The Effects of Dyslexia on Second Language Learning

With a Special Focus on English as a Foreign Language

Seminar Paper, 2015

27 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction ... 1

2. Dyslexia ... 2
2.1. What is Dyslexia? ... 2
2.2. Characteristics of Dyslexia ... 3
2.3. Types of Dyslexia ... 4
2.3.1. Acquired Dyslexia ... 4
2.3.2. Developmental Dyslexia ... 5
2.4. Prerequisites for the acquisition of literacy and deficits caused by dyslexia ... 6

3. The Effects of Dyslexia on Foreign Language Learning ... 10
3.1. Dyslexia in different orthographies ... 10
3.1.1. Orthographic transparency ... 11
3.1.2. Phonological and orthographic differences between German and English ... 12
3.1.3. Dyslexia in different orthographies: studies and hypotheses ... 14 The phonological deficit hypothesis ... 14 Differences in reading strategies and differences in the speed of literacy acquisition ... 15 The developmental model ... 16
3.2. Dyslexia and Foreign Language Learning ... 18
3.2.1. Types of Errors in the learning process of a Foreign Language ... 18
3.2.2. Difficulties of dyslexics in Foreign Language Learning ... 19
3.2.3. Suggestions for dyslexia friendly language lessons ... 21

4. Conclusion ... 24

5. Bibliography ... 25

1. Introduction

For a long time, up until the end of the 19th century, people with reading and writing deficits were regarded as ‘retarded’. Children were said to have little academic potential and had little chances of scholastic success in a school system that focused primarily on literacy-related skills. This, of course, reduced their chances for an academic career, job opportunities and chances in life considerably, not to speak of the enormous emotional pressure this put on dyslexic individuals and their families. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, medical and societal awareness towards the disorder started to grow and first definitions, such as Kussmaul and Berlin’s term word blindness and Morgan’s definition as developmental disorder, were coined (Kulmhofer 2010: 10). It was in the second half of the 20th century, however, that the deficit reached broad public interest and triggered a wave of research, ultimately resulting in special laws and differentiation in school for dyslexics (2010: 12). Since then, numerous studies were able to prove that dyslexics do not have limited potential or limited cognitive abilities, but that they suffer from specific deficits which cause their problems with literacy. Up to the present an extensive body of research has evolved that aimed at developing training methods and providing assistance to dyslexic children. Many studies compared dyslexic children and normally developing children in order to find out more about how the dyslexic brain works, what kind of input dyslexics need and how they can be best supported in school in order to improve their performance in all subjects.

Besides problems in acquiring literacy and difficulties with reading and writing, however, dyslexics also struggle when learning foreign languages. As English is and obligatory part of the Austrian curriculum and as I am a student teacher of English, I wanted to find out more about the effects of dyslexia on foreign language learning with a special focus on English as a foreign language. In order to receive a prior understanding of this learning-based disorder, the first part of this seminar paper will deal with dyslexia in general and discuss common definitions, the foundations of dyslexia, as well as deficits and impairments many dyslexics struggle with. In the second and broader part, the focus will shift towards second language learning and the depth of different orthographies will be discussed. In the following, findings of deep and shallow orthographies in relation to foreign language learning will be presented and the obstacles the dyslexic faces in different orthographies will be investigated thoroughly. Finally, after outlining problems dyslexics might have when learning English as a foreign language, training methods will be presented and suggestions will be provided on how to support the dyslexic in the foreign language classroom.

2. Dyslexia

2.1. What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is a reading and writing disorder marked by an impairment of the ability to recognize and comprehend written language as well as difficulties in writing and spelling. Dyslexics show deficits in reading and writing compared to their same-aged peers and their reading and writing abilities are far below defined school standards for their age group, while having a normal IQ and normal cognitive abilities (cf. Lovett 1999: 111). It is important to mention that the diagnosis of dyslexia remains problematic up to the present, as the measuring grounds and limits for writing and reading disabilities are not clearly definable. In other words, it is often unclear how strong the underperformance in reading and writing has to be in order to be classified as dyslexic (cf. Kliscpera et al. 2003; Strehlow, Haffner 2002; as cited in Häfele & Häfele 2009: 16). According to Häfele and Häfele (2009: 17) a student can be diagnosed with dyslexia only, if the following two criteria are met: the person’s reading and/or writing ability is far beneath the general standard for his/her age group and s/he possesses a normal level of intelligence (IQ 85-115). This principle is called IQ discrepancy model and is still commonly applied, although it is viewed critically by many experts, due to questionable validity of the definition and intervals of this so-called discrepancy (cf. Häfele & Häfele 2009: 17; cf. Fallent 2011: 8). There are also criteria of exclusion, however, that exclude the possibility of a dyslexia diagnosis, such as mental retardation, severe auditory or visual deficits, neurological or psychiatrical disorders and inappropriate schooling. If a patient has one of these impairments or deficits, s/he cannot be diagnosed with dyslexia, as it is more likely that other factors might be responsible for the apparent reading and writing difficulties (cf. Häfele & Häfele 2009: 17).

With regard to the prevalence of dyslexia in industrial countries figures range from 4 to 5 %, with boys being affected three times as often as girls. This percentage, however, only reflects the number of diagnosed cases of dyslexia and it is assumed that the real percentage is higher due to many unknown cases. (cf. Schulte-Körne 2003; as cited in Häfele & Häfele 2009: 16)

Being a developmental impairment of the acquisition process of reading and writing, dyslexia is a highly complex deficit accompanied by numerous symptoms, which leads to many different manifestations of dyslexia in individuals. Problems in spelling, slow and inefficient reading, dyscalculia, dysgraphia or weaker linguistic memories are only a few examples of symptoms dyslexics may struggle with (cf. Häfele & Häfele 2009: 17; cf. Fallent 2011: 6). With regard to the manifestations of dyslexia in individuals it is important to note that dyslexia has many different forms, which means that one dyslexic might be a relatively good reader while having severe problems with spelling, and another dyslexic might be a very weak reader while finding writing easier. Häfele and Häfele (2009: 18) state, however, that the ‘mixed form’ of dyslexia where both, reading and writing are affected is most common. All in all, it is important, however, to always keep in mind that there is not one single form of dyslexia, but that all symptoms associated with the impairment occur on a continuum, and might apply more to one dyslexic than to another.

The World Health Organization’s definition of dyslexia listed in ICD-10 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th Revision) focuses exclusively on reading and writing deficits and intelligence. ICD-10 defines dyslexia as a developmental disorder caused by deviations in the central nervous system, as problems with receiving and processing information effectively lead to early acquisition problems of reading and writing (cf. Häfele & Häfele 2009: 17; cf. Fallent 2011: 5). However, the disorder is not clearly defined in the catalogue and is listed in the category “symptoms, signs and abnormal clinical and laboratory findings, not elsewhere classified (R00-R99)”. It is then listed as “Dyslexia and other symbolic dysfunctions, not elsewhere classified (R48)” with the subcategory “Dyslexia and Alexia (R48.0)”. All of the aforementioned categories give no further information despite the title and the allocation of the disorder. More specific information is provided in the subcategory “Specific developmental disorders of scholastic skills (F81)”. In this section, ICD-10 lists “specific reading disorder (F81.0)” and “specific spelling disorder (F81.1)”, which refer to the impairment of only one specific skill as well as the abovementioned ‘mixed form’ of dyslexia “mixed disorder of scholastic skills (F81.3)” where both, reading and writing are affected. ICD-10 defines these forms of dyslexia as “disorders in which the normal patterns of skill acquisition are disturbed from the early stages of development. This is not simply a consequence of a lack of opportunity to learn, it is not solely a result of mental retardation, and it is not due to any form of acquired brain trauma or disease” (cf. Online1; Online2; cf. Häfele & Häfele 2009: 18).

2.2. Characteristics of Dyslexia

The most apparent symptoms of dyslexia are writing problems and an increased amount of writing and spelling mistakes. Furthermore, dyslexics are often slow at reading, make a lot of reading mistakes and show reduced reading comprehension. Additionally, many dyslexics have a reduced linguistic memory and feel overwhelmed when they read and write due to an increased cognitive strain (cf. Häfele & Häfele 2009: 18). As a result, many dyslexic children develop a general aversion to reading and read less frequently than their peers if at all. This in turn might result in a limited vocabulary and smaller general knowledge and thus might impair not only their language skills and abilities to learn new languages, but also their general ability to understand and learn input in all scholastic contexts and life (cf. Fallent 2011: 3).

Dyslexia is often accompanied by other deficits, such as speech impairment, impairments of auditory or visual perception, reduced vocabulary and psychological problems (cf. Häfele & Häfele 2009: 19). As mentioned before, the majority of dyslexics struggles with an impairment of the linguistic memory, which is crucial in memorizing and remembering facts and data. Thus, dyslexics are often slower in naming objects, numbers, colors, etc. Furthermore, people with dyslexia often have considerable problems with visual tasks, such as comparing or distinguishing signs, letters and word forms (i.e. the visual image of the word). Several studies, such as for example Nation, Marshall and Snowlings (2001) have found that “relative to […] children reading at the same level, dyslexic children [are] less accurate at naming pictures that have long names, and they [make] a disproportionate number of phonological errors” (2001: 241). With regard to phonologic awareness, many dyslexics have problems with combining phones in order to form words due to the reduced linguistic memory and have a limited ‘phonological awareness’ i.e. they lack awareness of the phonological structure of words and “the ability to reflect explicitly on the sound structure of spoken words” (cf. Snowling and Hulme, 1993; as cited in Lovett 1999: 112; cf. Häfele & Häfele: 22).

2.3. Types of Dyslexia

2.3.1. Acquired Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a broad term referring to writing and reading deficits in general. In order to investigate the consequences of dyslexia on second language acquisition, it is important to examine the different types that have been defined and consequently point out which types of dyslexia are relevant for the topic of this seminar paper and will be dealt with in the following.

Generally speaking, acquired dyslexia and developmental dyslexia can be distinguished as the two main types of dyslexia. Acquired dyslexia refers to all forms of dyslexia that have been caused by neurological or physical damage, for example as a consequence of strokes, heart attacks or accidents. This means that patients with acquired dyslexia were literate before they suffered neurological damage and show problems with reading, writing, or language only after the unfortunate incident. Pratter states after Thomson (cf. Thomson 1984:9f; as cited in Pratter 2001: 7) that people with acquired dyslexia often also show symptoms of aphasia. (cf. Pratter 2001: 7; cf. Hillis 2004: 236-239).

With regard to acquired dyslexia three subcategories have been defined on the basis of the kinds of errors patients make: phonological dyslexia, deep dyslexia and surface dyslexia. Patients with phonological dyslexia can understand and read familiar words, but have problems with understanding and reading unfamiliar or new words. Furthermore, they have trouble with interpreting nonsense words (cf. Pratter 2001: 7; cf. Hillis 2004: 236-239).

Deep dyslexics also show the aforementioned problems with understanding unfamiliar words and nonsense words. Additionally, they have problems with semantic understanding and mix up words or understand other semantically related words instead of the actual words (i.e. they might read forest as trees). Furthermore, many deep dyslexics have problems with the visual interpretation of words and some have a combination of semantic and visual problems. For example, errors in visual interpretation might result in reading signal instead of single and a patient with the aforementioned combination of semantic and visual problems might read sympathy as orchestra, due to the link via symphony (cf. Coltheart et al. 1980; as cited in Pratter 2001: 8; cf. Hillis 2004: 236-239).

Finally, patients with surface dyslexia “show difficulties in recognizing words as whole units. They rely greatly on the process of sounding out the possible relationship between graphemes and phonemes” (Pratter 2001: 8). Thus, patients with this type of dyslexia struggle with understanding words that have been pronounced wrongly, as they interpret words on the basis of sound and not via visual recall from memory. Furthermore, patients with surface dyslexia also have problems with distinguishing homophones i.e. words which are pronounced identically but have different meanings (e.g. raise vs. rays or ice cream vs. I scream) (cf. Pratter 2001: 8; cf. Hillis 2004: 236-239)

2.3.2. Developmental Dyslexia

The second type of dyslexia – developmental dyslexia – is not caused by damage after a person has been literate but exists in the individual from the beginning on and causes problems when the individual struggles with learning to read and write. It is this type of dyslexia that has neurobiological etiology (cf. Hynd 1995: 9-10) and is defined as developmental disorder in ICD-10, as children face problems in their development of literacy. With regard to literature and common discourse it is usually developmental dyslexia people refer to when talking about dyslexia in general, as it is particularly problematic in the scholastic development of otherwise healthy children. Reid and Kirk define developmental dyslexia as follows:

Dyslexia may be caused by a combination of phonological, visual and auditory processing deficits. Word retrieval and speed of processing difficulties may also be present. A number of possible underlying biological causes of these cognitive deficits have been identified and it is probable that in any one individual there may be several causes. Whilst the dyslexic individual may experience difficulties in the acquisition of reading, writing and spelling they can be taught strategies and alternative learning methods to overcome most of these and other difficulties (Reid and Kirk 2000: 3; as cited in Pratter 2001: 10).

It is this type of dyslexia this seminar paper will focus on with regard to second language learning, as it will examine problemsdevelopmental dyslexics face when learning a new language. In the following, the term dyslexia will refer to developmental dyslexia, unless stated otherwise.

In order to investigate why dyslexics have difficulties with foreign language learning, it is important to examine what language learning and linguistic awareness means and which aspects are involved in the acquisition of literacy. Furthermore, the deficits dyslexics have with regard to the aforementioned awareness areas and acquisition processes will be discussed in order to highlight problems dyslexics might face when learning a foreign languages.

2.4. Prerequisites for the acquisition of literacy and deficits caused by dyslexia

In order to learn to read and write certain skills are crucial i.e. certain skills are ‘prerequisites’ for a normal acquisition process of literacy. Häfele and Häfele (2009: 43) list the following:

- Quality of processing and speed of processing
- Prosody and prosodic awareness
- Linguistic awareness: sound and syllable perception
- Phonological awareness
- Linguistic working memory

With regard to processing, Häfele and Häfele (2009: 44) state that fast processing is a key criterion for accurate auditory perception and understanding of linguistic stimuli (Benasich et al. 2002; as cited in Häfele & Häfele 2009: 44). Linguistic information changes very fast and acoustic stimuli replace one another permanently in the flow of speech, which makes it hard to distinguish sounds. As a consequence, a reduced speed in processing leads to a reduced or incorrect intake of information. Furthermore, different kinds of stimuli have different processing rates. It takes us longer, for example, to distinguish visual stimuli than to distinguish sounds. The human brain needs between 20 and 30 milliseconds to distinguish two visual stimuli, which is referred to as fusion threshold. In order to perceive the different stimuli in correct order - referred to as auditory order threshold - the human brain needs 30 to 40 milliseconds (cf. Pöppel 1985; as cited in Häfele & Häfele 2009: 44-55). It is assumed that the auditory order threshold i.e. how fast we can process stimuli while still being aware of their correct order plays a role in dyslexia and the processing rate is thought to be crucial in the development of phonological awareness (cf. Häfele & Häfele 2009: 44-45).


Excerpt out of 27 pages


The Effects of Dyslexia on Second Language Learning
With a Special Focus on English as a Foreign Language
University of Graz  (Anglistik)
Research Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
696 KB
Legasthenie, Dyslexie, Dyslexia, Lese- und Schreibschwäche, Dyslexie in der Fremdsprache, Dyslexie und Fremdsprache, Legasthenie und Fremdsprache, Dyslexiker unterrichten, Englisch für Legastheniker, Teaching Dyslexics, Foreign Language Learning for Dyslexics
Quote paper
Hannah Maria Depaoli (Author), 2015, The Effects of Dyslexia on Second Language Learning, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Effects of Dyslexia on Second Language Learning

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free