Understanding Literacy Difficulties & Learning Differences: Guest Post by Annette Tofaeono

How Can Tertiary Educators Better Support Adult Learners with Learning Difficulties?

Below is a guest post from my friend and colleague Annette Tofaeono. Her research for her Masters degree was in learning differences and literacy difficulties. If you cite her work. please use the following attribution:

  • Tofaeono, A. (2020). Challenges faced by tertiary educators wanting to better support learners with literacy difficulties. [Master’s thesis, The University of Waikato]

If you’re too lazy to read it, here’s a quick summary:

The Simple View of Reading (SVR) theory identifies different reading difficulties like Hyperlexia and Dyslexia. Reading success depends on decoding and listening comprehension. In Tertiary Education Organisations, literacy difficulties might arise if the content is written above the required level. Low literacy levels could reflect a lack of schooling, rather than inadequate literacy skills. A multisensory approach to learning benefits all learners, and reading is crucial for academic success.

Understanding Learning Differences and Literacy Difficulties: Guest Post by Annette Tofaeono

The Causes of Literacy Difficulties

The Causes of Literacy Difficulties  

Much debate surrounds how we learn to read and write and the knowledge and skills that are essential in the reading process. The simple view of reading (SVR) (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Ministry of Education, 2008) is a theory that draws attention to the different forms of reading difficulties. Decoding alone is not adequate to enable proficient reading but is a vital component of the reading process. The SVR presents the following formula as indicators for reading success: R = D x LC (Reading = Decoding x Listening Comprehension). Therefore, reading problems can include Hyperlexia: good decoding and poor listening comprehension; Dyslexia: good listening comprehension and poor decoding, and Mixed problems: poor listening comprehension and poor decoding (Gough & Tunmer, 1986). The SVR model has had its predictions tested with well over 300 citations from researchers becoming the most widely cited theoretical model of reading (Dymock & Nicholson, 2012). SVR categorises different forms of reading difficulties (see Table 1).  

The Simple View of Reading   

Poor oral language comprehensionGood oral language comprehension
Good decodingSpecific reading comprehension difficultiesNo reading difficulties
Poor decodingMixed problemsDyslexia

Tunmer and Greaney (2010) describe dyslexia as a discrepancy between reading achievement and intellectual potential subsequently measured by standardised testing. Children with dyslexia can have two to three years of exposure to reading instruction before the detection of dyslexia. Tunmer and Greaney (2010) refer to this as the “wait to fail” approach (p. 231) with the view that this proceeds to cumulate towards adverse results of the Matthew Effect (Stanovich, 1986). Matthew Effect highlights the deficit effect of difficulties when learning to read. The term the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is suitably used in the con-+text of reading acquisition and can contribute significantly to the regress in literacy progress in the adult sector.  

A potential cause for perceived literacy difficulties in a TEO could occur due to the literacy content of a programme being written above the required literacy level. For example, a Level Three programme with content and resources pitched at Level Five. Therefore, tauira studying appropriately at that level may have trouble in being able to access and understand the content. With the use of the Flesch Kincaid (Flesch Kincaid, n.d) readability formula, one  workbook per level of programme was analysed in a large tertiary organisation in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Readability formula estimates the difficulty of the text.  

The analysis included programmes from Level Two to Level Six. The New Zealand Qualification Framework (NZQF) consists of 10 levels and covers a range of qualifications from certificates to doctoral degrees. The programme level represents the complexity of the learning; for example, a Level One certificate is the least difficult. New Zealand secondary schools work towards National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), which covers and is equivalent to Level One to Three of the NZQF (New Zealand Qualifications Authority, n.d.).  

The lowest readability score was 27.3 and the highest readability score was 46.2 based on a scale of 0-100. The higher the scale, the easier the test. A score of 46 would be considered difficult to read and is written at a 17-18-year-old level. All of these programmes fall into the difficult to read category, which lends itself to the challenges this could pose to a learner trying to learn above their current literacy level. The National Centre of Literacy and Numeracy for Adults (2017) developed a whole of organisation self-assessment tool for embedded literacy and numeracy user guide that includes how to review programme design and development. This is a useful guide to ensure effective and appropriate literacy content.  

Gee (2007) suggests that we must be mindful that low literacy levels may reflect a lack of schooling rather than a lack of adequate literacy skills and encourages us to gain meta-knowledge about possible discourses presented within our tauira. Therefore, many adults may not have gained the essential reading and writing skills in their early years of education. They will use most of their cognitive resources trying to deal with what they do not know, in turn leaving them with limited capacity for comprehending and constructing meaning (Tertiary Education Commission, 2010a; Lambie, 2018). Use of a multisensory approach to learning is encouraged and beneficial for all tauira. This is instruction linked to visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learning (Henry, 2010; Elliot & Grigorenko, 2014; Kelly & Phillips, 2011). Guthrie (2008) stresses that reading underlies all forms of academic study and is crucial to academic success. 


Dymock, S., & Nicholson, T. (2012). Dyslexia decoded: What it is, what it isn’t and what you can do about it. Auckland, New Zealand: Dunmore Press. 

Elliot, J. G., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2014). The dyslexia debate. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 

Flesch Kincaid. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.webfx.com/tools/read-able/flesch-kincaid.html 

Gee, J. P. (2007). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (3rd ed.). London, England: Routledge. 

Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6-10. 

Guthrie, J.T. (2008). Reading motivation and engagement in middle and high school: Appraisal and intervention’. In J.T. Guthrie (Ed.), Engaging adolescents in reading. London, England: Corwin Press. 

Henry, M. K. (2010). Unlocking literacy: Effective decoding and spelling instruction (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MA: Paul H. Brooks. 

Kelly, K., & Phillips, S. (2011). Teaching literacy to learners with dyslexia: A multisensory approach. London, England: SAGE. 

Lambie, I. (2018). Using evidence to build a better justice system: The challenge of rising prison costs. Auckland, NZ: Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor. Available from http://www.pmcsa.ac.nz. 

Ministry of Education. (2008). About dyslexia. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education. 

National Centre of Literacy & Numeracy for Adults. (2017). A whole of organisation Self-Assessment Tool for Embedded Literacy and Numeracy: User Guide. Hamilton, New Zealand: Author. 

New Zealand Qualifications Authority. (n.d.). Understanding New Zealand Qualifications. Retrieved from https://www.nzqa.govt.nz/studying-in-new-zealand/understand-nz-quals 

Tertiary Education Commission (TEC). (2010a). Starting points: Assessment guide. Wellington, New Zealand: Tertiary Education Commission. Retrieved from http://www.tec.govt.nz/ 

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

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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