Dyslexia in the ESL Classroom

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DyslexiaI have noticed a number of students in my class lately who have been diagnosed with dyslexia but I haven’t really known how to help them. I knew that these students might need a bit more time to complete a reading or writing task and that they would probably have problems with spelling but that was about it.

I wanted to know more about what signs to look out for in class and some better ways to help students, rather than just giving more time to complete tasks.  There isn’t a lot of information out there for ESL teachers but I did some digging. You can find below: information about dyslexia, how it affects language learning and some tips for teaching.

If you have any more tips that you know work in class, please do comment.

What is Dyslexia?

Dyslexia is neurological and affects everyone differently. It causes difficulties with reading, spelling and writing skills but can also affect your memory and organisational skills. These skills are all vital for learning a language so it is no wonder that learning English can be a daunting task for dyslexic students.

Here is a quick overview of some of the characteristics of dyslexia: www.nessy.com


75% of dyslexic students have difficulty with phonological processing: It is challenging to hear sounds then process this and link it with a letter or symbol.

Students may have difficulty differentiating between different phonemes and syllables in words, blending phonemes (creating a word from the separate sounds heard), hearing the difference between long and short vowel sounds and sequencing sounds in a word.

With dyslexia the working memory is impaired which means holding a sequence of letters heard in your head and then writing them down is difficult. If you can imagine holding a phone number in your head while you search for a pen to write it down, that is your working memory. So for example if you say the word ‘BAT’ and ask the student to recall the first sound (B) or what sound would be left if you took away the first sound (AT), they would find it challenging to remember the sequence of the word. Finding words that rhyme with this (CAT,HAT) would also be difficult.


Auditory dyslexia will create problems with listening skills. Students cannot hold large amounts of verbally given instructions in their working memory and will often appear forgetful. They might ask for instructions to be repeated, will struggle to take notes during listening exercises or pick out key words if there is a lot of background noise. Remembering sequences such as months of the year or the alphabet would also be difficult.

Visual Processing

dyslexia-testingVisual processing dyslexia will cause problems taking in information presented in texts however dyslexic students often have excellent abilities to see visually and in 3-D (Pictures, diagrams, colour coding) . Whilst the ability to think in 3-D is beneficial for some things, it can cause issues with flipping letters in words. The letters ‘p’ ‘b’ and‘d’ are often confused when reading or writing.

Processing new information in a text then retrieving knowledge from memory and sequencing it causes reading to be a slow and taxing task. So much effort is put into deciphering the word that it is hard to think about the meaning of a text on top of this. Students may quickly forget what a text is about.  An impaired working memory also means that tasks such as copying text from the board or note taking will be time consuming as the student will only be able to store short chunks of text in their working memory at a time.

Why is it a problem when learning English?

Some languages are more complicated to learn than others. We can talk about how complex a language is through its orthographic depth. ‘Deep’ languages have a complex relation between spelling and phonemes and can be problematic for dyslexic students whereas transparent languages have a clear letter to sound correspondence. English is considered to be an orthographically deep language whereas languages such as Spanish and Italian are fairly transparent.

A higher rate of diagnosis of dyslexia can be seen in countries where the L1 is orthographically deep.  There is, for example, a higher rate of diagnosed dyslexia in England than in Italy. So an Italian student who displays mild or no signs of dyslexia in their L1 may have more pronounced difficulties whilst learning English due to the added complexity of the language. On top of that, they will also find it difficult to utilise coping strategies learned in their L1 when working in a L2 language.


Signs in class


  • Difficulty/slow to copy information from the board
  • Can seem disorganised and forgetful
  • Can be slow to recall information/find the correct word from memory
  • Difficulty in learning sequences e.g. the alphabet, months of the year


  • Quick to forget new vocabulary
  • Difficulty with prefixes, suffixes and identifying the root of the word.


  • Skipping lines, letters and words in a text
  • Forgets what a text was about immediately after reading
  • Needs more time to read texts


  • Forgets verbally given information quickly
  • Difficulty differentiating between long and short vowel sounds
  • Difficulty hearing different syllables/sounds in a word


  • Flipping of letters such as ‘d’ ‘b’ ‘p’
  • Reversing sequence of letters
  • Spelling words as they sound
  • Writing in long sentences with little punctuation
  • Changing tenses mid sentence
  • Poor handwriting
  • Ideas unorganised


Teaching tips


  • Give an overview of the lesson at the start of each class.
  • Copying from the board is difficult. Provide handouts when possible.
  • Use mind maps and visual aids to summarise class content.
  • Break down complex tasks: Give clear instructions and discuss/demo them to help students visualise the task.
  • Spontaneous answers are difficult – give students questions in advance and time to prepare


  • Break down words into chunkscolour code syllables, prefixes, root words etc.
  • Use visuals, actions, diagrams and colour to create memory anchors with important vocabulary, points.
  • Provide other examples of words when rules apply
  • Flashcards help by giving visual aids
  • Use Mnemonics to help with spelling


  • Use colours to highlight keywords, themes or parts of words
  • Use larger fonts and wider line spacing
  • Never ask a dyslexic student to read aloud
  • Encourage students to stop and review after each paragraph (What were the important points in that paragraph?)


  • Eliminate background noise when doing a listening exercise
  • Help students link visuals to listening tasks (Look at the pictures in the course book before starting the listening)
  • Use pronunciation exercises with visual cues to differentiate between phonemes, long and short vowel sounds



  • Give strategies for sequencing presentations and writing (Mind maps, numbering ideas)
  • Give extra time to complete task
  • Don’t underline errors and expect student to self correct. Write the correct spelling/correct form for them.

2 Responses

  1. Nadine Early

    Thanks Cheryl – this is very useful, and important for EL teachers to be aware of.

  2. Very Helpful and great tips and solutions. Thank you.

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