Dyslexia and Online Tutoring

When I was teaching in a classroom, the word ‘dyslexia’ scared me... 

It was something I didn’t understand and something I didn’t know how to address in my teaching. Now that I have taken the time to look into it, I feel silly for not doing so earlier. There are clear, simple steps that teachers and students can take to make lesson content clearer and easier to digest for everyone. 

In this article, I am going to discuss dyslexia with specific reference to online tutoring and hopefully make things a bit simpler for everyone involved! 

Ultimately, this is about improving the experience of dyslexic students in online education. As parents, students and educators we have the power to address this need. 

What is dyslexia?

Dyslexia is officially defined as a learning disability which is characterised by difficulty with recognising/decoding words and spelling. The most common type of dyslexia, developmental dyslexia, is neurobiological - people are born with it (Lyon et al., 2003). However, many researchers suggest that dyslexia can cause a range of difficulties including, but not limited to:

  • auditory and/or visual processing of language-based information
  • phonological awareness
  • oral language skills and reading fluency
  • short-term and working memory
  • sequencing and directionality
  • number skills
  • organisational ability

(What Is Dyslexia | Addressing Dyslexia, 2017)

There is disagreement around the specific percentage of people affected by it, but it could be as many as 20% - 1 in 5 people. Something that is agreed on is that it is the most common neurocognitive disorder among young people (Dyslexia FAQ - Yale Dyslexia). For this reason, we need to make sure that all teachers, tutors and students know how to make dyslexic lives a bit easier. 

How does it actually affect people?

The specific explanations of dyslexia can be very detailed, so I will attempt to paraphrase as best as I can. The most common difficulty among all dyslexic individuals is the lack of clear connection between the sounds, or phonemes, they use when speaking and the letters or groups of letters, graphemes, that are used in reading and writing to represent them.

For the neurotypical individual, their brain makes connections between sounds and letters quickly and reliably, which in turn allows them to read and write fluently (without really thinking about it). For dyslexic individuals, a difference in the structure of their brain makes it more difficult to make these connections. As a result, they might struggle to recognise whole words, sound out new words and spell in general. 

Another significant difficulty listed above is with one’s short-term or working memory (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). When you work out the sum ‘4x10’, you store these numbers temporarily in your working memory while you manipulate them to work out the sum.

Once you’re finished, you would hold the answer, 40, in your short-term memory ready to speak aloud or write down. How confident would you feel during this process if you forgot the original numbers halfway through, or if the 4 changed to a 3 as you were manipulating them in your working memory?

Perhaps more significant than these are the knock-on effects of these difficulties. The majority of primary school English lessons are spent trying to work on the skills of reading and spelling. How would it make you feel to spend years on these skills, always finding it harder than your classmates, always feeling that you have to work twice as hard to get the same results on tests?

Continued difficulties in a key skill such as this can begin a vicious cycle where you feel unmotivated to try, and therefore fall even further behind. Attitude is a huge part of learning, and it's extremely difficult to stay positive about something that is unusually difficult. 

Therefore, what we need are teachers who are aware of these difficulties, and knowledgeable in ways to address and help them. Even better, we need teachers with these skills who can spend extra time 1 on 1 with students to help them close this gap. This is where online tutors can make a huge difference!

What can schools do?

The first and most important step is identification. The earlier, the better. Appropriate support can prevent a gap forming between the individual and their classmates, prevent negative attitudes towards schoolwork and give the individual time to work out strategies that best help them.

Once this step is done, one of the most significant helps can be extra time for assessments and exams. Outside of examinations, schools can run intervention sessions that give dyslexic students extra time to work on key skills or knowledge. These sessions can also give them a less pressured environment to work out their preferred strategies. 

How can dyslexia affect online learning?

The internet has transformed the way people live. Suddenly, we have almost infinite information available to us at all times, anywhere. However, what are the necessary skills for accessing this information? What skills might be necessary for a Google search for example? You guessed it: reading, writing and information organisation.

Researchers compared two groups of university students carrying out an essay assignment: a dyslexic group and a neurotypical group. They found that the dyslexic group experienced notable barriers to success such as keyword generation, expanding or refining online searches and evaluating sources (Cole et al., 2016)

Luckily, in online tuition, the tutor will have taken the time to prepare materials, activities and resources in general. This can avoid difficulties that dyslexic individuals might experience in navigating the internet, but it doesn’t remove every barrier. Below are some specific difficulties that students might face paired with specific strategies tutors can use to address them.


Most tutoring sessions will require students to read objectives, questions or tasks. Whenever this is the case, especially for longer pieces of text, the tutor can read aloud. However, to make sure this is beneficial to the student it can be useful to have the student track what is being read with their mouse cursor.

This can be seen by both the student and tutor and is a great sign that the student is benefitting from the reading. This works best as a habit, but it takes time to build habits up. The student and tutor have to be patient as the first few times might feel unusual. 


The skill of putting your ideas into your own words is vital. It is of course essential that students practice this themselves. However, there are some points in lessons when the tutor wants the students to practice developing their ideas. When the thinking process is more important than the writing, it can be extremely useful if the tutor acts as a scribe, writing down what the student says as they say it.

This can be beneficial to all students. In my own English lessons, my students will often say “I have no idea how to put this into words!” When I ask them to answer the question verbally and write down their answer for them, they shock themselves with how well they explain and develop their idea. 

For the English tutors and English students out there, we need to talk about the elephant in the room… For most exam boards in the UK, you will be marked on spelling and grammar (SpaG) for parts of your exam. In this case, having someone write for you seems counter-intuitive.

In our case, we want to practice little and often. In each lesson, reserve 5 minutes to mark one paragraph for SpaG. Communicate which paragraph this will be before the student starts it so that they can go into ‘SpaG mode’.

Self-marking is best, so use the highlight tool to mark where there should be capital letters, full stops, and any other specific punctuation you’ve been working on recently. From there, check if the necessary basics have been put in before moving on to more complex checks. 

Digital Tools

One of the best features of tutoring with Sherpa is the virtual classroom. It allows the tutor to manipulate the learning space quickly, add or remove text and numbers or quickly direct attention to specific things. As mentioned before, dyslexia can inhibit working and short-term memory.

When you write quick notes down, however, it frees up space in these memory stores and prevents any misremembering or forgetting. Here are some actions that could be helpful:

  • Write down notes as you talk for later. 
  • Zoom in to the specific part of the page that is relevant to the current task or topic. Reducing information on the screen can prevent students from getting overwhelmed. Also, larger text can only help. 
  • Use colour or font to make key information stand out. This saves the student time and wasted effort scanning through lesson content repeatedly. 
  • Remind your students that lessons are recorded and notes can be downloaded. Everyone wants to cover as much content as possible in the lesson, but sometimes we need to go back over things to make sure it sticks. 

Something to remember for tutors is that we start each session in ‘lead mode’ which will prevent students from zooming in where they need to. Consider switching it off where appropriate to give your student more autonomy. 

Key Takeaways

  • Dyslexia is the most common learning difficulty in the world. Every tutor is likely to teach a dyslexic student and every classroom is likely to have dyslexic students in it. This is something that needs to be understood and addressed!
  • Anytime you’re doing something in a lesson that isn’t talking, a dyslexic student is going to find it a least a little bit more difficult than usual. Work together to find out what is most difficult, and find the strategies that work best. 
  • Starting to use all of the suggested strategies at once is overwhelming and unrealistic. Pick one and practice using it until it becomes a habit, then move on to the next one. 
  • Take time to explore the tools in the online classroom and make it work for you. 

If you’re reading as a parent and you’re worried about getting a tutor who can address particular needs, switch on the “SEN experience’ filter in your search and ask questions to anyone who looks like they can help!

Dyslexia benefits significantly from 1 to 1 attention in a relaxed environment (Galuschka et al., 2020) and online tutoring is a great way to create that. With the tools and research available to us in 2023, dyslexia doesn’t have to be a significant barrier to learning. All we need is the right support. 


Atkinson, R., & Shiffrin, R. (1968). Human Memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 2, 89-195.

Cole, L., MacFarlane, A., & Buchanan, G. (2016, 12 13). Does dyslexia present barriers to information literacy in an online environment? A pilot study. Strategic and policy making issues in information literacy, 40(123).

Dyslexia FAQ - Yale Dyslexia. (n.d.). Yale Center for Dyslexia. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from

Galuschka, K., Gorgen, R., & Kalmar, J. (2020, January). Effectiveness of spelling interventions for learners with dyslexia: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Educational Pscyhologist, 55(1).

Lyon, G. R., Shaywitz, S. E., & Shaywitz, B. A. (2003, January). A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia.

What is Dyslexia | Addressing Dyslexia. (2017, March). Addressing Dyslexia. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from

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An experienced and qualified English teacher - KS3, GCSE, A-Level

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