Learning to read does not come easily to all children. Some children experience serious problems with reading and spelling. They have difficulty recognising and learning letters, they mix up sounds or letters, or read very slowly. With proper help, this often passes, but in some children these issues remain. Persistent problems with reading and spelling are sometimes due to dyslexia. What exactly is dyslexia? If a bilingual child has dyslexia, will they succeed in learning to read in both languages? Does dyslexia work the same in all languages, e.g. also in languages with different scripts? What can you do as a parent, teacher or speech language therapist to support bilingual children with dyslexia?
Researcher Ioulia Kovelman explains that being dyslexic means that you have long-term problems with reading. More often than not, these become clear when – after several years of schooling – children have persistent difficulties in connecting sounds and letters or sounds and characters but even before children start to read, there may be some signs that children will develop dyslexia, for example if they struggle to recognise which words rhyme with each other. We also learned that dyslexia works similarly across languages and so if your bilingual child has dyslexia in one language, they will have it in another. The tests used to diagnose dyslexia may however differ depending on whether sounds are matched to letters, as an in alphabetic languages such as English or Arabic, or to characters as in Chinese. One thing that Ioulia made very clear is that being bilingual does not make dyslexia any worse.
In Let’s Klets, we spoke to Miriam de Oliveira from the International School Breda in the Netherlands. She told us about the Language Friendly School network. If you understand Dutch, you can hear me talk to the co-founder of this network, Ellen-Rose Kambel, in this episode of the (Dutch edition of the) podcast (Season 2, Episode 6).
Ioulia Kovelman is Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan in the US. She a neuroscientist studying the bilingual brain and how children learn to speak and to read in more than one language. You can read more about her research at the Language & Literacy Lab here.