Learning a foreign language with dyslexia

At a glance

  • Many kids with dyslexia find it difficult to learn a foreign language.

  • Most school districts don’t offer foreign language instruction tailored for kids with dyslexia.

  • There are strategies parents can try to help kids learn another language.

Kids with dyslexia can have trouble with learning to read and write in grade school. Middle school may bring another hurdle: learning a foreign language.

Many schools introduce foreign languages in sixth or seventh grade. And by high school, it’s often mandatory. Districts tend to require two years of foreign language in high school in order to graduate. But while having can make it hard to learn another language, it’s not impossible. And it may actually be helpful.

The benefits of learning a foreign language

For some students with dyslexia, learning a second language is an empowering experience. It may also help them understanding some of the nuances of English. With all kids, it can be a great way to tap into their cultural background. Plus, foreign languages can convey concepts that don’t exist in the English language.

“Which foreign language kids choose can make a big difference in how well they do. It’s important to follow their interests.”

The hurdles kids with dyslexia may face

Not all kids with dyslexia end up feeling empowered by trying to learn a foreign language, however. For many, it’s just too hard and stressful. That’s because they’re facing the same problems they had when they were learning to read and write in English.

They may not be able to recognize certain sounds, or associate letters with sounds. They may also have difficulty sounding out words they read and memorizing them so they can read them automatically.

Some kids might miss chunks of information and struggle just to stay focused. And all of them have the added complication of not being familiar with the language they’re learning.

Choosing the right language

Which foreign language kids choose can make a big difference in how well they do. It’s important to follow their interests. Kids who are fascinated by French may be more motivated to work at it. But kids who have no particular preference might want to take Spanish.

Spanish can be a good choice for kids with dyslexia. It’s more predictable than many languages — it has fewer rules and exceptions. It shares many of the same as English. And it has only five vowel sounds to learn.

Helping kids succeed at learning a foreign language

The same strategies that help kids with dyslexia learn to read and write in English can help them learn a foreign language. Ideally, schools would use a highly structured multisensory approach.

But most don’t offer this type of specialized reading instruction for foreign languages.

Fortunately, there are a number of things parents can do to help their child. Here are some steps to consider:

  • Ask about . There are teaching strategies that might help your child. One is giving extra opportunities for practice and review. Another is explicitly teaching the speech sounds of the foreign language. A third is directly teaching the connection between the letters and sounds. Your child’s school may not be able to offer this type of support, but it never hurts to ask.

  • Talk to the case manager. Your child’s case manager may be able to work with the classroom teacher on teaching strategies. You can also ask for accommodations and modifications to be added to your child’s . These might include shorter tests and assignments, alternative assessments, and extended time for tests.

  • Ask about a waiver. Some school districts will waive the foreign language requirement for kids with dyslexia. Find out what the policy is in your child’s district. Kids who can show that they’ve tried a language may be able to satisfy the requirement by taking an alternative, such as a Spanish culture or literature class.

  • Look into American Sign Language (ASL). Some high schools (and many colleges) recognize ASL as a distinct language with its own syntax. Since there’s no written spelling to master, it tends to be easier for kids with dyslexia to learn. Chances are your high school doesn’t offer it. But you can see if it’s offered at your community college and ask if the high school will accept the credits. Your child may also be able to take the course online.

  • See about summer school. In the summer, when your child isn’t trying to juggle the demands of multiple subjects, learning a foreign language may be easier. Plus, classes in summer school may be easier than they are during the school year.

You may not be able to remove the hurdles your child faces in learning a foreign language. But you can help your child handle the challenges, just like you do when you help with reading issues.

Key takeaways

  • Foreign language is a requirement for graduation in many high schools.

  • Spanish and ASL can be good choices for students with dyslexia.

  • The school may be able to offer accommodations that can make language learning easier for students who struggle.


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