Joanna Leksińska graduated from first-cycle studies of Early Education and Teaching English to Young Learners at the Faculty of Education of the University of Warsaw. She is a student of second-cycle degree Graduate Programme in Teaching English to Young Learners at the University of Warsaw.
The article discusses dyslexia as a factor in the process of learning English as a foreign language (EFL) with a particular focus on students of early education. Using a variety of resources, it shows the need for training courses for teachers of English in the field of teaching techniques intended for dyslexic students’ specific needs. The article also presents benefits of the use of multisensory teaching techniques when teaching both non-dyslexic and dyslexic students as well as it discusses different teaching techniques which are recommended for learners who suffer from dyslexia.
Keywords: dyslexia, learning disabilities, foreign language learning
Dyslexia and learning English as a foreign language
Dyslexia is a language-based disorder which usually has a genetic origin. A variety of problems with different language forms often indicates that the child suffers from dyslexia. Concerning the age, academic and intellectual disabilities, very often these difficulties are unexpected. Worth mentioning is the fact that problems with learning which occur are not connected with general developmental disability (Bogdanowicz, 2006).
1.Disability for foreign language learning
Learning disabilities is a term which was first used in 1963. It referred to a great range of difficulties, beginning with underachievement and ending at mental retardation (Flangan, Keiser, Bernier & Ortiz, 2003 as mentioned in Sparks, 2006). The term is used alternately with learning disorder, reading and mathematics disorders and dyslexia. The definition of learning disabilities is still unreconciled by professionals. Thus, the diagnosis of presence of learning disability is rather problematic- not to mention the specific definition for disorder in foreign language learning (Sparks, 2006).
According to a plethora of documented cases of students who failed in foreign language learning and did well in all other courses (Nijakowska, 2010) as well as the fact that difficulties in learning a foreign language are very often unexplained and unexpected, it is justified to suggest the existence of a particular disorder which is responsible particularly for foreign language learning (Sparks, 2006). Nevertheless, the poor second language proficiency cannot be the only factor which instantly leads to a diagnosis of dyslexia- a number of various conditions need to be taken into consideration otherwise there may be a misdiagnosis of dyslexia (Elbro, Daugaard & Gellert, 2012).
According to Sparks (2006), some researchers claim that those learners who have difficulties with foreign language learning must suffer from a disorder which disables them to master the skill. Nonetheless, various studies do not provide reliable empirical data which confirm the existence of a certain disorder which is responsible for failure in foreign language learning process. First of all, both disabled and non-disabled students may face different problems with learning a foreign language. Moreover, these students who have a diagnosed disorder, not necessarily have problems with foreign language learning (Sparks, 2006). As a result, a disorder which is considered to be responsible for a specific disability in foreign language learning does not exist. However, there are some diagnosed dysfunctions which negatively affect the process of mastering a foreign language. One of them is dyslexia.
2. The real face of dyslexia
With reference to Bogdanowicz (2006), there are still many misunderstandings about what dyslexia is, and a number of people are still not aware of its true nature and features. Dyslexia does exist and it was confirmed by two medical classifications of diseases: the American Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Revision DSM-IV and the European International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, Tenth Revision ICD-10. Additionally, dyslexia is impossible to cure- it is a life- lasting disorder, thus it is not an illness. The only possible ‘cures’ for dyslexia are hard, never ending and systematic work as well as developing one’s own, individual learning strategies. Every dyslexic is different from each other. Obviously, while at times some similarities concerning learning problems can be found, at others these problems can be entirely different.
It is possible that some learners use their learning disorder as an excuse to limit the amount of work required from them during classes. However, these are not usual cases. There is no rule for dyslexics being naturally lazy. On the other hand, dyslexic students are in danger of low self-esteem, because numerable and constant failures demotivate them. Worth mentioning is the fact that it is impossible to grow out of dyslexia. Thus, it is essential to motivate dyslexics to overcome their disabilities and to build- up their self-confidence. Encouragement is an important tool when working with dyslexics, who evidently are able to overtake their non-disabled peers. The way to do it is using their strengths and drawing their attention away from their weaknesses. Furthermore, dyslexia definitely does not mean lack of intelligence. As a matter of fact, dyslexics usually have high or average IQ and many famous people who brought a lot to science and history were dyslexics, e.g. Thomas Alva Edison, Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein (Bogdanowicz, 2006).
3.English teachers and dyslexia
Learning a foreign language is more demanding for students who suffer from dyslexia. Unfortunately, the majority of people, including teachers, is not aware of certain characteristics of dyslexia. Thus, teachers who lack competences in foreign language teaching may involuntarily deprive individuals of equal opportunities in education and as a further result in workplace due to disability to communicate in a foreign language. Therefore, improving standards of teacher training and professional development programmes for teachers is essential. Current courses on either special educational needs or specific difficulties are on rather general level. Moreover, teacher training is rarely or even never devoted to difficulties concerning foreign language learning (Nijakowska et al., 2012).
According to Butkiewicz and Bogdanowicz (2006), a number of studies show that the number of students who suffer from dyslexia in Polish schools is increasing. Furthermore, research shows that dyslexic Polish learners face greater problems with EFL learning than their typically developing peers (Nijakowska, 2010). Therefore, foreign language teachers should be sensitive to any signs of disability in their students’ performance because it seems probable that learners who have greater problems when learning a second language suffer from dyslexia.
4. English- struggle for dyslexics
“English language as a social factor ‘disabling’ dyslexics in much the same way as stairs inhabit those in wheelchairs”
It is difficult or even impossible to indicate the exact number of languages in the world. In addition, each language is different. One of such differences is the relation between the written symbols and sounds they represent, and it has been researched by studies which concern dyslexia. These studies show that there are languages such as Italian where this correspondence is simple: one phoneme [with reference to Cruttenden (2008), it is the smallest linguistic unit which may cause a change in meaning] is represented by one grapheme [according to Coulmas (1996), the smallest unit in the written system of the language]. However, some languages are more complicated: one sound can be represented by various written symbols and vice versa (Everatt & Elbeheri, 2008).
An example of such irregular and complex languages is English. It is not a logical orthographic language. Basically, very often in English there is no direct correspondence between a word’s pronunciation and its spelling. Obviously, such conditions must result in some kind of barriers in learning a foreign language, which are even harder to overcome for dyslexics (Paulesu, Brunswick, Paganelli, 2010). Therefore, the effects of dyslexia may vary across different languages because languages differ in the way their orthographies combine phonemes and graphemes (Everatt & Elbeheri, 2008). According to Brunswick (2009), it is possible that when comparing a dyslexic person who is English with another who is Italian, the first may face a plethora of problems when learning his mother tongue due to dyslexia, whereas the second may not even be aware that he suffers from this disorder. Dyslexic learners are never the same, just like all the learners (Crombie, 1999), therefore even a dyslexic student can be great at English. However, there are some features of dyslexia that an English teacher should be aware of, because they significantly affect EFL learning.
5. A dyslexic student’s profile
In the foreign language teaching-learning process there are two types of important skills: receptive and productive. “Receptive skills [reading and listening] are the ways in which people extract meaning from the discourse they see or hear“ (Harmer, 2001:199). Productive skills (speaking and writing) are needed for communication; they help to make discourse understandable for the listener or reader (Harmer, 2001). All the four skills are problematic for dyslexics.
Dyslexics’ possible struggles:
Struggles © Joanna Leksińska
The toughest challenge is reading because dyslexic students easily lose meaning. Their pace of reading is often very slow and they usually struggle with reading aloud due to their disability to spell correctly and decode quickly. Similar words and letters are problematic for dyslexic students to distinguish from. As a result, learners who suffer from dyslexia are less able to read words properly (Wandsworth Children’s Services Department, 2008). Nijakowska (2010:2) said that “the most silent and striking characteristic of” dyslexia is the delay in mastering the reading skill. Very often dyslexic students do not differ from their non-dyslexic peers concerning comprehension skills. Nevertheless, they usually have to put much more effort to develop the reading skill (Nijakowska, 2010). The other receptive skill is also an issue which inconveniences dyslexic learners. Some dyslexics’ poor ability to identify sounds, perceive differences between similar sounds or to recognize beginnings and ends of spoken words may result in weak performance in listening (Wandsworth Children’s Services Department, 2008).
On the subject of speaking, dyslexics may struggle with correct pronunciation even of the words which they have heard a number of times during EFL classes. Additionally, learners who suffer from dyslexia can be disoriented by similar sounding utterances. The other productive skill, writing, is alike or even more challenging for dyslexics (Wandsworth Children’s Services Department, 2008). According to Butkiewicz and Bogdanowicz (2006), dyslexic learners have often poor motor skills. Thus, it is usually hard to decode their handwriting, which in addition may be slower than their non-dyslexic peers’ writing. Dyslexics may either forget how some words look or mix up letters in words (Wandsworth Children’s Services Department, 2008). Furthermore, they face great difficulties with planning thoughts and organizing them on paper, thus producing their own pieces of writing is another procedure with which dyslexics may struggle (Nijakowska, 2010).
Another characteristic of dyslexia is poor short-term memory. Thus, some dyslexics may struggle with remembering and hence following instructions, repeating longer and more complex words or recalling recently-learned vocabulary. Unfortunately, students who present such features may be easily accused of not paying attention to the lesson or not knowing the answer. However, often do they know what is happening as well as the correct answer, but they are unable to verbalise the expected utterance. Another struggle for dyslexics is sequencing- simply reciting days of the week or months in the correct order or searching words in a dictionary may be unfeasible for students who suffer from dyslexia (Wandsworth Children’s Services Department, 2008).
Emotional disorders are dangerous threats associated with dyslexia (Porter & Rourke, 1985). Repeated failures in learning, not only a foreign language, may result in frustration as well as in feeling of being “unable to meet the expectations of their relatives, teachers and peers” (Nijakowska, 2010: 97). Furthermore, dyslexics may struggle with social relationships. Due to their physical and social immaturity, they may have a “poor self-image and less peer acceptance” (Ryan, 1992:68). Unfortunately, such psychological and emotional conditions may result in lack of motivation, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger and misbehaviour (Nijakowska, 2010). Nevertheless, it does not mean that all dyslexics suffer from such emotional problems. Many dyslexic learners behave just like other non-dyslexic students (Krasowicz-Kupis, 2008) also non-dyslexic children may have low self-esteem or feel frustration. It must be remembered that such social and motivational-emotional problems are not the reason but they result from students’ disabilities and failures. Nonetheless, they significantly affect students’ self-perception. Thus, for both educators and parents it is essential to be aware of specific disruptions dyslexic students may struggle (Bogdanowicz, 2002).
6. EFL learning and dyslexia
Generally, students who suffer from dyslexia face greater difficulties when learning EFL than their non-dyslexic peers due to their specific learning characteristics. Nonetheless, the majority of those problems can be overcome by suitable teaching, support and encouragement. The teaching-learning process has to support dyslexics and there are many techniques and strategies which are helpful to achieve this aim (Brunswick, 2009).
According to Butkiewicz and Bogdanowicz (2006), one of the young learners’ characteristics is short attention span. Dyslexics are no exception. Thus, many various short tasks and activities during every lesson are recommended. Furthermore, the already taught material should be repeated as often as possible in order to prompt dyslexics to memorise the language. In order to avoid boredom of many repetitions of the same material, the tasks for revision should vary, attract students’ attention and involve their active participation.
The kinaesthetic memory may turn out to be a great support for both young dyslexic and non-dyslexic learners. Therefore, it is extremely advisable to use as much movement during EFL classes as possible. In order to help young dyslexic students learn sequences, e.g. days of the week or months, teachers may use nursery rhymes, counting rhymes or songs which practice such language items (Butkiewicz & Bogdanowicz, 2006).
Help for dyslexic students:
Help © Joanna Leksińska
Sitting near the blackboard will make the student hear and see better, so it will help a disabled student overcome some dyslexic difficulties. Brunswick suggests letting students work on coloured papers in order to reduce glare, avoiding presenting black letters on white background and limiting factors which disturb dyslexics in reading. Another way of supporting dyslexic students’ learning is frequent use of visuals to present information. Furthermore, tasks on hand-outs should be written in clear and ticks-free font which is easier for dyslexics to read. Both dyslexic and non-dyslexic students’ self-esteem is something which should be worked. Thus, it is recommended to praise learners for their achievements as often as possible, no matter how little and encourage them to use the foreign language. Moreover, Brunswick (2009) claims that teachers should not force students to do things they struggle in front of the class (e.g. read aloud).
The teaching-learning process is suggested to be made as motivating as possible. Especially students who suffer from dyslexia need to see a clear reason why they are learning, thus passing an exam is not enough. Furthermore, the foreign language should be seen by dyslexics as something possible to achieve which can be managed by providing the learners with appropriate support. One possible way to enrich the EFL learning environment and to provide learners with additional channels of input is the use of the multisensory approach (Dal, 2008).
6.1. Multisensory approach
An approach which involves some or all senses- auditory, visual, tactile and kinaesthetic- is called multisensory. According to Ganschow, Sparks and Schneide (1995), it aims at using many channels of perception in order to teach the links between graphemes and their corresponding phonemes. First of all, it supports learning to divide words into individual sounds as well as to build them from single phonemes. Secondly, multisensory teaching orders instructions from simple to more complex ones. Furthermore, it supports students in making associations between the new and old material. In other words, it is cumulative. Multisensory teaching is also repetitive as one of its objectives is overlearning which means revising and practicing information as long as it is automatized. Finally, multisensory teaching approach requires understanding structures of language and thinking about the language.
With reference to Brunswick (2009), both dyslexic and non-dyslexic students benefit from multisensory teaching, and especially dyslexics should learn by “seeing patterns within words, and by being given the chance to practice (even over-practice) until a skill is acquired” (p. 82). Moreover, the truth that people learn best when taught to their strengths rather than weaknesses is well known. Thus, multisensory teaching approach is an advisable choice for teachers who teach EFL to either dyslexic or non-dyslexic learners (Brunswick, 2009).
6.2. Explicit learning
Ellis (2009) divides learning into implicit and explicit. Unintentional learning which takes place when learners are unaware of the process and “cannot verbalize what they have learned” (p. 3), however its results are visible in their behavioural responses, is called implicit learning. The other is the opposite. Thus, explicit learning takes place consciously. It means that learners know that they are acquiring new knowledge and are able to point to and produce the recently learnt material.
Jiménez-Fernández, Vaquero, Jiménez and Defior (2011) conducted a research which compared performance of 14 dyslexic and 14 non-dyslexic 8-9 year old children in both explicit and implicit learning tasks which involved sequential information. The aim of the study was to examine whether dyslexics show deficiency in implicit sequence learning and whether they remember the sequence better when they are informed about its presence. The results showed that dyslexics fail to learn the sequence when they are not aware of it. However, they perform equally well to their non-dyslexic peers when they know the sequence is present (Jiménez-Fernández et al., 2011). Another study conducted by Pavlidou, Williams and Kelly (2009:65) “investigated whether children with developmental dyslexia have problems with their implicit learning abilities reflected in poor performance in a typical application of the” artificial grammar learning task and explored “whether more explicit information about the testing items could facilitate implicit learning performance of the dyslexia group”. The participants were two groups of children, native speakers of English, from seven private or state primary schools in the Edinburgh City Council area: one which consisted of 32 (16 non-dyslexic and 16 dyslexic) children in mean age of 10 years and 7 months and the other group of 34 children (17 non-dyslexic and 17 dyslexic) of mean age 10 years and 6 months. The first took part in implicit the other in explicit instruction task. The study showed that explicit information did not influence dyslexic children’s performance. However, the findings indicate that children who suffer from dyslexia are not able to abstract implicit rules to the same extent as their non-dyslexic peers (ibid.).
With reference to the above, it is advisable to teach EFL explicitly more often than implicitly. It seems that explicit teaching may provide beneficial or limit unfavourable conditions for students who suffer from dyslexia.
6.3. The dyslexic learning style
“The term learning style refers to someone’s usual, and preferred, way of processing information” (Brunswick, 2009:81). Adjusting teaching techniques and methods to learners’ natural preferences is one way to support their learning process. Therefore, it is advisable to take into consideration specific learning styles when teaching, which actually means individualisation of the teaching-learning process. Furthermore, both dyslexic and typically developing students will certainly benefit from educators’ individual approach as everyone, including dyslexics, has a unique learning style (Reid & Strnadova, 2008).
The late 90s is the beginning of speaking of a dyslexic learning style. There are some classifications of learning styles. Brunswick (2009) presents, inter alia, the following learning styles:
Dyslexic learning style:
Dyslexic learning style © Joanna Leksińska based on Brunswick, 2009
Brunswick also suggests that the dyslexic learning style is visual, holistic, kinaesthetic, accommodative and impulsive. In order to facilitate dyslexics’ EFL learning they should be provided with a number of hands-on activities to let them learn by seeing and doing. Also they should be taught spellings as complete units. Additionally, they should be provided with an opportunity to over-practice skills and with explicit teaching of patterns in words. The learning styles approach is closely connected with the multisensory approach. Furthermore, both are beneficial for all students not only dyslexic ones (Brunswick, 2009).
6.4. Examples of dyslexia-friendly teaching techniques
There are a number of simple procedures which every teacher is able to apply to his teaching in order to support learning of both disabled and typically developing students. An example suggested by Brunswick is to inform students about the plan and aims at the beginning of the lesson which gives learners a chance to organize the material in minds (Brunswick, 2009) and to introduce explicit learning which seems to be beneficial for dyslexics (Jiménez-Fernández et al., 2011).
Graphic 1. Movable device slide based on Nijakowska, 2007:168
Another procedure which does not require additional amount of work is Multisensory drill for learning spelling introduced by Nijakowska (2007) which is a helpful tool for dyslexics to remember the spelling. The procedure consists of 10 steps. Firstly, a student needs to look at the word and read it aloud. Next, he needs to spell the word aloud with letters or in syllables with longer words. Then he needs to simultaneously spell the word and trace it on the desk with his finger. The next step is to analyse the word in order to find any “tricky parts” (p.157). Afterwards student covers the word and tries to visualise it with eyes closed and spell it one more time. Next step is to write down the word and underline the tricky parts. The whole procedure ends with checking the written word and using it in a sentence (2007).
In order to practice fluency, speaking and revise chunks of language Back Chaining is a great activity which starts with presentation of a whole chunk of language, e.g. Can you ride a bike? Next, the teacher models the intonation and pronunciation of parts of the utterance, starting from the end: a bike? Ride a bike? You ride a bike? Can you ride a bike? (Butkiewicz & Bogdanowicz, 2006:56).
A more time consuming, however useful technique which makes EFL learning more multisensory and attractive for students is movable devices slides (Nijakowska, 2007: 168). This tool provides students with a prompt in spelling or constructing more complex pieces of written language (Graphic 1).
A publication which is worth recommending for EFL teachers is Dyslexia in the English Classroom. Techniki nauczania języka angielskiego uczniów z dysleksją (2006) by Butkiewicz and Bogdanowicz. The book includes varied activities and tasks appropriate for teaching dyslexic students. The procedures are clearly explained and come with visual examples of the necessary teaching materials. Furthermore, the authors included some theoretical information next to practical tips and ideas.
English has become one of the most popular and useful languages in the world. Unfortunately, some people face more problems than others to learn it. It may happen that students who struggle with EFL learning additionally suffer from dyslexia. Thus, teachers should develop their knowledge on this disorder.
Concerning the specific nature of English language, especially EFL teachers should be aware of different characteristics of a dyslexic student in order to adjust teaching techniques to learners’ needs. Hopefully, there are some teaching methods and techniques which support both dyslexic and typically developing students in EFL learning. An example is multisensory approach which through all channels of perception enables students to overlearn material. Another case in point is explicit teaching, which is suggested to be helpful for dyslexics in learning process (Jiménez-Fernández et al., 2011) as it results in students who notice the new material and focus on learning it. When teaching, it is very important to individualise different learners and their needs. Some researchers tried to define a dyslexic learner style which is presented, inter alia, by Brunswick (2009) as visual, holistic, kinaesthetic, accommodative and impulsive. After specifying the students’ profiles, teachers should try to adjust the activities and tasks in order to meet their needs and as a result support their learning process as well as possible.
A variety of resources indicate that teachers need to study more about learning disabilities. Comparatively many provide theoretical and practical information about dyslexia and how to support learners who suffer from this disorder. It is certainly advisable for teachers to use such materials as it will definitely develop their teaching and ability to help both dyslexic and typically developing students in EFL learning process.