Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Dyslexia and negative emotions

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Dyslexia and negative emotions:
What are the negative emotional effects of dyslexia and how can these be managed?

Overview[edit | edit source]

"I come to school. I see all the other friends. Who can rite and read. But me, I’m all on my own. Not good at riteing. Not good at reading. I site on my bed, I cry I cry and I cry. But I boh’t see why. It’s so hared for me. Can’t you see?"

(Jodie, age 11. Chievers & Andrew, 1996, as cited in Palti, 2007, para 1)

Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso and Richard Branson are all well-known people, leaders in their respective fields, who share a common link; all these people have suffered from dyslexia (Alsobhi, Khan & Rahanu, 2014). These people were once thought to be lazy or incompetent during their school days and were not given support by teachers (Alsobhi et al., 2014). Early identification of learning difficulties can help overcome not only the learning issues themselves, but the range of negative emotions common among people with dyslexia (Earey, 2013).  

Difficulties with reading, writing and memory can lead to issues of humiliation and bullying which in turn can lead to a range of negative emotions such as poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation (Dahle, Knivsberg & Andreassen, 2011). These negative feelings can act to compound the problem by causing avoidance behaviours in activities involving reading and writing (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010).  

While there is no known “cure”, the issues associated with dyslexia, including negative emotions, can be overcome, such as in the famous examples above. This chapter will explore the negative emotional effects of dyslexia and how these can be managed.

Definitions[edit | edit source]

There have been multiple attempts over the years to find a suitable definition for dyslexia (Alsobhi et al., 2014). Consequently, definitions of dyslexia have many variations (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010). The Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA) has adapted their definition of dyslexia from the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) to state the following:

“Dyslexia is a specific learning disability ("difference" ADA adapted) that is neurological in origin. It is characterised by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede the growth of vocabulary and background knowledge" (ADA, 2014, para. 6).

Adding to the difficulty of a successful definition is the fact that it is very rare for two people with dyslexia to share exactly the same symptoms (Alsobhi et al., 2014; Tunmer & Greaney, 2010; ADA, 2014). The important aspects of the ADA definition are to recognise that dyslexia and its associated symptoms are often the result of phonological language deficits and that this is unexpected as it is not due to other intellectual issues or difficulties in hearing or visual acuity (Alsobhi et al., 2014). This definition of dyslexia does not discuss the negative emotions often experienced by those with dyslexia that have also impacted both on emotional wellbeing and the motivation to persevere through difficulties.

Symptoms[edit | edit source]

Dyslexia involves “difficulties in acquiring and using written language.” (ADA, 2014). It is important to note that this occurs without corresponding issues with general intelligence or IQ (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010). The ADA (2014) acknowledge that dyslexia occurs on a continuum which ranges from mild to severe and although rare that two dyslexics present with the same symptoms, there is a pattern of strengths and weaknesses in cognitive processing related to language tasks. The ADA (2014) have suggested the following characteristics and symptoms:

Common characteristics: Other common symptoms: Adults with dyslexia:
  • Difficulty in learning and using oral and written words
  • Difficulties in phonological awareness and recognising sounds in words
  • Difficulties with alphabetical principle and decoding sounds to letters
  • Slow and laboured reading which is inaccurate and lacking in fluency
  • Difficulties with recognising sight words which are age appropriate
  • Difficulties with learning how to spell correctly
  • Difficulty with multi-syllabic vocabulary
  • Poor reading comprehension
  • Oral language skills are often better than written language skills 
  • Difficulties in naming colours, letters or objects in a sequence or rapidly
  • Poor memory for directions or lists
  • Requires seeing or hearing the same thing multiple times to be able to understand
  • Inconsistent with school work
  • Easily distracted by audio or visual stimuli
  • A downward trend in test scores/school performance
  • Common to hear from the teacher comments such as “If only they would try harder”
  • Trying to avoid having to read and write if possible
  • Concealing difficulties with reading and writing from others
  • Spelling is poor
  • Trying to rely on either memory or verbal skills as opposed to writing or reading

The IDA (2016) have developed an online quiz to assess for dyslexia in school children: Dyslexia screener for school-age children. and a quiz for adults: Dyslexia self-assessment for adults.

Diagnosis[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. What it's like to read with dyslexia. Font used with permission from Daniel Britton.

The prevalence of dyslexia varies throughout the world. Neural differences with dyslexia are stable across the global population, however, the difficulties are found to be less common in languages with consistent orthographies such as Italian, compared with languages such as English with inconsistent orthographies (Barbiero et al., 2012). The ADA (2014) estimates that dyslexia may affect around 10% of the Australian population, however, this estimate is difficult to verify given the problems of a definitive definition. In Australia, there is no systematic diagnosis for dyslexia and testing for this condition is not routinely carried out in schools (Firth, Frydenberg, Steeg & Bond, 2013). Teachers are often thought of as “experts” in the area of assessment of learning disability and may be relied upon to identify dyslexia when in fact it is often the parents who have more knowledge of their child’s difficulties than the teacher (Earey, 2013). A recent Australian survey of 1720 participants regarding students with dyslexia from kindergarten to year 12 in all states and territories from all school sectors, found that in 72% of cases it was the parent or carer who first identified their child was at risk of reading difficulties (Forbes, 2016). Earey (2013) notes that often schools and education authorities make no attempts to address issues surrounding dyslexia and that dyslexia is often only identified in cases where parents conduct their own research and are able to pay for assessment. Forbes (2016) suggests the average cost to families for seeking this assessment for their child is $1105 making assessment difficult to obtain for some children at risk. Barbiero et al. (2012) have suggested that dyslexia is not identified in two out of three children aged 8 to 10 years, leaving many dyslexics undiagnosed. Dahle et al. (2011) have suggested that 60% to 80% of those diagnosed are male.

Research has consistently identified the importance of early diagnosis and intervention (Earey, 2013; Tunmer & Greaney, 2010; Barbiero et al., 2012, Forbes, 2016) but currently, schools have tended to adopt a “wait and fail” approach with children often not being identified until after having been exposed to standard reading instruction for at least two years or longer (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010). Students who have difficulty with reading after this length of time often receive less practice and quickly come across written material that is too difficult for them (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010). This results in decreased motivation to read or reading avoidance that further compounds the problem (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010). Forbes (2016) suggests that once there is a gap with reading, it becomes extremely hard to close. She further states that 74% of poor readers in grade 3 are also poor readers in grade 9 and that as early as grade 4, learning shifts “from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn” (p. 27).

The ADA (2014) offers pre-assessment screening which is not a full assessment but is enough for schools to enact modified learning strategies for the student. Earey (2013) suggests that although the school may receive this report, parents still find that they need to remind the teacher at the beginning of every school year and sometimes throughout the year. An inability to diagnose and make appropriate modifications for dyslexic students often leads to repeated learning failures that may cause students to develop low expectations in their own abilities (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010). Small differences from their peers in reading ability can soon become a spiral of deficits in achievement, causing negative emotional and behavioural consequences (Tunmer & Greaney, 2010).

Types of dyslexia[edit | edit source]

Given the difficulties of appropriately defining dyslexia, it often becomes challenging to also identify and classify various types, thus there are many ways of dividing dyslexia into various categories usually categorised by the symptoms associated with them (Alsobhi et al., 2014)

Hope (2016) of Dyslexia Victoria has outlined the following:

Primary dyslexia This is considered the most common form of dyslexia and is typically genetically inherited. This type of dyslexia causes difficulties with identifying letters and numbers as well as problems with reading, spelling, arithmetic, time, measurement and instructions. These particular skills are usually predominately performed by the left hemisphere of the brain, but those with primary dyslexia are often right brain dominant thinkers.

The majority of individuals throughout the world process information predominately in the left hemisphere of the brain where information is best learned in a sequential nature with a step by step approach. This is typically the approach adopted in most school environments. Those who predominately use their right brain respond best by keeping in mind the “big picture” or overview of what it is they are learning, such as whole images and words as opposed to the use of phonics. This means it is important to these people to see the conclusion as opposed to just the parts of a particular subject.

Secondary dyslexia (developmental dyslexia) This type of dyslexia is thought to occur due to problems with the development of the brain in utero, which later causes difficulties with neurological ability in word recognition as well as spelling. This may be associated with abnormalities in both visual and auditory processing. It is thought this type of dyslexia may improve throughout childhood with proper support and instruction. This kind of dyslexia is common in boys.
Trauma dyslexia Trauma dyslexia, as the name suggests, usually results from some form of trauma or injury to the brain regions responsible for reading and writing. This type of dyslexia is rare.

In addition, Perlstein (2016) also includes:

Visual dyslexia Visual dyslexia is a difficulty of visual processing as opposed to a visual acuity problem. In this condition, the brain does not properly interpret visual cues.
Auditory dyslexia This is a disorder of auditory processing as opposed to an auditory acuity problem. This condition means the brain does not properly interpret audio cues.
Dysgraphia This is a difficulty in being able to properly hold and control writing implements which means correct writing cannot occur.

Theories[edit | edit source]

Ramus et al. (2003) have discussed the following theories regarding dyslexia: 

Phonological theory:[edit | edit source]

Suggests that dyslexics have specific difficulties with representation, storage and retrieval of speech sounds which in an alphabetic system, requires the use of grapheme-phoneme correspondence (recognising that letters make up sounds that constitute speech) this in turn causes reading impairment[grammar?]. While there are different theories regarding dyslexia, all theorists agree on the primary role of phonological deficits in dyslexia. This theory does not consider sensory or motor issues which are sometimes seen with dyslexia. 

Rapid auditory processing theory:[edit | edit source]

Suggests that the phonological deficits of dyslexia are a result of an auditory processing deficit[grammar?]. This deficit is seen as the cause of the phonological problems associated with dyslexia and therefore with reading issues. Evidence for this theory is based upon dyslexics showing poor performance on a number of various auditory tasks. 

Figure 2. Difficulties in processing letters and words

The visual theory[edit | edit source]

Suggests that dyslexia is a visual processing difficulty which causes problems with processing letters and words within a written text[grammar?]. Within this theory, the phonological deficit is not excluded but the primary focus is on the visual processing difficulty causing problems with written words. This theory is based on two different pathways of the visual system; the magnocellular and parvocellular pathways. Visual theory suggests that the magnocellular pathway is selectively disrupted which causes deficits in visual processing as well as abnormal binocular control and difficulties with visuospatial attention. 

The cerebellar theory[edit | edit source]

Suggests that the cerebellum of a dyslexic is mildly dysfunctional which can lead to certain cognitive difficulties[grammar?]. Because the cerebellum also has a role to play in motor function, it is thought that this is where difficulties with speech articulation in those with dyslexia may come about. The cerebellum also plays an important role in automatisation of tasks and weak ability in this area could lead to difficulty in learning grapheme-phoneme correspondences. Furthermore, brain imaging studies have previously shown differences in areas of activation of the cerebellum in dyslexics. 

The magnocellular theory:[edit | edit source]

Is a unifying theory which makes an attempt to bring together all the above theories[grammar?]. This theory suggests that magnocellular[explain?] dysfunction is not limited only to visual processing but is instead generalised to all the deficits seen with dyslexia; visual, auditory, tactile, motor and phonological.

Negative emotions[edit | edit source]

Dyslexia has been identified as a risk factor for a range of negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, stress, low self-esteem, disappointment, frustration, shame, anger and embarrassment (Forbes, 2016; Barbiero et al., 2012; Dahle et al., 2011; Nalavany, Carawan & Brown, 2011). Sometimes, these internalised emotions may become externalised behaviours and children with dyslexia may resort to aggression and rule breaking (Dahle et al., 2011).  Alternatively, children may become withdrawn, socially isolated and at risk of bullying or may even develop somatic complaints such as stomach ache (Dahle et al., 2011).  Sadly, many students with dyslexia may have experienced these negative emotions prior to being identified as dyslexic (Nalavany et al., 2011).

Graph 1. Based on data of Forbes, 2016

Reading difficulties contribute to higher emotional arousal from the first grade through to university (Tobia, Bonifacci, Ottaviani, Borsato & Marzocchi, 2016). Mainstream schools are considered to be one of the primary sources of negative emotions, negative social experiences and low self-esteem for dyslexics, possibly due to teachers and peers who do not understand the condition (Nalavany et al., 2011). Early school experiences may create a collection of frightening, hurtful or humiliating experiences with many dyslexic adults reporting memories of frustrating language tasks at school while being given limited opportunities for help (Nalavany et al., 2011). Tobia et al. (2016) found much higher levels of anxiety were present in dyslexic students prior to a reading task when compared with a control group. The authors further found that students who were poor at reading showed lower levels of persistence and were more likely to assume external causes for success and internal causes for failures.  Reading aloud is a particularly terrifying experience for those with dyslexia and Tobia et al. (2016) suggest that this activity may be viewed as a threat which could result in an autonomic response to simply avoid the negative consequences associated with this task.

Dyslexia is persistent throughout life and school children with this condition who go on to college and university are the largest population of students with disabilities (Nelson & Gregg, 2012). Nelson and Gregg (2012) found that academic difficulties and poor mental health appeared to be related, with depression often being attributed to academic concerns more than any other reason. They similarly state suicidal ideation was frequently blamed on academic problems. Not only is the individual with dyslexia hampered in their academic efforts by their condition, but depression and anxiety have been found to disrupt information processing which in turn also interferes with academic achievement (Nelson & Gregg, 2012).

Figure 3. negative emotions associated with dyslexia

Difficulties with reading and writing often continue throughout life and a person with dyslexia may find difficulty in gaining employment and remaining employed (de Beer, Engels, Heerkens & van der Klink, 2014). Along with this, a significant wage gap often exists between those with dyslexia and those without. These issues may further contribute to the range of negative emotions experienced by the individual (de Beer et al., 2014).  de Beer et al. (2016) found that dyslexics often found structured environments, such as the workplace, very stressful, instead preferring environments where they could exert some control over variables.

In older adulthood, there is the possibility of problems associated with dyslexia, such as difficulties with communication and language, being associated with symptoms of dementia or cognitive decline with both these conditions also having potential to cause anxiety or depression (Carawan, Nalavany & Jenkins, 2016). Carawan et al. (2016) suggest this could lead to unnecessary referrals, incorrect medications and unnecessary services which in turn could lead to an increase in negative emotions and remembrances of past experiences where disclosure of dyslexia was misunderstood. Furthermore, as people age, their support networks change, adding to difficulties associated with negative emotions as the older adult with dyslexia must either find new sources of support, or navigate their way through a world where communication, reading and writing are difficult, potentially causing further isolation, depression or anxiety (Carawan et al., 2016).   

Support networks are vital to those with dyslexia and when the person is a child and student, parents are usually the main source of that support (Multhauf, Buschmann & Soellner, 2016). Unfortunately, parents with a child who has dyslexia are often under enormous stress themselves in their efforts to be supportive (Multhauf et al., 2016). Multhauf et al. (2016) suggest that stress to parents can result from the perception of harm occurring to their parenting role. The authors further note that the child’s poor literacy can negatively impact family life by increasing stress levels, disagreements on parenting issues and negative reactions from relatives. Parents worried most about their child’s academic progress, future and behaviour but they also felt frustrated at the lack of information regarding dyslexia and feelings of guilt surrounding pushing their child in learning activities (Multhauf et al., 2016).    

Nalavany et al. (2011) and Firth et al. (2013) point out that even though things may eventually change for the individual with dyslexia, scars from past emotional traumas caused by delayed diagnosis or failure to deal with negative emotions caused by dyslexia can leave lifelong scars.

Management of negative emotions[edit | edit source]

In Australia there is currently a significant difference between the recommendations put forward for helping those with dyslexia and what practices we actually see implemented (Forbes, 2016). In 2010 the National Dyslexia Working Party made recommendations for Helping people with Dyslexia: a national action agenda however, these have not currently been implemented (Forbes, 2016).

Negative emotions can be overcome by both managing the effects of dyslexia and by teaching positive coping strategies or mindfulness, which has been associated with a decrease in externalised behaviours as well as decreasing anxiety (Firth et al., 2013).  Firth et al. (2013) discuss the importance of developing positive coping strategies early, before maladaptive coping patterns are established. The authors further discuss that adaptive coping is a better predictor of life success than the extent of the dyslexia and that successful adults learned to be aware of their dyslexia, but not defined by it.

The research stresses the importance of a collaborative support network for the student which includes the parents/carers, peers, teachers and schools, working together to help the student overcome difficulties (Firth et al., 2013; Multhauf et al., 2016; Earey, 2013). Multiple research has[grammar?] also indicated the importance of early identification and intervention for students with dyslexia (Earey, 2013; Multhauf et al., 2016; Forbes, 2016; Firth et al., 2013). It is important that any management of negative emotions not only deals with the negative emotions themselves, but also with the symptoms of dyslexia which were responsible for the negative emotions to begin with. 

Managing symptoms of dyslexia (Forbes, 2016) Managing negative emotions (Firth et al., 2013)
Explicit and structured approach to learning/teaching reading, ensuring instruction in phonology, sound-symbol associations, morphology, syllable structures, semantics

and syntax

Strategies to cope with frustration and to allow the individual to persevere through difficult tasks
Mandatory screening for all children at the kindergarten level and phonics screening from grade 1 Clear knowledge of how to access help
Instruction which is tailored to meet the individual needs of students which takes into account their strengths, interests and goals.  Teachers, parents and peers provide emotional support
Deal with each dyslexic student as an individual with individual needs  Mindfulness techniques
Have a clear knowledge of how to access help Programs that may assist with challenging negative self-talk, assertiveness, problem solving, goal setting and adaptive coping. 
Set goals and be proactive Ensuring teaching staff are dyslexia aware and supportive

In addition to this, Forbes (2016) has suggested classroom accommodations that include:

  • Breaking up tasks into smaller and manageable steps
  • Simple, clear and precise verbal instruction
  • Show examples of what is needed
  • Proactively monitor students to ensure they understand
  • Rephrase if the student does not understand or remember
  • Encourage questions
  • Repeat instructions if needed
  • Be patient with requests for help and mistakes
  • Allow extra time for work
  • Place emphasis on major ideas and repeat important points
  • Visual displays such as diagrams or flow charts could help with understanding
  • Give lots of positive feedback for effort and application. 

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Difficulties defining dyslexia and recognising symptoms has led to reduced opportunities of identifying those at risk. As a result, dyslexic students to continue to struggle in a system which has largely adopted a wait and fail approach with literary education. An inability to keep up academically with peers and potential for a range of embarrassing situations in the classroom environment may lead to the dyslexic individual experiencing a range of negative emotions that may leave life-long scars. There are various strategies for coping with the symptoms of dyslexia and the negative emotions that may follow but most of these involve early detection as the key to success. de Beer et al. (2014) has said “it is society that causes problems for the person with dyslexia by making demands that he/she can barely fulfil” (p. 95). Ultimately it is society that needs to be willing to provide support to the dyslexic individual to begin to solve these problems.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Alsobhi, A. Y., Khan, N., & Rahanu, H. (2014). Toward linking dyslexia types and symptoms to the available assistive technologies. IEEE 14th International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies. 597-598. Doi: 10.1109/ICALT.2014.174

Barbiero, C., Lonciari, I., Montico, M., Monasta, L., Penge, R., Vio, C., ... Ronfani, L. (2012). The submerged dyslexia iceberg: How many school children are not diagnosed? Results from an Italian study. PLoS ONE, 7 (10). 1-9. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048082

Carawan, L. W., Nalavany, B. A., & Jenkins, C. (2016). Emotional experience with dyslexia and self-esteem: the protective role of perceived family support in late adulthood. Aging and Mental Health, 20 (3). 284-294. Doi: 10.1080/13607863.2015.1008984

Dahle, A. E., Knivsberg, A-M., & Andreassen, A. B. (2011). Coexisting problem behaviour in severe dyslexia. Journal of Research in Special Education Needs, 11 (3). 162-170. Doi: 10.1111/j.1471-3802.2010.01190.x

de Beer, J., Engels, J., Heerkens, Y., & van der Klink, J. (2014). Factors influencing work participation of adults with developmental dyslexia: a systematic review. BMC Public Health, 14 (1). 77-99. Doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-77

Definition of dyslexia. (2016). Retrieved from International Dyslexia Association (IDA) website:

Firth, N., Frydenberg, E., Steeg, C., & Bond, L. (2013). Coping successfully with dyslexia: An initial study of an inclusive school-based resilience programme. Dyslexia, 19. 113-130. Doi: 10.1002/dys.1453

Earey, A. (2013). Parental experiences of support for pupils with dyslexia: ignoring the effect on parents. British Journal of Learning Support, 28 (1). 35-41. Doi: 10.1111/1467-9604.12013

Forbes, T. (2016). Parent survey on the education of students with dyslexia in Australia. Retrieved from :

Hope, K. (2016). Types of dyslexia. Retrieved from:

Multhauf, B., Buschmann, A., & Soellner, R. (2016). Effectiveness of a group-based program for parents of children with dyslexia. Reading and Writing, 29 (6). 1203-1223. Doi: 10.1007/s11145-016-9632-1

Nalavany, B. A., Carawan, L. W., & Brown, L. J. (2011). Considering the role of traditional and specialist schools: do school experiences impact the emotional well-being and self-esteem of adults with dyslexia?. British Journal of Special Education, 38 (4). 191-200. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8578.2011.00523.x

Nelson, J. M., & Gregg, N. (2012). Depression and anxiety among transitioning adolescents and college students with ADHD, dyslexia or comorbid ADHD/dyslexia. Journal of attention disorders, 16 (3). 244-254. Doi: 10.1177/1087054710385783

Palti, G. (2007). Social and emotional aspects of dyslexia. Retrieved from:

Perlstein, D. (2016). Dyslexia. Retrieved from:

Ramus, F., Rosen, S., Dakin, S. C., Day, B. L., Castellote, J. M., White, S., & Frith, U. (2003). Theories of developmental dyslexia: insights from a multiple case study of dyslexic adults. Brain, 126. 841-865. Doi: 10.1093/brain/awg076

Tobia, V., Bonifacci, P., Ottaviani, C., Borsato, T., & Marzocchi, G. M. (2016). Reading under the skin: physiological activation during reading in children with dyslexia and typical readers. Annals of Dyslexia, 66 (2). 171-186. Doi: 10.1007/s11881-015-0109-8

Tunmer, W., & Greaney, K. (2010). Defining dyslexia. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43 (3). 229-243. Doi: 10.1177/0022219409345009

What is dyslexia? (2014). Retrieved from Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA) website:

External links[edit | edit source]