Determining Dyslexia in Second Language Acquisition

Logan Isaman

Dr. Mary Jo Reiff

Intro to Rhet & Comp

7 December 2014

Determining Dyslexia in Second Language Acquisition

There are many challenges associated with working with students who are second-language speakers (L2s). One of the most complicated aspects of teaching English as a second language (ESL) is correctly recognizing, diagnosing, and treating reading disabilities, particularly dyslexia. Because school districts rarely have the funds to observe and track the language success of its L2 students, it falls to the teachers to be aware of the many difficulties his or her students could be facing, and how to best address them. With this paper, I hope to engage a discourse among ESL teachers to be aware of dyslexia and other learning disabilities, and to provide a framework for how to give those students the help they need through early identification and intervention, “synchronicity” between teacher and student, and the development of effective tests for reading disabilities in second-language students.

Identification is the first major hurdle when working with L2s. It is impossible to separate reading difficulties from generally poor language proficiency or limited schooling if a teacher is not consciously observing his or her students. Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert therefore argue that the risk of misdiagnosis of dyslexia for an L2 student may increase from that of a native speaker (L1) (172). Their research focused around a dynamic testing of reading acquisition methods in order to continue to develop the procedures that can identify specific reading difficulties in a second language. If reading comprehension is necessarily linked to language comprehension, then “reading comprehension (R) = language comprehension (C) × word decoding (D),” (Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert 173). Because word decoding and recognition plays a huge role in a student’s vocabulary, there are some situations in which the teacher would gain an insight into a student’s noticeable language bias by “assess[ing the] literacy skills and/or language foundations in the native language,” (Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert 173). Unfortunately, this is not often a feasible option because actual measures of reading abilities from native to second languages only exist for a very small minority of the world’s languages. Instead, Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert suggest that potential reading difficulties have to be prioritized in the second language rather than the first, and take steps to “develop a new dyslexia test with the smallest possible [first] language bias,” which will be discussed later (174).

Linda S. Siegel’s article “Reducing Reading Difficulties in English L1 and L2: Early Identification and Intervention,” follows her longitudinal study of children (both native and ESL speakers) in the North Vancouver School District. Her research suggests that the most effective means of helping a student overcome a reading disability is early identification and intervention. She argues “the social and psychological consequences of not providing effective remediation of learning disabilities, including dyslexia, are severe,” and cites information that shows that adolescents who have these kinds of severe and unaddressed issues make up a huge percentage of youths who are either homeless or have attempted suicide (Siegel 294). Recognizing comprehension errors in one’s self and recognizing comprehension in one’s peers can make a student feel that their mistakes are due to their lack of intelligence, rather than a legitimate disability that can be overcome. Many students, under these circumstances, do not choose to pursue their education to their fullest potential because they feel that they are incapable of succeeding. These students are generally allowed to fall between the cracks because of a contemptible lack of public school funding, particularly in America, as education is sadly not yet socialized. In these cases, it often falls to the teacher to ascertain whether the reading problem is due to dyslexia or a relative lack of experience with English, and to then address the issue directly with that student (Siegel 294). The most important take-away from her research is that it is the responsibility of ESL teachers to be aware of the possibility of learning disabilities in their students, and to know how to appropriately help that student succeed.

Orly Lipka and Linda S. Siegel collaborated on a study titled “The Development of Reading Comprehension Skills in Children Learning English as a Second Language,” designed to “investigate the cognitive and linguistic factors that have an influence on reading comprehension in ESL speakers,” (1873). They studied L1 and ESL students in the seventh grade and compared the roles of relevant processes (e.g. word reading, word reading fluency, phonological awareness, etc.), which revealed three groups to be examined in terms of their language abilities: “(1) children with poor comprehension (PC) in the absence of word reading difficulties (2) children with poor word reading and poor comprehension (poor readers, PR) (3) and children with both good word reading and comprehension abilities (good comprehenders, GC),” (Lipka and Siegel 1873). Essentially, comprehension is the ultimate goal when developing reading abilities, and that depends on the interconnection of phonological, memory, and linguistic processes. This study demonstrated that ESL students are equally as capable of developing word reading and reading comprehension skills that are as strong as their L1 peers. This is incredibly significant in regards to diagnosing dyslexia because poor language proficiency is no longer an excuse; that can be overcome with hard work on the part of the student. If a student is not developing reading comprehension skills, it falls to the teacher to recognize this as a potential reading disability, identify the issue, and intervene.

In Linda Blanton’s ethnographic research article “Seeing the Invisible: Situating L2 Literacy Acquisition in Child-teacher Interaction,” she develops the idea of “synchronicity” as a step towards effectively developing L2 students’ literacy. She began by observing eight particular multilingual classrooms of pre-school, first grade, and specifically ESL students, and quickly realized that three of the eight classes were developing language and literacy skills significantly more quickly than the others. Her work became challenging when she realized that to determine the factors playing into their success, she would have to attempt to find the “transformative dynamic” that made these particular students surpass their peers (Blanton 303). What she found, and labels “synchronicity”, is that “teacher and child can and do arrive at a point where they briefly operate (intellectually, emotionally) in complete harmony, almost in singularity,” (Blanton 303). Synchronicity is an amorphous concept that essentially says that the most effective means of furthering students’ education is a complete collaboration between the student and the teacher; a mutual understanding of each other’s purpose in the classroom, and equal respect for the importance of those roles. This is applicable to all types of teaching, and should be utilized across the board, but it is particularly significant in ESL teaching because it allows the students freedom from the fear of making a mistake in front of their peers, who could potentially make fun of the student for publically making that mistake. If the teacher and the student are acting in tandem, the odds of success with the language skyrocket. It becomes a legitimate discourse between two people rather than a simple “I talk, you listen” approach. Due to the prevalent issue of a lack of funding in public schools, it is essential that ESL teachers adopt this idea of synchronicity as a means of ensuring their students’ success.

This lends itself to Garcia and Tyler’s article “Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners With Learning Disabilities in the General Curriculum”, which stresses the importance of ESL teachers taking into consideration the student’s specific disability, their language status, and their culture when preparing their instruction. Teachers must be familiar with instructional strategies that will support language and literacy development. They offer a dilemma that is rooted in the lack of funding for public schools: “Because most ELLs and students with disabilities are held to the same academic standards and take the same statewide assessments as all other students, there is an increased urgency to bring their performance up to levels comparable to their peers’,” (Garcia and Tyler 114). In response to this, they suggest that when planning instruction for ELLs with learning disabilities, the lesson must be relevant to the student both culturally and linguistically, while also taking their disability into account, in order for the student to gain a legitimate understanding of the language. This simple act of knowingly working together (i.e. synchronicity) and tailoring your lessons to suit the student’s specific needs is the essential difference between a successful ESL teacher and a mediocre one. The complex relationship between a language disability, second language learning, and culture must be taken into account, but Garcia and Tyler recognize that “although many ELLs have been misidentified, some ELLs struggle academically for reasons beyond second language status, socio-cultural backgrounds, and educational history, even when compared to their ELL peers,” (114). Their research directly affirms previous conclusions that reading disabilities demonstrate themselves similarly in L2s as they do in native speakers, furthering Elbro, Daugaard, and Gellert’s assertion that reading disabilities must be prioritized in the second language in order to be overcome.

With all of the theories in mind about early identification and intervention, synchronicity, and prioritizing the difficulty in the second language as methods of helping ESL students, one must now consider how to test for reading disabilities. In Lee Gunderson and Linda S. Siegel’s article “The Evils of the Use of IQ Tests to Define Learning Disabilities in First- and Second- Language Learners,” they address the current means of attempting to standardize the ability to identify students with learning disabilities: IQ tests. As has been discussed, “intelligence” should have no part in the discussion of ESL students with dyslexia or other reading disabilities. By giving these students IQ tests, they are being encouraged to question their own intelligence, and that is unacceptable. Unfortunately, in most public school districts, “funding is not available for students who have not been administered an IQ test,” forcing teachers between the proverbial rock and a hard place: If we allow IQ scores to set students’ limitations of academic performance, we are deliberately limiting their ability to succeed; If we refuse to give them, the school districts will not receive the funding they need to specifically help those students (Gunderson and Siegel 49). IQ tests are typically comprised of: “factual knowledge, definitions of words, memory recall, fine-motor coordination, and fluency of expressive language; they probably do not measure reasoning or problem-solving skills,” (Gunderson and Siegel 49). In sum, they can only assess the information a person has retained—in English—and not what that person is capable of doing. In essence, IQ tests severely limit the ability to accurately diagnose a learning disability, and potentially set ESL students up to fail, because they basically require fluency in English to be completed in the first place.

Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert’s alternative to this extremely subjugated way of determining if a student has a learning disability is found in their article “Dyslexia in a Second Language?—a Dynamic Test of Reading Acquisition May Provide a Fair Answer.” It is important to note that dyslexia is defined as “a learning disorder that affects the acquisition of word identification in reading,” and that a dynamic (i.e. first-person) and linguistically unbiased test format would serve as the most effective means of identifying such issues (Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert 174). Their attempt to accomplish this was through the measurement of how much adult ESL students had to practice with a set of three new letters/sounds in order to learn to read simple new words written with the newly introduced letters to determine a given student’s potential for reading development without the bias of their first- or second-language abilities coming into play (174). The crucial thing for ESL teachers to recognize is that by utilizing this type of test they will be able to determine individual differences in each student’s “ease of learning to decode words—and be sensitive to proximal causes of dyslexia, e.g. phoneme awareness and phonological representation,” (Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert 174). A dynamic test will allow the teacher to step away from the standard ideas of reading measures in second language proficiency in order to better recognize that “the same cut-off point should be valid for both native and second language speakers,” (Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert 174). This ability to remain independent of previously learned second-language vocabulary is the best way to determine if errors in the classroom are related to poor language proficiency, or to a legitimate learning disability. The results that Elbrow, Daugaard, and Gellert got from their study reinforced the concern that there is a large overestimation of dyslexia in second language readers, and encourage ESL teachers to perform these kinds of unbiased dynamic tests as a means of better identifying dyslexic L2s (182).

Determining if an ESL student is struggling because of poor language proficiency (i.e. something that the student has the ability to change) or because of a legitimate learning disability (i.e. something that the student does not have the ability to change) can be incredibly difficult. Ideally, this sort of issue would be identified at a young age in order to provide the student with the specialized help they need, but more often than not public schools simply lack the funding to provide those services. For these reasons, ESL teachers must develop a meta-awareness of the fact that their L2 students are at particular risk of being misdiagnosed with a learning or reading disability in order to “value and articulate their understanding of how their [students] learn,” (Blanton 307). It is crucial that ESL teachers specifically look for students with potential comprehension issues, identify those issues as quickly as possible, and teach the student how to work around them. This can easily be accomplished through Blanton’s idea of synchronicity, an awareness of the students’ first language, and the eradication of IQ tests as a means of identifying learning disabilities in L2s. If ESL teachers are willing to take the time to give their students dynamic tests to truly determine their language comprehension abilities, students will be much more accurately diagnosed and respectively assisted. Second-language students’ success falls largely into the hands of their English as a second language instructors, and it is up to those instructors to take this issue seriously in order to provide their students with their best possible chance of succeeding with the language.


Works Cited

Blanton, Linda L. “Seeing the Invisible: Situating L2 Literacy Acquisition in Child–teacher Interaction.” Journal of Second Language Writing 11.4 (2002): 295-310. ScienceDirect. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Elbrow, Carsten, Hanne T. Daugaard, and Anna S. Gellert. “Dyslexia in a Second Language?—a Dynamic Test of Reading Acquisition May Provide a Fair Answer.” Annals of Dyslexia 62.3 (2012): 172-85. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Garcia, Shernaz B., and Brenda-Jean Tyler. “Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners With Learning Disabilities in the General Curriculum.” Theory in Practice 49.2 (2010): 113-120. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Gunderson, Lee, and Linda S. Siegel. “The Evils of the Use of IQ Tests to Define Learning Disabilities in First- and Second- Language Learners.” The Reading Teacher 55.1 (2001): 48-55. JSTOR. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Lipka, Orly, and Linda S. Siegel. “The Development of Reading Comprehension Skills in Children Learning English as a Second Language.” Reading & Writing 25.8 (2012): 1873-898. SpringerLink. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

Siegel, Linda S. “Reducing Reading Difficulties in English L1 and L2: Early Identification and Intervention.” Dyslexia across Languages: Orthography and the Brain-Gene-Behavior Link. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Pub., 2011. 294-304. Print.



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