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June 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Language Learning with Dyslexia

Emmanuelle Betham, M Ed (Applied Linguistics), Educator/Coach, Company Director, author of An Introduction to Coaching for Language Learning, 2018, Amazon Publishing, and numerous articles on Education and Parenting, is a native French speaker who specialises in Language and Communication (for Business, Family, Self-Management and Performance), facilitating Confidence, Resilience and Growth – including in the acquisition of English and French as Foreign Languages. Email:  


Coaching For Language Learning (CFLL) is a successful approach for helping English learners with dyslexia. It works well because it focuses on language as a meaning-making set of tools, allowing individuals to achieve something other than decoding words. I do not pretend there is scientific evidence for this claim – it is purely driven by personal experience and observations while working with learners with dyslexia – but I can give you a rational explanation for it.

Dyslexia is characterised by difficulties in the technical exercise of reading, not by cognitive difficulties in the activity of reading. There is ample literature to support that individuals with dyslexia are not less intelligent for it (The dyslexic advantage, Eide, 2012, Penguin Publishing Group; The Gift of Dyslexia, Davis 2010, Perigee Books; Reversed, Letchford, 2017, Acorn Publishing – just to name a few). Therefore, if you give learners the opportunity to discover and carry out ‘reading for meaning’, where their curiosity and intellect is engaged, you will, as I did, allow them to overcome dyslexic limitations. This does mean putting on your teacher-coach hat and adopting the CFLL approach.

I believe that CFLL is the best way of identifying and working beyond individual limitations, and I consider dyslexia to be one of these limitations. Like many other limitations identified in language learning, dyslexia occurs when the focus is on language form, as opposed to focus on meaning. Focus on form is the traditional way of learning languages, and although it may appeal to and work for some, including linguists, it does not work for everyone.

CFLL works wonders to overcome dyslexia when learners are coached to read to understand what is being said (cognition), rather than read to sound or spell words (vocabulary); when the focus is on the message conveyed by the text (communication) rather than on how individual words fit together (grammar); when text becomes a source of information rather than a set of words and syntax, and especially when the text responds to and feeds the learner's immediate and genuine interest. A good way to introduce this new 'context' for learning is to do 'shared research' (see An Introduction to Coaching For Language Learning, E. Betham, 2018, page 64), where the teacher-coach takes on the role of research companion or facilitator, helping learners find texts relevant to them, to their area of expertise, or related to a passion of theirs, and invites them to discuss content (rather than form). Learners with dyslexia will absorb language form as a by-product of focusing on content - naturally. And that's the way it works best for them.

However, as learners with dyslexia have never been given the opportunity to approach language this way before, the teacher-coach needs to create and introduce this new context for language learning overtly, explaining how it is not the way they have been taught or how they have tried to learn language before. The teacher-coach needs to be patient while learners get acquainted with this new method and when learners show resistance for fear of the unknown. The teacher-coach needs to be attentive so as to notice when a learner automatically reverts to trying the traditional way that doesn't work for them, and reassuringly put them back on the right track.

The teacher-coach needs to guide learners with dyslexia to picture and understand what is being said rather than see or study how it is being said or spelt. For example, ask about the difference between ‘deciduous’ and ‘evergreen’ trees, which ones shed their leaves and which ones do not, look out for examples of each type of trees, etc. rather than point out that the first word has four syllables and the second only three even though they both contain nine letters. These are two different exercises. The first exercise (what is being said) consists in receiving meaning through reading (input) while the second (how it is being said or spelt) prepares for the activity of writing (output). It is after all very natural to learn skills of input before skills of output. As babies, we all did a lot of listening (input) before we started to speak (output) about what was most essential and meaningful to us then - indeed, first spoken words are often mama, teddy, more, etc. Similarly, we learnt to read (input) before we learn to write (output).

Moreover, we need to pay attention to how learners with dyslexia learn to read. There are different types of dyslexia, but all share the same difficulties in word recognition, decoding and spelling – and that is the nature of this limitation, of this obstacle, of this rock in the road. When cycling, if you look at a rock on the road, you are much more likely to hit it than if you look beyond it. Similarly, spending extra hours working on word recognition, decoding and spelling difficulties often seems to make problems worse. Yet there are ways to work around the rock of dyslexia. In CFLL, we do not focus on the problem, but rather on options for solutions, we look at ‘what works’ well in each specific situation and expand on that. We help individual learners find out how they learn best.

It makes absolutely no sense to me to ask a learner with dyslexia to focus on how a word is written (output) when we could be reading for information (input) and engaging cognition (or the thinking skill which, with this approach, should not be affected by dyslexia). I suggest working on input first as it encourages thinking, and it then feeds into output. In doing so, invite learners to not only hear, picture and feel what the text is saying, but also to prioritise what they do understand and not to worry about a particular word - See chapter XIII in Coaching For Language Learning, E. Betham, 2018. And give them time to do so.

If a learner with dyslexia reads too fast, ask them to slow down and stop after each phrase that carries meaning, in order to mark a pause during which they can represent in their mind and feel what is being said – also allowing you and any other listeners to do the same.  You may suggest using commas, full stops and other punctuation marks as visuals for where to mark pauses. Make sure they have made a mental visual/sensory representation of each message conveyed during each pause, before they continue reading. If needed, you can suggest that chunks of meaning be quickly drawn on a piece of paper, or mimed, in any way that makes sense to the learner.

Definitely ask the reader to summarise, explain, or give their opinion about the content of each paragraph just read. This not only allows you to check the reader is getting some meaning, it also gives you the opportunity to discuss what you are reading together and thereby make it a meaningful enjoyable activity.

If a learner with dyslexia reads too slowly and seems to get stuck on some words, it may be due to one or a combination of the following things:

  • They may have reverted to automatically focusing their attention on deciphering rather than getting meaning, so you would need to remind them to do the latter;
  • They may have lost interest in the subject matter and/or not understood the messages conveyed which is why they reverted to deciphering, so you would want to assess what is happening, discuss meaning and possibly look for another text that they find more interesting;
  • The subject may be pertinent but the text may too complex. If this is the case, you will need to either address their interest with easier text, or coach them to overcome their feeling of disorientation triggered by certain words that cause them to slow down and get distracted. If they struggle to read a particular word, first ask them if they know what it says; this sometimes helps them remember how to read it. If the trigger word has no meaning alone, whisper it attached to the meaning phrase it belongs to and make a matching miming gesture. If it is an article, say it with the noun it defines, for example whisper “the beach” and make a wavy movement to represent water. If it is a preposition, attach it to the rest of the phrase, for example whisper “to the beach” and make a forward movement to indicate the meaning of direction conveyed by “to”. If the preposition has a meaning on its own, like “over” or “under”, then say it alone, and mime its meaning.

Whenever possible, encourage the learner to continue reading and picture and feel what is being said. If this is not possible, I use a technique which consists of welcoming a new ‘strange’ word as we would a new person with the intention of ‘making friends’ with it - literally saying to it: “hello you, what do you look like? what sound do you make? and what are you saying?”, thereby associating the look and sound of the word with its meaning. A similar technique is suggested for acquiring symbol mastery in The Gift of Dyslexia, and in this book, R. Davis also describes a couple of methods he has developed, to help learners recover from disorientation, named ‘Orientation Counselling’ and ‘Alignment Procedure’. Indeed, the most important is for learners not to stay disoriented and lose sight of the meaning.

Prioritising meaning and content does not mean that we cannot specifically address form. We can, if it is relevant. If, when reading aloud, a learner mispronounces a word to the extent at which it cannot be understood, the teacher-coach will intervene because meaning is jeopardized. Also, when a learner shows interest in mastering the pronunciation of a word or memorizing its spelling, of course the teacher-coach will address their request, just because when they ask, this means they are ready. However, the teacher-coach's way of responding is to find with them what will work best for them and help them find a mnemonic of their own, like a sound, picture or gesture association. For example, in French the name of the letters g-h-t together sound like the sentence "j'ai acheté" which means "I bought" so this has always helped me (a French native speaker) remember the order of these letters in the word "bought" and in other similar words in English (fought, thought, brought, sought, taught, caught, etc.).

If you meet too many trigger words, it will be difficult to stay focused on the general message conveyed; it is then advisable to choose, adapt or compose, a more approachable, easier or shorter text, that you can discuss together. Just remember, in CFLL, the aim is to get learners with dyslexia used to, and comfortable with a new context for reading: the practice of reading for meaning.


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