Understanding the role of motivation for for learners with dyslexia in the ELT classroom

Research suggests that learning a foreign language is a demanding task for learners with dyslexia. The difficulties that might emerge are not restricted to reading and spelling in the foreign language; other skills can be affected, such as comprehension, vocabulary and grammar acquisition, speaking, and writing.

Although emotional feelings are not the cause of dyslexia, they can have a great impact on learners’ attitudes towards foreign language learning.

This extract from the award-winning Supporting Learners with Dyslexia in the ELT Classroom focuses a key factor that can cause difficulties for learners with dyslexia in the English language classroom at an emotional level: motivation.


Motivation has been defined as ‘some kind of internal drive which pushes someone to do things in order to achieve something’ (Harmer, 2001) and is thought to be responsible for ‘why people decide to do something, how long they are willing to sustain the activity and how hard they are going to pursue it’ (Dörnyei, 2001, p. 8).

English is obviously a very popular language with an international status, so one might think that students, perceiving its importance for their professional and social future, should be naturally motivated to learn it. However, motivational patterns are very personal and depend on a number of factors, such as the learners’ story of success or failure at school, their personality, their perceptions about the language, their potential, the usefulness of what is being taught, etc. As Balboni (2006) points out, motivation to learn another language can be based on three things: duty, need, and pleasure.


Students learn the language just because they have to, typically because it is a mandatory subject at school. This type of motivation does not lead to actual language acquisition but rather to short-term efforts to pass tests and exams; once the goal has been reached, the motivation to learn rapidly goes away (and so does what has been temporarily memorised just to pass the test or exam).


Students learn the language because they need it for some reason—for example, because they are immigrants, they need it for their job, or they are planning to move to a country where the language is spoken. This type of motivation typically applies to young adults and adults learning English for social or professional purposes. It can lead to the development of good language skills, but it does not appear to be long-lasting; once the need has been satisfied (or, at least, so thinks the learner) this type of motivation disappears.


Students learn the language because they associate it with a positive experience. Learning another language can stimulate different kinds of pleasure, such as having new experiences, socialising, discovering something new, undertaking a challenge, systematizing knowledge, etc. This type of motivation is the only ‘internally driven’ one, so it is likely to be long-lasting and lead to the best results in terms of skills and competence. Since English is a mandatory subject in school programs all over the world, it comes as no surprise that many learners—with and without dyslexia—study it because they have to. A key factor here is the quality of their school experience; the more English is presented in an engaging way, the more motivation based on pleasure can arise. In the case of learners with dyslexia, research shows that some can have a positive attitude towards foreign languages, which they see as a way of ‘getting their own back’ by learning a new language from scratch (Daloiso, 2012).

Others may display negative attitudes; they ‘get caught in a vicious circle because, due to their problems in language learning, they lose their motivation, which then might lead to experiencing further failures’ (Kormos & Csizér, 2010). Studies in the neurobiology of learning suggest that motivation is not just ‘rational willingness’. It is, rather, connected to—and influenced by—the emotional feelings that learners experience during classroom learning; thus, the environmental context plays a pivotal role in sustaining motivation. An influential approach in the field is the stimulus appraisal theory, which has also been applied to foreign language learning (Schumann, 1997; Schumann et al., 2004) and motivational patterns shown by learners with dyslexia (Daloiso, 2012). This theory argues that all learners make evaluations of learning situations along the following five main parameters.


Learners evaluate whether the stimulus is new or whether it has been experienced previously. Novelty can be evaluated positively or negatively, depending on its connection to the other parameters; for instance, surprise tests are, of course, novel, as they are unexpected, but they can be perceived as threatening and unpleasant by learners. In the teaching of foreign languages, novelty (for example, new activities/materials/videos) is generally considered a good strategy to attract learners’ attention. However, novelty without structure might lead some learners to become confused and demotivated. This is particularly true for learners with dyslexia, who benefit from clear presentations and direct instruction (Schneider & Crombie, 2003).


Learners evaluate whether the stimulus itself is pleasant. Pleasantness is a subjective criterion, since it depends on one’s learning preferences, aptitude, and beliefs about foreign language learning. Some learners with dyslexia typically associate English language learning with duty rather than pleasure, and this contributes to higher levels of anxiety resulting from an awareness of their learning difference. It is important not only to employ strategies to reduce such anxiety but also to know the students’ learning strengths and help them associate English with their personal interests. This is true for all learners, but it becomes essential for those who experience fragile motivation, as do some learners with dyslexia.

Goal/Need significance

Learners evaluate whether the stimulus will help or hinder them in achieving their goals or needs. Learners with dyslexia might have unrealistic expectations about language learning, either in a positive or in a negative way. Some might overestimate their capabilities and ask to do all the activities with no accommodation. For instance, they might ask to read aloud in class, which could be painful for them and also boring for their classmates. It is very important to build rapport with students and explain the reasons why some activities need to be done in a certain way in order to be useful to them. This does not imply that learners should be denied the opportunity of showing that they are making an effort—and maybe progress. In the case of reading aloud, you could ask them to record themselves as they are reading aloud at home and to bring you the file so you can listen to it and give appropriate personalized feedback. Other learners might underestimate their own capabilities, especially if they have had negative experiences in foreign language learning in the past. Teachers should get across to them that there is no such thing as a ‘foreign language learning disability’ (Sparks, 2006); that dyslexia can cause some difficulties, but with appropriate accommodations students can experience success in language learning.

Coping ability

‘Coping’ refers to learners’ assessment of whether or not they are capable of dealing with a situation, for example doing an activity, assignment, or a test. As mentioned above, learners tend to overestimate or underestimate their potential, but with learners with dyslexia, sometimes there are objective reasons for them to feel they cannot cope with tasks such as spelling tests or dictations. Teachers should identify activities that might cause frustration and come up with alternatives (for example, by adapting or replacing them). However, accommodations should be accompanied by ‘empowerment’ activities, for example the explicit teaching of learning strategies to help learners improve their coping abilities and learning autonomy.

Self-esteem and relationships

Learners evaluate how engaging in a situation might affect their self- and social image. As regards their relationship with the teacher, some learners with dyslexia might become very anxious because they feel they are always being tested, so it is essential to let them know when formal testing is taking place and when the activity proposed is just for practice. In terms of their relationship with classmates, they might be reluctant to do cooperative work or activities in front of the class because they feel that their learning difference is not understood or accepted. It is therefore important to take measures to raise class awareness of dyslexia.

Supporting Learners with Dyslexia in the ELT Classroom by Michele Daloiso was announced in February 2018 as the winner of the 2017 Ben Warren Prize, a biennial prize for language teaching titles.

ELT Dyslexia

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