Dyslexia, Metacognition and Learning Styles

Dr. Gavin Reid
University of Edinburgh, Scotland

This paper focuses on the literacy and learning needs of dyslexic children. In addressing the needs of dyslexic children it is important to consider aspects relating to learning, such as metacognition and learning styles, as well as strategies and programs to boost reading and spelling. This paper will therefore look at some background factors relating to dyslexia; the role of metacognition in helping to access print and gain an understanding of text and the importance of learning styles in recognising children's learning preferences and utilising these in literacy programs.

Established Principles

The traditional view of teaching dyslexic children is based on a number of well founded principles (Pumfrey and Reason 1992, Reid 1998, Ott 1998, Johnson, Philips and Peer 1999). These principles tend to suggest that dyslexic children would benefit from a teaching programe that is characterised by its multisensory, sequential, cumulative and structured nature. Often this type of programe is implemented on a one to one basis with considerable overlearning. While this procedure can be effective for those with a low base line in literacy, it is suggested here that it can perform a mis-service to many dyslexic children by overlooking learning styles, potential in thinking skills and metacognitive aspects of learning. This latter aspect is of considerable importance. Some key aspects of learning include, learning from previous learning and in particular using strategies and rules from previous learning to new learning thereby enhancing the efficiency of the task of learning.

The Role of Metacognition and Learning Styles

It is suggested that dyslexic children may have difficulty with the metacognitive aspects of learning (Tunmer and Chapman 1996) which implies that they need to be shown how to learn, for example through identifying connections and relationships between different learning tasks. This essentially means the emphasis should not necessarily be on the content nor the product of learning but the process, that is, how learning takes place. Related to this is the view that the learning process should also be consistent and conducive to the dyslexic child's learning preferences, therefore learning styles need to be considered alongside the need to develop metacognitive awareness. These two aspects can be reciprocal and together they focus not on the symptoms of the dyslexic difficulty, as so many traditional programs do, but on the fundamental principles of learning and the learning process (Given and Reid 1999). This view is further highlighted if one considers the cognitive and processing aspects of dyslexia which implies that dyslexia is more than a reading difficulty but rather one which relates to information processing. The cognitive and metacognitive aspects involved in the learning process are important and help to understand the strategies needed to address the difficulty experienced by dyslexic children.

Research in Dyslexia- Developments and Dimensions

There is little doubt that research in dyslexia and its impact on practice has increased in recent years. There has been considerable activity for example in the area of phonological awareness, and this is reflected in the development of assessment and teaching materials such as the Phonological Abilities Test (Muter, Hulme and Snowling 1997), the Phonological Assessment Battery (Fredrickson et.al. 1997) and many phonological teaching approaches such as Sound Linkage (Hatcher 1994),the Phonological Awareness Training Programe (Wilson 1993) and the Multisensory Teaching System for Reading (Johnson, Philips and Peer 1999). This particular area of research is highlighted because of its direct impact on teaching and classroom practices. There are indeed many other important developments that have also made an impact on practice.

Three overlapping dimensions can be identified- neurological / biological; psychological/cognitive and the educational / classroom dimensions. These dimensions illustrate the breadth of the current research activity associated with dyslexia and the range of professionals undertaking research from the field education, psychology, speech and language therapy, occupational and movement therapy and other clinical and health professions.

Neurological/ Biological

The work of Galaburda (1993) has had a significant impact in both the conceptualisation of dyslexia and its impact on practice. Essentially Galaburda suggests that the processing patterns of dyslexic people in the left and right hemispheres show differences in relation to non-dyslexics. The implication of this is that dyslexic children and adults can have right hemisphere skills that can place them at a disadvantage in left hemisphere tasks, such as reading accuracy. Right hemisphere processing relates to tasks that require a 'global' holistic approach while left hemisphere processing involves analyses of detail and small chunks of information.

West (1997) has utilised Galaburda's research to show that dyslexic people who are right hemisphere processors can actually be at an advantage in some situations. This emphasises the positive side of dyslexia.

Bakker (1994) in his 'balance model' of reading, which has been replicated in different countries (Robertson 1997), identifies different types of readers - 'perceptual' and 'linguistic' each with a different hemispheric preference and each has implications for teaching. Bakker (1998) has shown some hereditary trends in his research and the work of Castles et.al (1999) and Stein (2000) has done much to advance the knowledge base relating to genetic aspects of dyslexia.

There is also evidence of visual factors relating to dyslexia. Eden et al (1996) shows how dyslexics can have abnormalities associated with the magno-cellular sub- system of the visual cortex and the work of Stein (1995) has revealed convergence difficulties and Wilkins (1995) has shown how some dyslexics may benefit from, for example, coloured overlays due to difficulties in some visual processes.

Fawcett, Nicolson and Dean (1996) have shown how cerebellar impairment may be implicated with dyslexia and may be linked to difficulties in phonological processing as well as balance. These factors are represented in the Dyslexia Screening Test (Fawcett and Nicolson (1996).

Psychological / Cognitive

In general terms dyslexia can be viewed as a difficulty with phonological processing. Stanovitch's phonological core deficit model was influential in this area and the work of Fredrickson, Frith and Reason (1997) highlights the importance of this in the development of the Phonological Assessment Battery.

Hagtvet (1997) in a Norwegian study showed that a phonological deficit at age six was the strongest predictor of reading difficulties. Other studies such as Hulme (1997) has shown speech rate to be a strong predictor of dyslexic difficulties and this is reflected in the development of the Phonological Abilities Test (Muter, Hulme , Snowling 1997).

Wolf (1996) highlights the double deficit hypothesis indicating that dyslexics can have difficulties with both phonological processing and naming speed. It is interesting that speed of processing and semantic fluency are included in some of the recently produced tests for dyslexic children. Badian (1997) in a further study shows evidence for a triple deficit hypotheses implying that orthographic factors involving visual skills should also be considered.

Similarly difficulties in automaticity (Fawcett and Nicolson (1992) implies that dyslexic people may not readily consolidate new learning and therefore may find it difficult to change inappropriate learning habits. Other processing difficulties have also been linked to dyslexia such as auditory processing (Johanson 1997) from which a programe of sound therapy has been developed. Some related motor integration programs have also been developed from this research programe (Dobie 1998).

Education / Classroom Dimensions

It is encouraging that research is impacting on practice. In the U.K. many Education Authorities have policies on dyslexia including details on staff development, classroom based assessment, computer programs and curriculum materials focusing on differentiation all of which can help facilitate access to the full curriculum for dyslexic children. Early identification and early intervention are seen as priority areas and recent research and materials help to support this. For example Weedon and Reid, (2001) have produced the Listening and Literacy Index which is a screening and profiling battery which can be administered to whole class groups.

Given and Reid (1999) have highlighted the importance of learning styles and dyslexia. There is also an increased interest in bilingual dyslexic learners (Peer and Reid 2000) and Smythe et al (2000) are developing an International Dyslexia Test to deal with dyslexia in different languages.


The role of metacognition in learning is of great importance as this relates to the learner's awareness of thinking and learning. Tunmer and Chapman (1996) have shown how dyslexic children have poor metacognitive awareness and this leads them to adopt inappropriate learning behaviours in reading and spelling.

Essentially metacognition relates to thinking about thinking, being aware of the learning process and utilising that in new learning. The teacher then has an instrumental role to play in developing metacognitive awareness (Peer and Reid 2001). This can be done by asking the student some fundamental questions and through observing the learning behaviour of students such as the example below:

Facilitating Metacognitive Awareness

When tackling a new task does the child demonstrate self-assessment by asking questions such as:

  • Have I done this before?
  • How did I tackle it?
  • What did I find easy?
  • What was difficult?
  • Why did I find it easy or difficult?
  • What did I learn?
  • What do I have to do to accomplish this task?
  • How should I tackle it?
  • Should I tackle it the same way as before?

Metacognitive Strategies

The use of metacognitive strategies can help to develop reading comprehension and expressive writing skills. Some specific metacognitive strategies include:

  • Visual imagery - discussing and sketching images from text

  • Summary sentences - identify the main ideas in text

  • Webbing- the use of concept maps of the ideas from a text

  • Self-interrogation - ask questions about what learners already know about a topic and what they may be expected to learn from the new passage.

It is important to consider some of the elements identified by Wray (1994) regarding the skills displayed by good readers as these provide a good example of metacognitive awareness in reading.

Skills displayed by good readers (Wray 1994)

Good readers usually:

  • Generate questions while they read
  • Monitor and resolve comprehension problems
  • Utilise mental images as they read
  • Re-read when necessary and
  • Self-correct if an error has made when reading

Using those factors described by Wray it is important therefore to ensure that the reader has a clear picture of the purpose of reading and an understanding of the text about to be read. There is considerable evidence to suggest that pre-reading discussion can enhance reading fluency and understanding.

Learning Styles

Learning is a process and this applies to literacy, as well as to other aspects, particularly as literacy usually plays a central role in learning. It is important therefore to focus on the information processing cycle and to consider potential metacognitive and learning styles aspects within the information processing cycle.

The stages of the information processing cycle essentially relate to input, cognition and output. Some suggestions and the importance of each of these stages are shown below. This is particularly important for dyslexic children as they can show difficulties at each of the stages of information processing.


  • Acknowledge the students preferred learning style

  • Information should be presented in small units

  • It should be ensured that overlearning is used and this should be varied using a range of materials

  • Key points should be presented at the initial stage of learning new material.


  • Organisational strategies should be encouraged. This means that the new material to be learned should be organised into meaningful chunks or categories at each of the stages of the information processing stages.

  • Information should be related to previous knowledge to ensure that concepts are clear and the information can be placed into a learning framework or schema by the learner.

  • Some specific memory strategies such as mind mapping and mnemonics can be used.


  • Use headings and sub headings in written work to help provide a structure.

  • Encourage the use of summaries in order to identify the key points.

Learning Style Approaches

The above can highlight the importance of learning styles as a crucial factor in all stages of the information processing cycle. At present there are more than 100 instruments especially designed to identify individual learning styles. Most were developed to evaluate narrow aspects of learning such as preference for visual, auditory, tactual or kinaesthetic input (Grinder 1991). Others are far more elaborate and focus on factors primarily associated with personality issues such as intuition, active experimentation and reflection (Gregorc 1982, 1985; Kolb 1984; Lawrence 1993; Mc Carthy 1987).

Many approaches attempt to identify how individuals process information in terms of its input, memory and expressive functions (Witkin and Goodenough 1981). A few theorists emphasize the body's role in learning and promote cross-lateral movement in hopes of integrating the left and right brain hemispheric activity (Dennison and Dennison 1989). Some perspectives of learning style approaches are briefly described below:

  • Riding and Raynor (1998) combine cognitive style with learning strategies. They describe cognitive style as a constraint which includes basic aspects of an individuals psychology such as feeling (affect), doing (behaviour) and knowing (cognition) and the individuals cognitive style relates to how these factors are structured and organised.

  • Kolb's (1984) Learning Style Inventory is a derivative of Jung's psychological types combined with Piaget's emphasis on assimilation and accommodation; Lewin's action research model and Dewey's purposeful, experiential learning. Kolb's 12-item inventory yields four types of learners: divergers, assimilators, convergers and accomodators.

  • The Dunn and Dunn approach (Dunn, Dunn & Price (1996) Learning Styles Inventory contains 104 items that produce a profile of learning style preferences in five domains (environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological and psychological) and 21 elements across those domains. These domains and elements include; environmental ( sound, light, temperature, design); emotional) (motivation, persistence, responsibility, structure); sociological (learning by self, pairs, peers, team, with an adult), physiological (perceptual preference, food and drink intake, time of day, mobility), and psychological (global or analytic preferences, impulsive and reflective).

  • Given (1998) constructed a new model of learning styles derived from some key elements of other models. This model consists of emotional learning (the need to be motivated by one's own interests), social learning (the need to belong to a compatible group), cognitive learning (the need to know what age-mates know), physical learning (the need to do and be actively involved in learning), and reflective learning (the need to experiment and explore to find what circumstances work best for new learning).

Learning styles using observational criteria

In addition to using standardised instruments, learning styles may be identified to a certain extent through classroom observation. It should be noted that observation in itself may not be sufficient to fully identify learning styles, but the use of a framework for collecting observational data can yield considerable information and can complement the results from more formal assessment.

Observational assessment can be diagnostic, because it is flexible, adaptable and can be used in natural settings with interactive activities. Reid and Given (1999) have developed such a framework - the Interactive Observational Style Identification (IOSI). A summary of this is shown below;


  • Motivation;
    • What topics, tasks and activities interest the child?
    • What kind of prompting and cueing is necessary to increase motivation?
    • What kind of incentives motivate the child - leadership opportunities, working with others, free time or physical activity.

  • Persistence;
    • Does the child stick to a task until completion without breaks?
    • Are frequent breaks necessary when working on difficult tasks?

  • Responsibility
    • To what extent does the child take responsibility for his/her own learning?
    • Does the child attribute success or failure to self or others?

  • Structure
    • Are the child's personal effects (desk, clothing, materials well organised or cluttered?
    • How does the child respond to someone imposing organisational structure on him/her?


  • Interaction
    • When is the child's best work accomplished - when working alone, with one another or in a small group?
    • Does the child ask for approval or needs to have work checked frequently?

  • Communication
    • Does the child give the main events and gloss over the details?
    • Does the child interrupt others when they are talking?


  • Modality preference
    • What type of instructions does the child most easily understand- written, oral or visual?
    • Does the child respond more quickly and easily to questions about stories heard or read?

  • Sequential or Simultaneous learning
    • Does the child begin with one step and proceed in an orderly fashion or have difficulty following sequential information?
    • is there a logical sequence to the child's explanations or do her/his thoughts bounce around from one idea to another?
    • Impulsive / reflective
    • Are the child's responses rapid and spontaneous or delayed and reflective?
    • Does the child seem to consider past events before taking action?


  • Mobility
    • Does the child move around the class frequently or fidget when seated?
    • Does the child like to stand or walk while learning something new?

  • Food intake
    • Does the child snack or chew on a pencil when studying?

  • Time of day
    • during which time of day is the child most alert?
    • Is there a noticeable difference between morning work completed and afternoon work?


  • Sound
    • Does the child seek out places that are particularly quiet?

  • Light
    • Does the child like to work in dimly lit areas or say that the light is to bright?

  • Temperature
    • Does the child leave his/her coat on when others seem warm?

  • Furniture Design
    • When given a choice does the child sit on the floor, lie down, or sit in a straight chair to read?

  • Metacognition
    • Is the child aware of his/her learning style strengths?
    • Does the child demonstrate self- assessment

  • Prediction
    • Does the child make plans and work towards goals or let things happen?

  • Feedback
    • How does the child respond to different types of feedback?
    • How much external prompting is needed before the child can access previous knowledge?

There are too many manifestations of style to observe all at once. One way to begin the observation process is to select one of the learning systems and progress from there. The insights usually become greater as observation progresses.


It is suggested here that consideration of learning styles and metacognitive approaches can be useful for dyslexic children, indeed all children. Dyslexic children however in view of the difficulties which they can experience in input, cognition and output may find that learning styles approaches provides them with an opportunity to focus and utilise their differences in learning to access print and the full curriculum.


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