At a glance
Dyslexia exists all over the world and in all languages.
Dyslexia is often missed in bilingual children because people assume they’re simply struggling with a new language.
Experts also don’t all agree on how speaking two languages affects kids with dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a common learning difference. It exists all over the world, in all languages. But even though the difficulties are largely the same in each language, kids who are bilingual and have dyslexia face a special set of challenges.
Here are answers to common questions parents may have about dyslexia and bilingualism.
Does the brain develop differently when a child speaks two languages? If so, how does this affect reading?
New research has suggested there may be small differences in how the brain develops in a child who’s bilingual. But it’s a controversial subject.
Some experts see a “brain benefit” to being bilingual. But many don’t think it creates any real advantage, or that the skills gained in speaking two languages translate to more general skills.
Experts also don’t all agree about how speaking two languages affects kids with dyslexia. Some believe that being bilingual may help kids cope with their reading issues. Others think that speaking two languages may make it even harder for kids to gain reading skills.
One thing they do agree on is that being bilingual doesn’t cause dyslexia or increase the risk for it. So there’s no reason to stop speaking a first language at home. In fact, there are important social and emotional benefits to continuing.
Do bilingual kids have the same weaknesses in both languages?
That’s what research suggests. It seems that the brain development and weaknesses in people with dyslexia are similar no matter what language they speak. The challenges may not look the same in each language, however. Kids might make more reading mistakes in English than in their first language, for instance. But their reading might be slower in their first language than in English.
Do signs of dyslexia show up later in bilingual children?
The signs don’t show up later. But very often, they’re identified later. Teachers and even parents may think kids are having trouble with reading because they’re struggling with a new language. A good indicator of dyslexia is if kids have trouble reading in their first language as well as the second language. But only a full evaluation will be able to show if a child is having a language learning problem or a reading problem.
How are bilingual kids evaluated for dyslexia?
The best way to evaluate bilingual kids is to give tests for dyslexia in both languages. Then, evaluators can see if a child is struggling with reading-related tasks in just one language, or in both.
This is a realistic option if the first language is Spanish. Spanish-language reading evaluations are generally available in the United States. But that’s not the case with languages less commonly spoken in the U.S. Kids who speak Chinese or Arabic, for instance, will likely be evaluated in English only.
Dyslexia tends to run in families. So it may be helpful for the evaluator to ask for a family history of reading issues.
What’s the best method of instruction for bilingual kids with dyslexia?
Experts largely agree that programs based on OG should be used with bilingual children. But parents may wonder: Is it more effective to teach kids with dyslexia to read in their first language? Or should kids learn in the language they will read in at school?
Research points in both directions. But ultimately, what matters most is that kids have access to the needed resources and high-quality instruction. In the United States, kids usually have more access to these supports if they’re taught to read in English.
Learn more about the specific challenges English language learners with learning and thinking differences face. And read more about evaluations and testing for English language learners.
If possible, a bilingual child should be tested for dyslexia in both languages.
Bilingual children with dyslexia should be taught to read using a structured, multisensory approach.
It’s important that bilingual kids with dyslexia learn to read in the language that has the most teachers and resources.
About the author
About the author
Peg Rosen writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.
Fumiko Hoeft, MD, PhD is a psychiatrist and a cognitive neuroscientist who examines dyslexia, reading acquisition, and brain development.