In terms of learning foreign languages, students with dyslexia are often disregarded as those that lack proper abilities to study another language besides their own. This assumption is really far-fetched.

According to the Society for Neuroscience, almost 44 million American children and adults have dyslexia, and about 3.5% of American students already receive special education services for their learning needs. So many U.S. citizens should not be deprived of the opportunity to learn a foreign language because of dyslexia, but many people simply don’t understand the specificity of this learning difference.

Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

In general, dyslexia is defined as a specific learning difference that influences the way information is perceived. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a child or an adult with dyslexia cannot learn a foreign language. Dyslexia can have a significant impact on writing and reading skills, as it affects the way how information is perceived, organised, sequenced and stored, which can be difficult, taking into account that a good memory is a prerequisite of learning a foreign language successfully.

Nevertheless, even though dyslexia makes it seemingly impossible to learn a foreign language, there are tools developed by educators, who specialise in teaching students with specific needs.

According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, the country protects all people with dyslexia through the enactment of The American with Disabilities Act, IDEA (The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. These legal documents support the right of every student with dyslexia to receive full education without being stripped of the opportunity to study a certain subject.

When it comes to studying a foreign language, tools and materials that help students with learning differences study, are developed by various licensed organisations as well as by universities, like Yale, who have created centres to help find solutions for better teaching and learning.
Here are some tips and recommendations from professionals and different organisations that can help students with dyslexia learn a foreign language.

Here are some tips and recommendations from professionals and different organisations that can help students with dyslexia learn a foreign language.

1. Choosing a Foreign Language

Not every language is an easy fit for a learner with dyslexia. When it comes to choosing a foreign language to learn, it is important to differentiate between opaque and transparent languages.

Opaque languages like French and Danish, with letter-to-sound correspondence that is difficult to understand, are more difficult for a learner with dyslexia. For English-speaking learners with dyslexia, understanding their own language and its phonology is already a difficulty because there are too many exceptions to the rules.

The British Dyslexia Association recommends choosing transparent languages, like Spanish, Italian, or German, with a clear letter-to-sound correspondence. Choosing German, for instance, is an advantage because these two languages share a considerable amount of words.

Nevertheless, German has a tendency to compound nouns, which may have over 10 letters in them and thus may be difficult to read. Besides, a learner with dyslexia can have a hard time learning noun cases that are absent in English and thus there are no parallels to build for a better understanding of grammar.

As you can see, choosing a foreign language for a learner with dyslexia is already a hard job on its own. Nevertheless, it is better to opt for languages with a transparent phonetic system because it’s where the learning process starts.

2. Start with Listening and Speaking Right Away

Speaking and listening from day one is helpful for a learner with dyslexia to gain fluency as soon as possible. By listening to dialogue even without understanding helps the brain accommodate a foreign language and to immerse you into the atmosphere of a foreign culture.

When it comes to speaking, it is important to pronounce new words every time you see them. With every lesson, encourage yourself to put more and more words in sentences. This is a great way to both practise speaking and learn different grammatical structures.

Yet, speaking and listening can be quite overwhelming for a learner with dyslexia. You will have more challenges understanding a new language, as the brain can struggle to structure the new information, which can be very frustrating, but never give up!

Here are some tips on how to make speaking and listening sessions effective:

Let them, volunteer. If teaching never force students with dyslexia to speak. Be positive. Encourage speaking by giving positive feedback about their work and diligence.

Maximise listening sessions. Listen to as much of the language as possible, even if you don’t understand it yet, this could be podcasts, music or tv/films with or without subtitles. The key here is that you are getting used to the sounds of the language, you may be surprised how much you pick up!

Visualise. Using visuals while listening really helps boost multi-sensory activity.

Turn exercises into play. Exercises like sorting or “odd one out” can be turned into play using various tools and handouts.

If teaching, during listening and speaking sessions it is also important to focus on phonology. So, when speaking, for example, you can randomly ask your students to spell out words to make sure that they remember how they are pronounced.

3. Vocabulary and Grammar: Read, Write, Pronounce, Repeat

Vocabulary and grammar are necessary for applying a foreign language in daily life. Yet, learning the new words and how to structure them may present many difficulties to students with dyslexia.

Professionals from the University of Michigan recommend taking into account the following levels of vocabulary when teaching a foreign language to dyslexic learners:

  • Level 1 – vocabulary for daily use. These basic words should be repeated on a daily basis using standard conversation templates and should be relevant to the events that students encounter every day.

  • Level 2 – vocabulary from reading. Picking out unknown words from the texts is necessary for educational success. These are high-frequency words that also often have many meanings.

  • Level 3 – specialised vocabulary. These are words from different disciplines and occupations, including business and academic vocabulary. These words should be included in the further stages of learning when you have already grasped and somewhat mastered phonetics.

  • Level 4 – infrequently used vocabulary. Introducing this vocabulary to a learner with dyslexia should be occasional.

Professionals recommend paying more attention to teaching vocabulary levels 1-3. It is also recommended to teach vocabulary through the “Read, Write, Pronounce, Repeat” method. This triggers multi-sensory activity, helping the brain grasp a new word on different levels.

Grammar is taught with the help of the same method, however, it is recommended to use for example the vocabulary that is already known rather than something different to avoid confusing and frustrating situations.

4. Spelling and Writing: Don’t Punish Errors

With dyslexia and learning a new language, you’re pretty much guaranteed a hard time with spelling, in either oral or in written form. This happens because it’s difficult for the brain to structure the information and store it, the working memory is weaker than most and can only be improved through regular training.

According to the professors from the University of Michigan, learning how to spell starts from phonemic awareness, which should be taught on every level of acquiring a foreign language. Here are some more tips for the teachers to follow regarding spelling and writing:

  • All writing sessions should be properly structured. It’s recommended to give students regular breaks. Sessions should also be cumulative, making sure that all information, received earlier, is fully understood and absorbed.

  • Allow students to divide words into syllables if it’s difficult to spell them. This will help them understand the words at the morphological level.

  • Avoid teaching too many spelling patterns within one lesson. Concentrate on one pattern and work on it until you see that students have fully absorbed the information.

Do not punish learners with dyslexia for spelling or writing mistakes. Rather, emphasise the learning curve that their failures have and make them embrace failure as a part of the learning process.

5. Make Use from Tools and Apps

In the age of technology, there are many online resources, tools and apps that can help learners with learning differences with a foreign language. Here are some of them:

Online Resources

  • Dyslexia International. This is an international association for people with dyslexia that has ready-to-use materials to help students with dyslexia learn a foreign language and master other school subjects.

  • Learning Ally. This is a website for struggling learners that has a huge database of materials. For instance, it has hundreds of audiobooks to help students with dyslexia learn how to read, including in a foreign language.

  • Dyslexia Materials. This is a website that contains free resources for teaching multiple school subjects, including foreign languages. They offer colourful and engaging tasks that help students learn a foreign language via playing.
Orthograph is a multisensory inclusive software that can be used to learn several foreign languages.

Apps and Tools:

  • Orthograph. This browser based app is designed for inclusion with learning differences at the heart of it. Using a mixture of multisensory techniques and created by neuroscientists, computerscientists and education experts. Its a great allrounder and has proven afficacy through studies to improve language acquisition.

  • Root Words. When learning a foreign language, using a dictionary is inevitable. Root Words is a very helpful app for learners with dyslexia, helping them understand root words. There are also tests to help students practice.

  • Google Keyboard. This is a dictation app with voice recognition and word prediction. This app is helpful while writing an essay, helping students easily recognise and write down words that are difficult to spell.

  • Adobe Spark. Similar to Google Keyboard, Adobe Spark uses voice recognition and word prediction tools to make writing and spelling easier for students with dyslexia.

Final Thoughts

Teaching and learning a foreign language with dyslexia may be extremely tricky, but it’s certainly doable! So many of us have such eagerness to learn, and just sometimes we lack the proper tools to support us. Hopefully, valuable insights, provided in this article, will give you ideas and inspiration to help you or your students learn a foreign language.


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