How do dyslexic students learn a foreign language?


For students identified with dyslexia, learning a foreign language is a whole new world, which opens up many opportunities for them: It may provide additional motivation to excel, but it could recreate difficulties.


Imagine this scene: Your student has been identified as dyslexic. They have been receiving services, accommodations, and/or modifications all through elementary school. They have successfully completed elementary and are ready to move into secondary – all of which comes with a new set of concerns: new people to get to know, lockers, multiple classrooms, schedule changes and now – your dyslexic student has to take a foreign language. This might cause you to think, “How in the world will they succeed? They are dyslexic in their primary language, so how are they expected to learn a foreign language?”

What difficulties may arise during a foreign language course and what are the additional considerations that could be made for the secondary student identified with dyslexia and their foreign language credits?

Let’s dive in:

A Whole New World

Starting in middle school, a foreign language may be offered but is not typically mandatory until high school. Whereas some students may appreciate this cultural opportunity and it may provide additional motivation to excel, for many students identified with dyslexia, it could recreate difficulties that may feel like the first time they were identified with dyslexia. 

According to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), “Students who have significant difficulties in one or more of the four language systems in their mother tongue (i.e., reading, writing, listening, and speaking) may experience problems with foreign language learning in school.” Depending on the foreign language, they may have difficulty hearing the differences in the sounds while others may have difficulty sounding out the words.

If your student identified with dyslexia is struggling in a foreign language requirement, these are possible difficulties you may see them experience:

  • Learning and remembering the sounds of the new language
  • Repeating sounds, words, phrases, or sentences when presented orally
  • Breaking down reading/spelling multisyllabic words 
  • Recognizing common spelling patterns 
  • Understanding and applying grammatical rules (such as plurals or word order) 
  • Comprehending spoken language (in the foreign language)
  • Hearing a word and then recognizing it as the same word in writing 

      Keys for Success

      Knowing what your student could experience, and knowing that the foreign language requirement may be inevitable, what can be done to support them?

      Well, the short answer is plenty! Whether the student has a 504 or IEP, accommodations and modifications can help support the student and align with their specific learning needs. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult. Some languages like French, Danish, and English can be hard for students with dyslexia, while others like Spanish, Latin, German, and Italian may be easier. What makes them more difficult is the “opaqueness” of the language, or how easy it is to break words up into their component sounds and how well those sounds match up to letters and letter combinations. 

      How do dyslexic students learn a foreign language?

      Spanish has a one-to-one relationship, meaning there is one symbol to one sound, which is easier to learn. However English may have only 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 speech sounds.

      For example, Spanish has a one-to-one relationship, meaning there is one symbol to one sound, which is easier to learn. However English may have only 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 speech sounds, depending on ASAPAccented syllable, number of Syllables, Adjacent letters, and the Position of the letters. It is well known that there are many rules to consider in the English language when it comes to reading and spelling and it is one of the most difficult languages to learn.

      Additionally, many secondary settings are now considering ASL (American Sign Language) as a part of a foreign language choice. Why is this a consideration? One of the educational benefits is that ASL gives students a fresh perspective on their own language and culture. Some high schools and colleges recognize ASL as a distinct language with its own syntax. Since there’s very little written spelling to master, it tends to be easier for some students with dyslexia to learn. Another benefit is that ASL is multisensory, as it is VAKT – visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile, with two or more of the pathways used simultaneously.

      If ASL is not offered for your student at the secondary level, take heart – your student can still be successful. There are additional ways to present a different foreign language in a multisensory way. According to IDA, the process for inserting multisensory principles into foreign language instruction could include:

      • Providing multiple opportunities for repetitive practice. 
      • Teaching language concepts in a logical progression by categorizing concepts and organizing them from simple to complex. 
      • Making connections between the known and unknown and explicitly teaching the new information.
      • Systematically and explicitly teaching the phonemes of the foreign language. 
      • Directly teaching students the sounds of the letters in the foreign language and the letter(s) the sounds represent. 
      • Showing students how to think about a language concept to be learned and asking them to explain the concept in their own words.
      • Modeling for students the way to break apart words while reading, especially words with more than one syllable. 
      • Modeling for students the way to put parts of words back together for spelling.


      Chartering new waters at the secondary level can be intimidating. Throwing a foreign language requirement on top could create additional difficulty for the student identified with dyslexia. Using accommodations and modifications can help streamline some of the support needed with a foreign language requirement. Considering an opaque language such as Spanish or Italian can help to mitigate some difficulties in learning a foreign language. If ASL is offered, it could be a good option for consideration. Using multisensory techniques can aid in breaking down instructional components into manageable components. 

      Secondary is a whole new world, which will open up many opportunities for our students identified with dyslexia. Don’t let a foreign language requirement hinder that excitement and growth your student will experience.

      Aimee Rodenroth

      Aimee Rodenroth

      Aimee Rodenroth is the Subject Matter Expert on Dyslexia for Amplio. She has 30 years of experience in public education in Texas, 27 of those years were spent in some form of dyslexia education. She received her CALT (Certified Academic Language Therapist) certification in 2006 from LEAD, and later obtained her QI (Qualified Instructor) certification in 2018 from Southern Methodist University. Aimee is trained in multiple dyslexia curricula.

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