The Missing Link: teaching a second language to a student with dyslexia, Part 1

By Jenny Harris: Dyslexia and ESOL, EFL, ELL (English language learning). Part 1: the theory, the overview, the student perspective: dyslexia and second language learning. Part 2: How teachers can help dyslexic adult students in the classroom…… follow


How do you teach a second language when your student has challenges in their first language?

Over the last few years this is a question I have regularly asked myself. I know that statistically I must have taught a good number of dyslexic language students. Yet I didn’t really know how to tackle it effectively. Teaching in an ESOL or EFL environment you are immersed in skills methodology: reading, writing and phonology processing is core to the job. Any problems a student has with these skills you are likely to notice quickly. But when is a lack of student progress a language problem, and when is it a deeper learning issue?

Current lack of resources

We often lack the specialist resources for learning support that are available in mainstream schools. Even within colleges it hasn’t always been easy: as a College Lecturer I taught three years of ESOL evening classes and the learning support staff had all gone home by then; my students worked during the day. And in private language schools it is very rare to find additional specialist support. For adult community learning, it can often be just one teacher with a rucksack in a community centre! In line with the ethos of this blog, this post is very much based on teachers helping teachers. This post includes a full list of the websites and materials I found and that are quoted here.

Why are English language teachers in a particularly special role?

Because our primary focus is on reading, writing, speaking and listening development. Our marking codes and practices are remarkably similar to the ones used by dyslexic and literacy specialists (MW: missing word, WF: word formation…..), pre-teaching challenging vocabulary or ‘tricky word’ sheets as primary teachers call it. But it all comes back to two fundamental questions:

–         How do we know when it is a language learning problem, and when it is a deeper learning block?

–         More significantly, what should we do about it? (Our students are typically over 16 and may be learning outside their home country).

Questions, questions, questions

The more my staffroom colleagues and I discussed dyslexia in language learners, the more we realised we needed to know more. marking code

 How do we mark written work when we suspect the student has dyslexia?

 Is it ok to mark for effort and spelling separately?    

          Is the student even dyslexic – how would we know?

         When is it lazy spelling or something more?

Should we address it when they are here only for a limited time?

For students over 16, what referral systems are there?

What if dyslexia isn’t sympathetically dealt with in their home country, are we doing them any favours in raising the issue when they return back to an educational establishment which may not be supportive?

This post (part 1) and the accompanying post (part 2) aims to :

  • inform teachers about dyslexia; particularly educators who focus on reading and writing skills or language teaching
  •          signpost to resources
  •          give practical ideas about how to integrate useful strategies within your teaching, training, coaching or facilitation 

What is dyslexia? A broad overview man words head

Dyslexia is not about intelligence or a lack of interest in learning; it’s about neurological sequencing and processing. Dyslexic students use the visual cortex of the brain far more than non-dyslexic students (

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.

This is sometimes not just with language, but also with numbers. The word itself is derived from the German prefix ‘dys’ meaning difficult and the Greek ‘lexis’ meaning speech. The term was first used in the late 19th century.

What is the scale of dyslexia?

The numbers tended to vary in the research I looked at but the most well-researched reckoned a 5-15% occurrence level (ELT well – a fantastic website and one of the best set of resources for ELT/ESOL teachers, states a ‘5-15% occurrence level in a population’).

But assessment and occurrence levels are problematic – if home countries tend not to test for dyslexia, there’s unlikely to be an accurate picture on the true size and nature of the issue. The international cultural nature of recognising dyslexia is probably the subject of a whole other blog post – for now, I only address the practicalities of teaching.

But it is safe to say if you are teaching a class of 20 students, the probability is there will be at least one student in your classroom with a form of dyslexia (whether from mild to severe)*

How can the teacher identify it? 

wordsI think it is really useful to know exactly how dyslexia can manifest itself, because you will see how much it overlaps with typical errors a language teacher is trained to look out for.

‘Bright Solutions for Dyslexia’ website recommends keeping an eye out for:

  • phonological mix-ups: aminal, instead of animal for example
  • spelling phonetically, spelling incorrectly – letters jumbled in their order and their form (no control over lower or upper case for example)
  • difficulty with reading, especially with timed reading
  • short-term working memory (for example remembering instructions, turning to other students to be reminded)
  • letter decoding abilities – legible handwriting

For more on this go to: (


What does second language learning feel like for a dyslexic student?

mountain top view Dyslexic students use the visual cortex of the brain much more. They often process the overall picture, rather than the specifics. (

Hannah Bienge, from Basil Paterson College in Edinburgh describes the experience of taking an ESOL lower level group of students to the post office to practise everyday target language in a real context: ‘’they (students with dyslexia) may notice elements of the experience such as the shape the queue made in the space, the colour of the cashier’s hair and feeling of the metal tray where you put your mail these will all help them remember the process for next time’’.

 Other commentators feel that second language learning can be a positive experience for a dyslexic: when you learn the rules in a new language (for example, the use of articles, word order, modal verbs etc.) it can help make the linkages in your own.

A case study: Peter

What we can learn from primary teaching

A few years ago Fairlight Primary School in Brighton had a new pupil who arrived from Poland in the last couple of weeks of Reception Year (the first year of school in the UK for children aged 4 or 5).

Peter was starting a new life in the UK with his dad. Peter’s dad speaks very little English so the only language at home was Polish. In Year 1 Peter was very unsettled and the school arranged bilingual support, focusing only on improving Peter’s speaking skills so that he could communicate in the classroom and outside school. During Year 2, Peter became increasingly comfortable in class but after each holiday his English language skills slipped back.

What started to become significant was that the bilingual support assistant reported back that Peter’s Polish language skills were not developing either. So once he reached about age 7 the school arranged for Peter to be screened for dyslexia in both Polish and English and he registered as ‘moderate’, the level just under ‘high’ (E is the highest rate for this screening test and in Fairlight’s experience, very rare; Peter came in at a ‘D’).

The Assistant Head, Donna Barbar says: ‘The classrooms are already ”dyslexia friendly”: lots of visuals, tricky word lists, image/word flash cards for vocabulary association, and coloured reading rulers are all standard practice for topic lessons. All the teachers have access to a dyslexia toolkit of resources they can dip into, or make their own and share with each other.”

Peter is now in Year 3. He is much happier. He sees a specialist literacy support teacher once a week and then their advice is implemented by a trained teaching assistant for 30 minutes each day. Donna says: ‘Half an hour a day is just about right for Peter now. He loves learning about the Romans and the Egyptians so I’m very careful to ensure that his literacy is embedded in the topic, rather than over-do the specialist support at this stage’.

Donna reports that the screening tests that Fairlight uses are about £5 or £6 each and the school orders 20 tests a year on a subscription cost of £80, after they have paid the joining fee. Referrals are then made to the local Literacy Support Service in Brighton.

I asked Donna if she had a pupil who was only in her school for a short time but had been screened for dyslexia yet was returning home to a country which didn’t have the same level of support in place, would she still raise the issue with the parents? She reflected and then after a moment she said yes: ‘it’s about giving the choice, isn’t it? After that it is up to the parents’.

She finished on an interesting point: ‘We use the same resources and the same good practice for dyslexia support as we do for our EAL children.’. (English as an Additional Language).

Perhaps that is the challenge that adult ESOL and EFL colleges and schools have yet to grapple with in quite the same way as the embedded practice within primary teaching. Ann Margaret Smith who has created a site which has practical ideas for supporting  adult dyslexic language students, maintains a handwriting database so that writing in a first language can be cross referenced for speed and legibility with example scripts.

How the adult student feels

Liz Ball, a severe dyslexic, and now a teacher herself, writes an insightful account in her article ‘From one teacher to another’. Talking about her own experience at school she says: sad book man “Letters and numbers floated and jumped around on the page in front of my eyes, while other children sat happily at their desks reading and writing and spelling what I assumed were perfect little sentences.  I could see the letters strung together on the page; I knew they spelled words, because I had memorized many of them to deceive my teachers into believing I could actually read.

The truth was, I had no idea how to read. Matters were only made worse by the fact that I had a twin sister who was not dyslexic, who often sat happily by herself reading beautiful little books with colorful pictures and intricate plots. Nothing about language is automatic for dyslexics. We are constantly engaged in the process of pulling apart the linguistic pieces we are presented with in order to make sense of their whole.”  


(Full article is fascinating and can be found here:

Hannah Bienge,  from Basil Paterson College gives particularly good advice: ‘Whenever you are teaching dyslexic students, you need to always be aware that they are putting in twice the amount of effort but working at half the speed. This can be draining and difficult to sustain for them so a level of understanding and compassion must always accompany your teaching.’[1]

Are we prepared enough during teacher training?


In 2010 I completed my Diploma in Teaching for the post-16 age group[2] where a whole unit was dedicated to the issues of learning support for language students. Another unit was dedicated to embedding language learning within a specialist subject (I was tasked with vocabulary support on the principles of displacement water theory in mechanical engineering!). We learned about practical strategies – avoiding white paper with black print, using pastel colours wherever possible, knowing when and how to refer a student for assessment. However, in private language schools this is less likely to be part of the educational culture. The aim of this blog post is to signpost teachers that want to have a better idea of what strategies would help them in their lesson planning and their marking. Part 2 has a list of practical ideas that can be quickly implemented in the



1. A fantastic website that answers questions and provides very useful classroom materials:

2. Bright Solutions for Dyslexia:

3. The Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity:

Research sources:

Ann Margaret Smith:,

Sue Swift (2007), An ELT Notebook: ‘Helping Students with Learning Disabilities: part two’,

Gavin Reid (2007): ‘Motivating Learners in the classroom: Ideas and Strategies’, Paul Chapman Publishing, London

Hannah Bienge (2011), Basil Paterson College, Edinburgh ‘Learning a second language when your first is a struggle’, IATEFL

Liz Ball, From One Teacher to Another, The Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity

Interview with Donna Barbar, 2014, Assistant Head Teacher, Fairlight Primary School, Brighton UK

creative brain

[1] Learning a second language when your first is a struggle, Hannah Bienge, Basil Paterson College, Edinburgh, IATEFL, Brighton 2011
[2] Diploma for Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector: DTLLS with an ESOL specialism


    1. Many thanks Katrina. I certainly endorse your recommendation and many thanks for the prompt to add it to this post. Jenny

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