Tutoring writing for dyslexic learners: Beyond decoding, towards metacognition

Most research on dyslexia focuses on the challenges children experience during their early schooling years. But what happens when entering high school? Then, students usually stop receiving special provision due to the misconception that they have overcome their learning difficulties or learnt how to deal with them effectively.

In early schooling years dyslexia is mainly focused on the deficit model which seeks diagnosis and remediation. However, support for teenagers and/or even adult learners needs to be replaced by a model “that seeks to find ways to support learners in the pursuit of their goals” (Mortimorea & Crozierb, 2006, p. 237). True, many teenage or older students have found ways to get round their problems. Nonetheless, others haven’t managed to deal with their challenges. In any case, “changing demands at work or a new venture in life can present tough challenges” (The dyslexia association, n. d., para. 1).

Manifestations and implications of dyslexia in advanced writing

When comes to writing, dyslexia is mainly associated with word misspelling because of the phonological awareness deficit (Reid, 2004). This is particularly evident to English language learners due to the non-transparent nature of the English language which poses extra challenges to dyslexic learners. However, when writing is seen as composing, it involves a wide range of cognitive activities ranging from setting goals, generating and organizing ideas to turning ideas into a written text and finally, reviewing (Graham & Harris, 2003). Dyslexic students who face difficulties in meeting all these requirements consequently resort to the so-called “writing as remembering” model (Graham & Harris, 2003, p. 323) with little or no interest in “rhetoric goals, whole-text organization, the need of the reader, or the constraints imposed by the topic” (Graham & Harris, 2003, p. 323).

Although great emphasis is placed on issues directly related to writing, other difficulties might also hinder composing a text. Extensive listening and simultaneous note-taking, slow handwriting and reading, difficulties in reading aloud and recalling more complicated vocabulary, working memory limited span, lack of organizational and time management skills (How does dyslexia impact on the writing process? n. d.) can all attribute to the poor composing skills of dyslexic students. In addition, metacognitive awareness, defined as the “awareness of the learning process and the utilization of effective strategies when learning new material” (Reid, 2004, p. 195) is also a key issue as dyslexics may select inappropriate strategies to complete a task. Finally, feelings of anxiety and lack of self-confidence are evident to older dyslexic learners mostly because of being “misdiagnosed and mistreated at the elementary and secondary levels” (Corrigan, 1997, p. 2). And although young learners might not have to produce longer, more demanding text, teenage and adult students have to deal with all the extra challenges imposed by the complexity of the tasks.

University Writing Centres: An example of successful tutoring writing service

Simply put, University Writing Centres (UWCs) are free services offered by universities all over the world which celebrate writing as a student-centred process. It’s about working with the writers, not fixing their texts (Farrell, O’ Sullivan, Tighe-Mooney, 2015). Successful tutoring should see writing as a discrete skill with its own principles regardless the content of each subject or the genre it serves. Following the example of UWCs which work as “enabling and supportive spaces where students go to get individual help with their writing projects” (Daniels, Babcock, Daniels, 2015, p. 20), teachers should not deal with lower-order concerns like spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, and vocabulary. Nowadays, technology can support all students with a plethora of applications that can help them edit the papers themselves before submitting their assignments. On the contrary, their role should be mostly supportive to help learners gradually thrive as independent writers building on their critical thinking. 

Τhe main benefit that dyslexic students can gain from this kind of tutoring is the development of their metacognitive skills that will enable them to process information working on a variety of problem-solving strategies that “help students acquire a deeper understanding of their writing and develop a better insight as to what is needed to improve their writing skills” (Kourbani & Floratos, 2013, p. 22). Under these circumstances, teachers can follow the principles of Vygotsky’s theory about the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Reid, 2004; Mitoumbe–Tindy, 2017).  Like what described as reciprocal teaching and scaffolding, teachers should work on promoting student’s independent study skills (Reid, 2004).  During reciprocal teaching, students’ performance is monitored and enhanced focusing on the process. Although the process might initially be led by the teacher, the support gradually withdraws and leaves the student to continue with the less possible help moving from a high to a low structure session. As a result, it all boils down to the concept of transfer of skills which “can best be achieved when emphasis is firmly placed on the process of learning and not the product” (Reid, 2004, p. 194).

A step–by step approach (Corrigan, 1997) is also considered a very efficient strategy. The underlying idea is that since the dyslexic students’ information process is slower than the average learners’, breaking down the writing task in smaller, more achievable stages (namely brainstorming, outline, draft) will be mostly useful and helpful. According to Corrigan (para 13) “if the process of writing is mastered one step at a time, the dyslexic students will see the product take form and better understand how it was accomplished”.

By no means should we forget that quite often older dyslexic students avoid revealing their exact learning difficulties. It is also very likely to deal with unresponsive teenage students with negative attitude due to their early educational experiences. Setting an agenda or time restrictions can also be daunting when tutoring a dyslexic student as they need to work slowly and carefully. We should not forget that although dyslexic students need routines and structures to work efficiently, it is not always easy for them to follow. Nevertheless, teachers should always support students not only to meet the demands of their current studies but also to facilitate them with the necessary skills to thrive in their future academic endeavors.


Vasiliki Lismani

Vasiliki Lismani

Teacher and teacher trainer