Dyslexia is the most common learning disability, affecting 20% of the population. However it can be a challenge to differentiate between reading difficulties associated with characteristics of dyslexia and those that may be a result of the second language acquisition process. Determining the student’s actual challenges requires an understanding of the orthographic complexity of the language and its influence on reading and spelling difficulties.

Language-specific nuances can manifest themselves as difficulties in reading and spelling. Given this factor, it is vital that diagnosticians are knowledgeable about issues related to second language acquisition, the cross-linguistic assessment process and the interpretation of test results for the population they are assessing.

Examiners who have expertise in native language attrition, language dominance, cross-linguistic transfer, and the impact of special language programming and sociocultural factors on language acquisition and learning, are vital to getting accurate diagnoses.

In my work as a special education coordinator and diagnostician, I have recognized that there are specific guidelines that will empower diagnosticians and evaluators to evaluate dyslexia in bilingual populations. These include:

● Determine language proficiency or dominance before an evaluation. This will enable an evaluator to select the language used for assessments and help provide context to interpret results. The language(s) of testing should be driven by the comprehensive language profile of the student, including formal assessment of language proficiency.

● Understand how the language characteristics and reading processes of the native language will influence the acquisition of language and literacy skills in the second language. By doing so, evaluators can better determine what is atypical.

● Use peer comparisons to help identify what is typical according to a student’s linguistic development and experiences. According to Rhodes, when assessing a second-language learner, it is the examiner’s responsibility to ascertain to what extent the learner’s academic difficulty or failure is informed by a disability rather than pedagogy. Furthermore, according to Wolfram, the key consideration in distinguishing between a difference and a disorder is whether the child’s performance differs significantly from peers with similar experiences.

● Recognize the complexity of second language acquisition. It is important to understand whether a student has the academic language to be successful in the classroom versus being conversationally proficient. Academic language includes the vocabulary, complex syntax and abstract language not commonly used in everyday conversation. For example, a student may be able to chat with a classmate on the playground in their second language, but they may not be able to read a textbook or interpret directions on an exam.

● Assess primary and secondary reading and writing difficulties most associated with dyslexia in Spanish. Students may have relatively fewer difficulties with reading at the word-level and more difficulty with reading fluency and comprehension.

● Consider fluency, which involves reading words accurately with little effort, while maintaining an appropriate rate and prosody (pattern of stress and intonation in spoken language). Inability to do this may be a key indicator of dyslexia in Spanish. Each component of reading fluency (at the word, syntactic and passage levels) plays a role in higher-order reading skills, such as reading comprehension.

● Analyze within-language differences across different skill areas when interpreting test results. This can include comparing oral language comprehension and expressive language in the same language. This step helps to create a functional profile within the target languages. Examiners must compare functioning in both languages within a target domain, such as listening comprehension in English and Spanish. This allows for cross-language comparative analysis. The examiner must then consider any differences between the individual’s preferred language (or dominant language), and the language in which the individual receives reading and writing instruction. Lastly, the examiner must determine if the characteristics of dyslexia are present across the languages being assessed (Alvarado).

● Consider other common factors, such as age, language used at home, language used predominantly at school and within the community, educational history and socioeconomic status. These factors have the potential to impact language ability and learning.

The importance of inaccurate or missed identification

Statistics show us that emergent bilingual students are underidentified with dyslexia, likely due to confusion distinguishing between language acquisition and characteristics of dyslexia.

For example, in Texas, analysis of publicly available data from the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) shows that emergent bilinguals represent approximately 22% of the total student population, yet they only account for approximately 15% of the population of students identified with dyslexia. Further, even though the total percentage of students with dyslexia in Texas is around 5%, less than 1% of emergent bilingual students are identified with dyslexia. In this case, Texas is significantly underidentifying emergent bilingual students, since you would expect them to be represented at similar rates as they exist in the overall student population. This is important to understand, since missed or delayed intervention services result in diminished outcomes.

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability. However, differentiating between reading difficulties associated with characteristics of dyslexia and those that reflect the second language acquisition process requires specific nuances in the evaluation process to ensure that emergent bilingual students are not over-referred with dyslexia diagnoses or mistakenly overlooked.

About the author

Dr. Sarah Holman is a former Special Education Coordinator, Diagnostician and Bilingual Teacher, who now serves as Director for Riverside Insights.