didn’t overload the brain. Rote learning definitely didn’t work for them, nor did extra conventional teaching
  • In addition to helping areas of weakness, these students made it clear that they needed to develop their areas of strength to feel competent. They needed to have times to do things they were good at and enjoyed whatever that activity may be. Numerous dyslexic people have remarkable talents that benefit society if given the tools to reach their full potential
  • These students valued parents, teachers and tutors who understood their difficulties and their efforts despite them not being able to work as quickly as their peers or do as much. Conversely they felt discouraged if they perceived their struggles and genuine effort were not recognised

One of Marshall’s main conclusions is that empathetic parents, teachers and tutors have a vital role in helping dyslexic children, and people they interact with, understand that it is possible to have trouble with literacy and still be intelligent.


(1) William E. Tunmer et al. (2013): Why the New Zealand literacy strategy has failed and what can be done about it. Evidence from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2011 and Reading Recovery Monitoring Reports. Massey University Institute of Education.
http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/about-massey/news/article.cfm mnarticle_uuid=F287725F-9E6F-

(2) Sharon Olsen (undated): Everything I would like you to know, but I am too shy to tell you.

(3) Sheryn A. Marshall (2005): What it’s like being us: stories of young New Zealanders who experience difficulty learning. Unpublished Master of Health Science thesis, Auckland University of Technology,
Auckland. 202 pages. Available online at http://aut.researchgateway.ac.nz/handle/10292/132.

Written by Danks Davis Dyslexia Steering Committee

Danks Davis