The Wall of Awful Literacy

Here is a very simple way to improve literacy for highly creative, imaginative students.

I listened to Brandan Mahan ( recently talking about The Wall of Awful – a metaphor to describe how students get stuck and how they can start knocking down the bricks.  We can all build up walls to protect us from things we find hard.  Although Brendan developed this great metaphor for ADHD, it is just as appropriate to us all, when we get stuck.

It resonated with how we enable creative, imaginative, often Dyslexic students to improve literacy and numeracy through the use of their internal mental images, that are already strong for pictures.  So, this is my interpretation of the Wall of Awful when applied to using visual skills for literacy and numeracy, through the lens of Empowering Learning ( Thank you Brendan.

The emotions in these walls can grow rapidly as we repeatedly fail. What emotions are in your wall? – disappointment, rejection, fear, shame, failure, want to quit, being bullied, comparison with other students, worry, impulsive, feeling stupid, feeling ashamed of myself.

So, what can we do about the Wall of Awful for Literacy.

1.      Stare at it (freeze)

Unfortunately staring at the problem without changing your approach is not going to help.

2.      Go around it (flight)

  • Get parents to do your homework
  • Do only what you know that you are good at and leave the rest – the problem here is that the wall gets wider the more you practice this one and you get left behind.
  • You are also practising incompetence with the wrong skills.

3.      Get angry and throw things around (fight)

Many parents and teachers will have seen this one in action and although it generates a bit more energy, it is unlikely to be channeled in the right direction.

4.      Put doors in the Wall

This is where the useful strategies start.  How can the student start to change the emotions and create doors and windows in the wall? The object is to quickly and easily move the student from “I can’t, I’m stupid” to “I can do that.”  Some people refer to these as brain hacks or scaffolding. Note that 1-5 are just as appropriate to ADHD as Dyslexia and poor literacy.  The big thing here is to do something different rather than keep repeating what the student can’t do, that only creates more bricks as they practice incompetence. We need to see them turn on their learning switch.

  1. You can change the environment by for example taking breaks, move, going out in the garden, exercising, laying down, walking around, playing motivational music, etc
  2. Look up – things are looking up and you will be out of negative emotions.
  3. Work on the student’s interests and their strengths. Reading and spelling best relates to anything that interests them.
  4. Good breathing, sleep and grounding to calm mental images. Tracing a labyrinth may also help.
  5. Using coloured overlays or tinted glasses
  6. Check out simple primitive reflexes that maybe retained
  7. Raising the book when reading, will get them out of negative emotions
  8. Get out of performance anxiety by reading aloud to the dog, a baby or yourself
  9. Start with the easy stuff
  10. Scribe for your kids without changing anything or use Dragon.  Then ask the child to read their own words back – can be amazing
  11. Suggest reading comics that have speech bubbles in capital letters
  12. Write in capital letters
  13. DK or Barrington stoke books may help
  14. Copy down writing without looking at the paper
  15. Find just one word several times in a book, like squirrel and as they are searching see what happens.
  16. Write on the wall so you don’t look down.
  17. Make the student feel safe
  18. When someone is reading a story (parent or teacher), make up pictures or movies in your head so you can remember
  19. Apologise to the student, it is not your fault – you aren’t being taught in a way that works for you.  There is nothing wrong with you, the educational system is out of date for highly creative, imaginative students.

5.      Climb the Wall, you need hand-holds to make progress, which takes effort

Look at, we have a network of trained practitioners who have extensive experience in visual learning and in particular using images of words, to improve literacy and images of numbers to improve numeracy.  Join one of my Dyslexia workshops. You can register at Here is a summary of the steps:

  1. Give the student a brief summary of the neuroscience, brain plasticity, breathing, sleeping and grounding – why the topics above (1-19) work.
  2. Learn to visualise words. Practice with small nouns (start with the easiest, success increases dopamine/motivation and slowly get longer)
  3. Move to longer nouns
  4. Explain how to do non-nouns
  5. Check out other primitive reflexes that maybe retained and sensory differentiation to reduce sensory overload.
  6. Move away from looking at behavior to being curious about what is driving the behavior.
  7. Learn touch typing
  8. Read out loud to others
  9. Decode new words with phonics
  10. Reduce sibling rivalry
  11. When at your desk look up when writing
  12. Parents or an Empowering Learning coach can get you started.  Rapid practice of successes is essential for building confidence
  13. Visualise number triangles to help with times tables
  14. Use techniques such as EFT (tapping) or Energetic NLP, to release sticky emotions. Feel the feeling and learn how to release it.  Squashing it down, it will just explode later.

My name is Olive Hickmott; I would be pleased to support you in any way I can.
You are welcome to contact me
Please register here to follow my blog at
You will find other useful informationat
You can check out some new resources on my learning platform
Here is my YouTube channel for more free resources:
My latest books are:
The Elephants in the Classroom: using every student’s natural power of mental Imagery to enhance learning: Neurodiversity through the lens of mental Imagery.
Bridges to Success – How to transform Learning Difficulties
Recover Your energy– this book will energise you

#dyslexia #empoweringlearning #neurodivergent # creative #olivehickmott #visualise

About olivehickmott

I am a Forensic Learning coach, showing people how they can improve their own learning and change their health. Working with creative neurodivergent students is a joy, as they learn new skills to overcome many of their learning challenges.
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