Learning Languages

Dyslexia occurs at the individual word level, with the result that language learning, and in particular achieving accuracy and fluency in reading and written language, is challenging. Dyslexia occurs across a continuum from mild to severe. Students at the mild end of the spectrum may manage learning additional languages. However, students with more severe dyslexia will struggle and may need to get an exemption. There are quite strict guidelines laid down which students must meet before the Department of Education will grant an exemption from Irish. See the Irish Exemption page for more details

Children with dyslexia often have trouble with phonological processing, working memory, auditory discrimination, syntax and sequencing – all skills necessary for language mastery. To succeed at learning a second language, one must first have reasonable competence in one’s first language. This does not mean however, that learning a second language is not possible at a later stage. Due to the additional support provided in primary level and the support parents provide outside of school, some students who are exempt from Irish may become competent enough in their first language to enable them to take on another language when they reach second level or perhaps third level.

Language learning is always a difficult issue where students with dyslexia are concerned. The benefits of having a second or third language are undoubted, and many students with dyslexia become quite competent in other languages. Students should at least have the option to try languages at second level. However, consideration must be given to the difficulty experienced by some students in acquiring literacy in their first language. As a rule of thumb, it could be said that a student who met the criteria for exemption from the study of Irish would be likely to encounter difficulty with the written form of other languages. Each case must be looked at individually and no hasty decisions taken which might close off later options.

Meeting entry requirements for third level education, and working and travel abroad, particularly within the E.U., are the main reasons for choosing to study languages. The colleges of the NUI (which include NUIG, UCC, Maynooth, and UCD) normally require three languages for entry. However, A student who has been allowed an exemption from the study of Irish at school, on the basis of specific learning difficulty, will qualify for exemption from the NUI Irish language and third language requirement for matriculation. Students who did not apply for, or receive, an exemption from the study of Irish while in the school system, may still apply to the NUI for an exemption from the third language requirement on the grounds of significant dyslexia. Further information on the NUI exemption process is available at: http://www.nui.ie/college/entry-requirements.asp

In language and third level education, it is wise to research which courses of study involve a compulsory language element. Some IT, Business and Engineering courses may include a language, even though a student may gain entry to the course without having taken this language at second level.

If a student decides to study a foreign language, then it is advisable to choose languages that are similar phonetically to English and have a more transparent orthography. Spanish or Italian might therefore be a better option than French for students with dyslexia. While Latin is not often offered in schools these days, many teachers feel it is a ‘dyslexia friendly’ choice.

Finally, life is not only about exams and college entry. Many people with dyslexia will find benefit from studying and speaking a foreign language and may further develop their competency later in life. They are more likely to succeed if they have overcome the difficulties with literacy in their first language.


Learning Irish with Dyslexia

While learning languages can be a challenge for learners with dyslexia, the impact is variable. What we know from the research is that to give learners the best opportunity to learn a language we must use the science of reading and teach them the skills needed to decode (read) and encode (spell). This means using a phonics-based structured approach and also teaching language and spelling rules.

English is one of the most complicated and irregular languages with a large number of rules and exceptions to be learned (a complex orthography), in comparison to a transparent orthography such as Italian which is much more regular. Irish is also considered a complex orthography but it is more regular than English with fewer exceptions to be learned. While there has been a growth in the availability of Irish phonics resources in recent years, their usage is not at optimum levels. Examples of these structured phonics literacy resources in Irish are:

Please encourage your school to use such approaches to give all students the best opportunity to learn Irish.


Websites and Apps for Language Learning

Duolingo provides interactive learning of languages in progressive stages with extensive writing and diction exercises. Languages include Irish, French, Spanish, German and Italian.

Memrise focuses on teaching languages to students and uses visual flashcards to help them remember words and phrases for many different languages. Although the app focuses on languages it can be used to learn geography, history and sciences.

‘Think Bilingual’ Learn by Doing (iOS). This App guides the learner to think in the target language through immersion in real-life situations. The current version is free.