Motivating Students with Dyslexia

Written by Matthew James Friday

Thinking About Motivation

Thinking of my own brother who was so profoundly disengaged by his educational experiences; thinking of students I teach in my current class or past classes; thinking of students I have tutored outside of school settings; thinking of working with young adult teacher trainees with dyslexia; and thinking of myself as someone who writes and teaches with dyslexia; what motivates us all? What keeps us engaged with learning despite the difficulties and set-backs? What can educators and adults do to ensure our students remain motivated?

Education is Changing

The topic of student motivation exists in the context of an exciting though uncertain time in education. Driven partly by radical shifts in technology and partly by the urgent need to understand our global responsibility to the environment, we educators are busy unraveling and reinventing our methodology. The Victorian model of mass education – of small classrooms, of the dominance of knowledge over skills, of mass assessments in standardized test forms, of creating sets of working ‘norms’ for children to fit into – are being rightly questioned by academics and business leaders who realize that we urgently need creative, divergent thinking young people who can multi-task effectively, research accurately and work collaboratively.

With creativity and curiosity at the heart of many new proposals for the future of education, dyslexic students can be accommodated, especially given their capacity for creative and alternative modes of thinking. Technology and increased knowledge of neurology gives us the tools to better engage these students. Yet, underneath those tools and techniques lies the question of motivation.

Why Motivation?

Without motivation, the desire to learn dwindles. This is of course true for us all, but for dyslexic students it is a more urgent issue. Already struggling with feelings of inadequacy, the path to demotivation and disengagement is much shorter. I have noticed in my teaching career how much harder it is to motivate older students if they arrive at my door with years of negative experience behind them. But before we think about motivation from the students’ perspective, let’s consider our own.

Let me guess at what motivates you: working with or for inspiring people; receiving positive, specific praise; being in a nurturing environment in which making mistakes is an important part of learning; by knowing you make a difference and that your
efforts are worthwhile; that you feel appreciated and listened to. Naturally, when I think of inspiring people, I always start with the teachers from school, as I’m sure you do. These incredible mentors shape our world-view, personality and opinion as much as our parents.

Teachers as De-motivators

Teaching is a complex role made of many parts: parent, psychologist, social worker, entertainer, role-model, guide and guardian. All of these parts make us educators best suited to understand motivation as we hold the hearts and souls of young people in our hands. It also makes it an incredibly complex job and one easy to get wrong. Every day. The problem is that given how high teachers are held in our esteem, their disapproval and rejection can have intensely negative effects. I have a much more vivid memory of those teachers who unfairly humiliated or criticized me in elementary and high school then I do of the ones who nurtured and guided me.

This is because, psychologically speaking, negative feedback far outweighs the impact of positive feedback. The ideal ratio is around 5 to1, according to the renowned work of psychologist John Gottman. For every negative comment made to a student, five positive comments are needed to balance out or erase the trauma of the negative. My first ever teacher trainee mentor had me work on this by giving me a small, round metal counter. One lesson I had to press the button every time I was negative, to record a score. The next I had to press the button every time I was positive. Seeing the resulting data motivated me to focus on positive praise. The beneficial result was that my trainee class suddenly had a more encouraging, motivating teacher.

Teaching is All About Relationships

Effective education is about many things but at the heart there is the simplest of all requirements: a positive relationship between teacher and student. It doesn’t matter what curriculum you are using, what the language or ethnicity is of the students, with the right relationship, ANYTHING can be taught and students easily be motivated. Many obstacles prevent this from happening, exhausting educators and driving them out of the profession. But let’s think on the positive. How can that relationship be forged?

1. Trust – it takes time to build, naturally. Students have to know you care for them, will listen to them, respect their concerns and forgive their errors.

2. Enthusiasm – when I think of the most effective teachers in elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities, it is those teachers who have classroom communities full of enthusiasm, passion and energy. It is infectious.

3. Patience – it takes time, false starts and a LOT of enthusiasm. Be patient. Then, when you think you are running out of patient, be even more patient. You can see how the first three points here are intertwined.

4. Creativity – model your own creativity, whatever it is. Your creativity, with its essential messiness, mistakes, diversions but vision and determination, models the same approach to students.

5. Notice what a student CAN do not what a student can’t do. Dyslexic students are painfully aware of what they can’t do: the calculation or question they can’t answer, the text form they can’t master, the book they can’t read. What they need is to know the opposite.

6. Read, ‘Thank You Mr Falkner’ By Patricia Polacco, a classic elementary school true story of the author’s struggle with dyslexia and a teacher who inspired her. Next, read it to your class.

7. Feedback – enthusiasm must come before feedback. Dyslexic students already give themselves enough feedback as it is. Having said that, don’t be afraid to give direct, honest feedback but in small amounts. No one person, least of all dyslexic students, likes a shopping list of mistakes.

8. High expectations – dyslexic students want and deserve to be treated the same as every other student. Sure, they receive accommodations and support, but you have high expectations of their contributions and efforts. High doesn’t mean ‘unrealistic’, but know that older students could feel patronized if the bar is set low for them.

You Don’t Give Enough Praise

You’re are just like your students: you need and crave praise and approval. It is human nature. Having said, generalized praise of the good job, well done, nice work variety does little to improve self-esteem or motivation. Older students and adults know when we are being given empty compliments. Instead, the praise needs to be specific, frequent and well-meant.

For dyslexic students the key is look past the technical errors they make in their reading and writing. Instead, get excited about their ideas. After all, ideas are everything. Without ideas we would never have fire, the wheel, any art form, computers, civilization, language, etc. Remember the 5-1 rule of praise versus negative attention. Increase this ratio as dyslexic students give themselves such negative attention.

Learned Helplessness

If the answer to student motivation was so simple as give specific praise then we could all solve the issue of demotivated students and adults in short space of time. The trouble is, the key to motivation is understanding some of the roots of de-motivation. The most important, I would argue, is a psychological concept known as ‘Learned Helplessness’ developed by American psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman in the late 1960s and ’70s.

Learned helplessness, in psychology, a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.  

Source:, Learned Helplessness


The response of educators is to help more, which results in a student become more reliant on the adult helper, and a negative cycle is set in place. Add the considerable complications of parental guilt and the understandable desire of parents to what to help their children, and you end up with older students unable to act independently, paralyzed and appearing more profoundly affected by their disability, which, now, they are.

Help Less for Helplessness

Of course, dyslexic students need support. I am not suggesting students can learn to cure themselves of dyslexia. After all, it’s cause of physiological differences in the brain. The problem is that dyslexic students can suffer from psychological difficulties as well. So of course they need well-trained educators planning specialized interventions. They need adapted technologies to facilitate their creativity and expression. But, sometimes, they also need to be helped less. They need to be left to problem solve themselves. They need, in short, to be guided to create their own coping strategies and tools, quite separate from the adult support.

I easily spend a year with my students trying to reshape their thinking so they can be independent. I shower students with praise but I also step back from solving their problems, leaving a space with questions such as, what do you think you should do? I try to inspire dyslexic students by showing them amazing role models from history. I have learned to be completely comfortable with my own dyslexic errors in the classroom, and I openly talk about my mistakes. I won’t claim that I am always successful as I would want to be. One teacher may not be enough. Dyslexic students, like all students, need a sequence of diverse but consistently positive role models.

Motivating Young Adults

I have worked with young adult trainee teachers in this area as well. We have looked at different note-taking formats, visual methods for planning lessons, tools and technology that can alleviate the stress of writing or reading to classes full of expectant students. The young adult knows this, faced with the demands of the working world and the fact they have to manage it. There is little sympathy outside educational settings, in the so-called ‘real world’.

Even in my own profession, I am given no exceptions or assistance for my dyslexia. Can I complain? Perhaps but ultimately, having dyslexia is a reason for finding different aspects of learning hard, not an excuse. We have a responsibility to prepare students for the reality of adult life and that can mean setting goals and having challenging conversations.

Being Accountable

For motivation and progress all parties in the process need to be responsible and accountable – teacher, parent and student. Teachers and parents working as supportive teams can go a long way to address this. Big problems occur when the teacher and parents fail to communicate or lack respect for each other’s perspectives or blame each other for the student’s problems. The victim is always the student. Older students become aware of the miscommunication and can exploit it to their advantage, to get out of doing work they are finding hard or demotivating.

A classroom teacher may only work with the student for a year, while a parent has been shaping that student’s outlook and learning habits since before birth. So certainly, a greater weight of influence and, ultimately, responsibility lies with the parents. Here are some ideas to build an accountable and responsible relationship.

  • The first two months in a classroom matter the most. It is a tough and testing time. Dyslexic students, like all students, will test the limits and see what they can get away with, avoid doing, etc. Parents need to be on board but not bombard the teacher. Allow teachers to manage, be firm, set boundaries.
  • No blame, just ideas – when teachers and parents start blaming each other for what is or what is not happening, the student falls through the gap. Instead, acknowledge what is not happening, which is usually the unmotivated student acting in ways to avoid the repeated and now learned feeling of negativity about themselves (and possibly reinforced by adults feeling the same way). Together, brainstorm new ways to act.
  • Involve the student – I always prefer to have the student prefer when meeting with parents. That way the student sees the adults working together and can have the opportunity to share their perspective. They also realize that playing one adult off another won’t work anymore.
  • Having structure at home is vital. Some dyslexic students have home lives that are a whirlwind of emotions, poor sleeping patterns, over-exposure to computer screens and a lack of structure when it comes to homework. If this is not addressed, the problems may persist into adult life.
  • Share the truth – some of the best parent meetings occur when parents are honest about their children and what they struggle with at home. Any decent teacher will empathize and offer strategies to support, be it sharing Behaviour Management tools or Reward Systems. I have found that students are really motivated when they know their parents and teachers inform each other of positive actions.
  • Family Dyslexia – other revelatory meetings have occurred when parents reflect on their own learning and realize (or admit to) symptoms that may be dyslexia. There is a growing body of evidence to show that dyslexia has a genetic base. It is therefore logical to wonder if one or both parents have the same challenges. The denial of this can be the root cause of problems at home.
  • Read, read, read. Reading to young children is one of the universally recognized bonding and language-acquisition acts parents do with their children. Read anything and everything. Be a lover of reading in all genres and formats. Invest in a subscription (or time at the library) to audio books, so that families who struggle with reading from text are still exposed to rich language. For further relevant reading, see: Understanding Dyslexia and the Reading Brain in Kids.
  • Explore all different learning styles – music and art clubs, sports activities, acting classes, robotics clubs; it’s so often the creative and inventive arts that enthuse dyslexic students. These alternative experiences can be a source of lasting motivation to a student struggling in the mainstream setting.
  • Dyslexic students make bad choices too – when I was working with children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, I was told that these children, as well as struggling with emotions and communications, also make poor choices. They can be ‘naughty’. The difficulty is identifying what can and can’t be helped and acting accordingly. This is equally true of dyslexic students. If these students have adults in their lives that excuse their poor choices and effort, then it empowers the disengagement.
  • Look for role-models – dyslexic students benefit from knowing dyslexic adults who have mastered some kind of profession or skill. Mentors don’t have all the answers but they prove that there is a successful life beyond dyslexia.

Are You Feeling Motivated?

I hope so. Writing a blog about student motivation is much easier than actually achieving it. That’s my daily job. Some days I feel elated, knowing that I have achieved this. Other days, I feel like a failure knowing my students rejected my approach or, to put it simply, I got it wrong.

But I won’t give up. I won’t stop giving specific praise; I won’t stop jumping up and down with excitement when a student makes a creative breakthrough; I won’t stop being direct and honest with my feedback to students and parents; I won’t stop having high expectations; and I won’t stop being accountable for my own difficulties. That way I hope to be someone who has dyslexia but is not defined by it. I am so much more than that, and so are your students.


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