Teaching students with learning difficulties is one challenge tutors face but it is important we learn as much as we can to help these children keep up with their schoolwork.

Often, students with dyslexia display signs of low self-esteem. They may hide their disability from teachers and peers, and feel they have to struggle on alone.

It becomes easier, however, if teachers are aware and able to establish a supportive learning environment for English lessons.

Dyslexia does not only cause problems with reading but affects other language skills such as comprehension, spelling and writing. Owing to this, teaching students with dyslexia can be very confronting for some teachers.

Dyslexia is the most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties. It is estimated that around 10 per cent of the Australian population are affected by it, and the percentage rises among children who have already been diagnosed with another learning difficulty. There is no 'cure' — only management.

The biggest misconception about dyslexia is that is an intellectual disability. This is not correct. Understanding this is essential to be able to effectively assist students to manage their condition.

Dyslexia is not an intellectual disability.
The intelligence of students with dyslexia is often masked by the difficulties associated with the condition. (Source: Unsplash)

There is absolutely no reason why people with dyslexia can not attain a university degree and successfully pursue a career of their choice. As they progress through school, their condition may improve with the assistance of holiday tutoring, and regular home or online tuition.

With the support of a tutor who has experience teaching or working with dyslexia, along with sound preparation, students with dyslexia can achieve their goals.

Teaching Students with Learning Difficulties: Identifying the Key Issues

If you find work as an English tutor (or any other subject) for young learners with dyslexia, is it essential you are aware of these points. Your student may:

  • be communicative and articulate in conversational settings, but struggle to read, spell and write
  • present with a high IQ but show below average results in written work
  • call herself dumb, display low self-esteem or use avoidance tactics to cover their inability
  • be quick to show frustration
  • have a short attention span, or be easily distracted
  • require different strategies in order to learn
  • experience higher rates of success with lessons involving practical experimentation, hands-on work, observation opportunities and visuals
  • be aware they've been labeled by their teachers or classmates as having 'behavioural issues', or being lazy, careless or immature

Tutoring or teaching English to students who have dyslexia requires considerable planning and background knowledge. Not only do you need to know how to teach English but you need to be aware of the challenges dyslexic students face when they're reading and spelling:

  • reading can cause dizziness, headaches and stomach aches
  • alphabet letters, numerals, words, sequences and verbal expression can all cause confusion
  • when writing or reading, they may substitute or omit words or letters, or transpose and reverse alphabet letters
  • they can experience movement when working
  • a lack of peripheral vision and depth perception are common
  • spelling is based on phonetics but can be inconsistent
  • regardless of their level, their subject or if they are taking a test — students with dyslexia need to be exposed to different learning strategies to succeed

An English Tutor Must be Aware of  Other Issues Associated with Dyslexia

In addition to knowing how to manage the challenges presented when reading and writing, it is imperative to the success of their students that English teachers, trainees and tutors are aware that many dyslexic students also have other issues to contend with.

Hearing and Speech

Students with dyslexia may experience the following issues:

  • 'extended hearing' which means you may hear things that are not said
  • short attention spans and quick to be distracted
  • difficulty articulating thoughts
  • only uses short sentences, or speaks in phrases
  • inability to complete a sentence
  • stuttering when stressed
  • difficulty pronouncing long words with accuracy
  • transposition of words, or syllables, in spoken situations.

Fine Motor Skills and Writing

Students with more extreme dyslexia may also:

  • have varied and often illegible handwriting
  • be clumsy or uncoordinated
  • confuse position, for example, left and right, over and under, because of the potential to be ambidextrous.


The memories of people with dyslexia pose interesting challenges, and include:

  • poor memory for facts, sequences or information where there is little background experience
  • long-term memory, on the other hand, is excellent — faces, personal experiences and locations are easily remembered
  • visual and emotional memory, meaning images and feelings replace words and sound when it comes to thought processes.

How to Teach English Successfully to Dyslexic Students 

When you consider all the things people with dyslexia are contending with, it is easy to see why an English teacher could find it very challenging to work with dyslexic students. While they don't necessarily require special certification in teaching students with learning difficulties, they would certainly need a repertoire of methods and strategies. With the right help, attention and support, students with dyslexia can achieve their goals equally as well as their peers.

Check Superprof for available tutoring jobs.

As an English tutor, you are in high demand.
If you tutor in the English language and work with dyslexic students, you may need to spend more time on your lesson planning. The rewards are worth it though, and you will be in high demand. (Source: Unsplash)

There are multiple methods that explain how to teach English. Familiarise yourself with the following strategies if you are interested in teaching and tutoring students with dyslexia:

Multi-sensory Structured Language (MSL)

MSL is considered to be one of the most effective methods for teaching students with dyslexia.

Teachers provide direct instruction to help students make links between the visual, auditory and kinesthetic-tactile learning procedures.

With this method, dyslexic students can make sense of symbols and words, recognising and spelling them in a fluent manner, and increase their comprehension, vocabulary knowledge, and reading and writing accuracy.

Teaching English Using Diagnostics

Diagnostic Teaching is the process of identifying a student's reading and writing behaviours, working out their strengths, weaknesses and strategies, and building on these.

For example, if you are teaching phonemes, start with a few words and ask them to identify the sounds. As they do this, you make note of the strategies they are already using and how these might contribute to either their success or their weaknesses. Each future lesson plan will be informed by this knowledge.

Direct and Explicit Teaching

Explicit teaching is essential for students with dyslexia and consist of the following key steps:

  • state the purpose for learning the skill
  • describe the skill and model it
  • revisit the skill in small steps
  • ensure instructions are direct and clear
  • provide feedback during the process, and at the end.

Other tips to help your students with their skill and language acquisition include:

  • slowing down — keep learning manageable for your student by teaching one thing at a time, and not moving on until they've mastered the current skill
  • regularly counting how many sounds can be heard in a word — helps with connections and spelling
  • teaching phonics and their rules, and encourage regular revision
  • brainstorming for ideas and keywords before writing
  • using visuals and imagery for instructions and teaching new words
  • encouraging students to maintain a (visual) journal
  • recording yourself giving instructions, whether this is for homework, new concepts or unfamiliar words — the student can listen to these as often as needed
  • discussing vocabulary, expressions, and concepts before reading new material
  • regular exposure to unusual words
What lecture and lesson styles support dyslexic students?
Why teach the traditional way when you can teach using a variety of methods and visual techniques. All students, not only those with dyslexia, will benefit. (Source: Unsplash)

To get valuable teaching experience, and knowledge of successful strategies, organise to volunteer teaching in schools or associations who support dyslexic students. As an English tutor, your objective should be to ensure all of your students improve their language skills.

Studies in the last decade have shown that, in a four year degree for education, less than 5 per cent of the time is devoted to the teaching of reading, even less for teaching students with learning difficulties.

This means it really is up to you, as an English tutor, to improve your teaching skills in this area. If you are considering focusing your tutoring or teaching career around ESL or English as a Foreign Language, your skills will certainly be in high demand.

As a private tutor, or when teaching an online course, you need to plan lessons to suit the needs and learning styles of your students.

These techniques and the basic awareness of different needs applies equally to all tutors, not just those running English classes, and also applies if you are teaching in China, teaching English in Japan or decide to volunteer abroad in schools.

Being passionate about tutoring and your students' progress is what counts. If you want to make a difference and help a struggling student gain new confidence, you need to be motivated and enthusiastic. Do this and your students, particularly those with dyslexia and other learning challenges, will never forget you. Find out how to set your English tutoring fees here.

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Kellie is an editor, a children's writer, blogger and a teacher. Any remaining time she has is spent on a dragon boat.