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What the Welsh tell us about reading

Biliteracy needs to be taught, especially to dyslexics, Melanie Butler discovers

It’s hardly news that dyslexics may face problems learning English. The case of Alex dates back 20 years. But only recently have neuroscientists confirmed its findings: students who read well in one language may be dyslexic in another.

Reported levels of dyslexia are much lower in transparent languages, such as Japanese and Spanish, where one sound is represented by one letter or symbol. Much higher levels of dyslexia are reported for opaque languages like Danish and English. Spain reports dyslexia levels of two per cent, in Britain it’s nearer ten.

In other words, around ten per cent of the learners in your EFL classroom are likely to struggle with reading in English. Yet some 80 per cent of those that do, may have no such problems in L1.

What should we do? Identify them, according to the guidance issued by the British Council for UK language schools awaiting inspection. Under the topic of student assessment, it says: “Identification of any special educational needs to be factored in”.

Easier said than done. Diagnosing dyslexia in a native speaker of English normally takes a highly trained specialist up to three hours, according to the British Dyslexia Association. Diagnosing dyslexia in L2 takes longer.

We must also avoid misidentification. Neuroscientists may dismiss learning styles as a myth, but British Council guidance requires teachers to deal with “Styles of learning (visual/auditory/kinaesthetic) and special educational needs”.

Dyslexia is commonly marked by weak phonemic awareness. So, most dyslexics won’t fit the profile for auditory learners. Under the British Council categorisation, reading is visual learning, so dyslexics cannot be visual learners either. Could we end up identifying our dyslexics as ‘kinaesthetic learners’ and miss their special needs altogether?

It may not be a complete disaster. UK dyslexic champion, Anne Margaret Smith of ELT Well has found multisensory learning, a practice often used with learners labelled as kinaesthetic, is helpful with dyslexics.

Or why not leave them alone and let them just pick up. After all we know that reading is a transferable skill – or is it?

Welsh government researchers looked at the evidence on L2 reading skills from around the world as part of a Rapid Evidence Assessment on Language Learning and what they found might surprise you. In their summary for policy makers it states:

“Instruction for the development of reading skills needs to include explicit attention to both lower-level and higher-level processes; it cannot be assumed that either will be transferred from a student’s L1 without instruction.”

This won’t surprise the Welsh. Wales has two languages; both use the Roman alphabet. Welsh is very transparent, it has 29 phonemes, 22 consonants and seven vowels, and uses 29 letters. English is very opaque. Depending on the variant, it has around 44 phonemes including some 12 vowel sounds and up to 8 diphthongs, but it uses only 26 letters.

Every schoolchild in Wales, whether in Welsh-medium education or English, learns to read in both languages. Our Welsh researchers found evidence that this approach worked with other pairs of languages. So, everyone may benefit from re-learning how to read. Their research suggest beginning with phonology. “Phonological training can help beginner learners to process word forms, but not necessarily word meanings,” they promise.

This certainly makes sense for dyslexia – low phonological awareness is a key indicator of the condition. Learning to distinguish the phonemes of English, perhaps by the systematic use of the IPA, may help. And so may synthetic phonics.

Most EFL Learners may have already learned to use lower-level processes to decode their written L1, but synthetic phonics can help them recognise the common patterns of sound letter correlations in English.

The Welsh are clear about another crucial element: “Strategy instruction is an effective method of developing reading comprehension skills.”

All children learning to read in English use strategies to help them: reading to the end of the word, guessing from context, using information from pictures or tables, predicting what comes next. Neuroscience shows us that children who learn to read in transparent languages simply spell out the word in their brain letter by letter.

Reading strategies have routinely been used in EFL classrooms for over 20 years and we should go on teaching them. Like phonics and phonemic awareness, they may be necessary, but they are probably not sufficient. We may need to teach both top-down reading strategies and bottom-up decoding methods – especially with our hidden dyslexics.

Images courtesy of ©GRAHAM HORN and Library
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