Teaching and learning foreign languages with dyslexia

Students with dyslexia are often thought to lack the ability to learn another language. But this is by no means certain. Dyslexia affects the way information is learned and processed. It is a neurological difference and often runs in families. 

Dyslexia can have a significant impact on education, especially when it comes to reading and writing. However, it’s important to remember that dyslexia occurs independently of intelligence.

Being dyslexic doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have a good memory. And a good memory is very useful for learning a new language.

Tips from Professionals to Help Students with Dyslexia 

The British Dyslexia Association recommends choosing transparent languages, like Spanish, Italian or German that have a clear letter-to-sound correspondence for the English-speaking learner. That means you can more easily pronounce what you see written down. 

Speaking and Listening

Speaking and listening from the start is helpful for a learner with dyslexia.

  • Let the student volunteer. 
  • Never force a student with dyslexia to speak. 
  • Be positive. 
  • Encourage speaking by giving positive feedback.
  • Maximise listening sessions. 
  • Use a tape recorder or a recording tool to catch new words, phrases, stories or even a home task for the next day.
  • Visualise. 
  • Using pictures or other visual aids while listening helps boost multi-sensory activity.
  • Turn exercises into fun. 
  • Exercises like sorting or “odd one out” can be turned into games. For adults and children alike.

Vocabulary and Grammar

To use a foreign language you need vocabulary and, unfortunately for some, grammar rules! These are not easy for anyone and pose even more problems for students with dyslexia. 

Professionals from the University of Michigan recommend the following levels of vocabulary for teachers of students with dyslexia:

Level 1 – vocabulary for daily use. Repeat basic words over and over, using standard conversation templates that are relevant to the student’s everyday life. 

Level 2 – vocabulary from reading. Pick out unknown or difficult words from texts used for reading – essential for success!

Level 3 – specialised vocabulary. These are words relating to different hobbies and occupations, for the student who has already somewhat mastered phonetics!

Level 4 – infrequently used vocabulary. The final step! This is advanced language learning for any student.

Professionals recommend teaching vocabulary and grammar via the “Read, Write, Pronounce, Repeat” method. 

This triggers multi-sensory activity, helping the brain grasp a new word on different levels.

Spelling

Spelling words, either in oral or written form, is difficult for students with dyslexia. The brain struggles to structure and store the information, but this can be helped with regular training.

According to the professors from the University of Michigan, learning how to spell starts from phonemic awareness. Here are some tips for teachers to follow regarding spelling and writing for the dyslexic learner:

  • Give students regular breaks. 
    • Topics should be fully understood and absorbed before starting another.
    • Divide words into syllables if it’s difficult to spell them. 
    • Avoid teaching too many spelling patterns within one lesson. 
  • Encourage them to embrace mistakes as a part of the learning process.

Online Resources

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

  • 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.
  • Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity, UK. This website has many links and advice for students with dyslexia and their teachers, from ‘Dyslexia in the Workplace’, to ‘Teaching Videos for Dyslexia’ and ‘Famous Dyslexics’!
  • Google Keyboard. This is a dictation app with voice recognition and word prediction. This app helps 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.

Teaching a foreign language to learners with dyslexia is not impossible, quite the contrary. Such students are often eager to learn, they simply require a different teaching and learning approach.

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