Identifying English Language Learners with Dyslexia


There’s a lot of conversation when it comes to identifying English Language Learners (ELL) with dyslexia. Many times, there can be hesitancy to label a student with a reading disability when their problems can be due to the fact that they are learning a new language. Since early identification is essential in remediation, it’s important to know the reasons why ELL students are hard to identify, what we need to look for, how to select the best assessment measures, and what to do once we identify them with dyslexia.

Who is an English Language Learner (ELL)?

Adelson, Geva, & Fraser define an English Language Learner as a student who is learning English as a second or additional language. They can range from immigrants that have come to the United States from a country where English is not their home language to individuals that have been born in a country where English is the official language but are being raised in a non-English speaking household.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, ELL represents approximately over 10% of the total K-12 student population. Between the 2009-10 and 2014-15 school years, the percentage of EL students increased in more than half the states, with increases of over 40 percent in five states. The vast majority of ELs were Hispanic or Latino.

Why is it Hard to Identify ELL Students with Dyslexia?

There can be a lot of uneasiness when it comes to starting the conversation of identifying ELL students with dyslexia. The uneasiness comes from not knowing if the difficulties are due to a learning disability or if they are just part of the process that comes with learning to read in another language. According to Linan-Thompson, ELL students are vulnerable to identification while they are in the process of acquiring literacy in another language. ELL students who are unidentified often fall further behind if they do not receive appropriate instruction in a timely manner.

What are the Similarities and Differences Between English and Spanish?

The similarity between English and Spanish is that both are alphabetic languages and there will be a lot of similarities in the process of learning to read. According to Ford and Palacios, children will first develop essential alphabet, phonological, and print skills. Next, students begin to apply those skills when reading.

Once reading becomes more automatic, students will be able to read more complex texts since they will be able to place greater demand on comprehension. It was also noted that the primary difference between Spanish and English reading development and instruction occurs during the period in which students are learning to decode text. This is because both languages have differences in their orthographies (spelling systems).

English has an opaque orthography which means there’s a less direct correspondence between the letters and their sounds. Phoneme and grapheme correspondences are less predictable and there are many situations in which they are considered to be irregular. On the other hand, Spanish has a transparent orthography. Phoneme and grapheme correspondences are very predictable and once they are learned, students are able to read the text in Spanish with high accuracy.

What Role Does that Play in Identifying Students?

Dyslexia is going to show up in every language but the role of the language’s orthography plays a meaningful role in determining how. Research has shown that the prevalence of dyslexia will be higher in languages that have an opaque orthography. Difficulties with decoding and phonology are also going to be more common. In languages with transparent orthography, we are going to see more difficulties with reading rate and processing speed.

What Do ELL Students Need Once Identified?

ELL students that are identified with dyslexia are going to need more intensive instruction in order to develop the necessary reading skills. Instruction for ELLs needs to be systematic, explicit, and cumulative. Per the National Reading Panel, it should include strategies that address phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, guided oral reading, academic vocabulary and morphological knowledge, and reading comprehension strategies. There also needs to be a strong emphasis on oral language as it plays an important role in vocabulary development.


When we think of ELLs, we need to be aware of the factors that come into play when it comes to identifying them with dyslexia. By now, we are aware that we can successfully identify ELL students with dyslexia as soon as we notice a struggle as opposed to having to wait for them to develop proficiency in English. Knowing the orthography of their first language will help us guide the selection of the best assessments that can be used in order to determine identification. Once students are identified, we need to make sure that they’re getting the intensive instruction they need. They need to receive instruction that addresses their reading and vocabulary development needs.

By using the Amplio platform, educators will be able to provide ELLs with systematic, explicit, and cumulative instruction that’s needed for their remediation. Want to learn more about dyslexia on the Amplio Learning Platform for Special Education? Schedule a private consultation with one of our teaching and learning experts today. 


Carla Moriel

Carla Moriel

Carla Moriel is a Subject Matter Expert for Reading Interventionist and District Relations Executive at Amplio. She has 15 years of experience in public education in Texas, 6 of those years were spent providing Dyslexia therapy to English and Spanish-speaking students. She received her CALT (Certified Academic Language Therapist) certification in 2018 from Southern Methodist University. Carla is trained in multiple dyslexia curricula.

Explore More Topics

Schedule a consultation with one of our special education experts to see how you can improve student success with Amplio.