Dyslexia and Multilingualism

Dr Lindsay Peer CBE
There are many challenges facing education today – policy makers, educationalists, parents and dyslexic learners themselves all experience specific needs. All encounter increasing pressures from the changing demands, challenges and priorities of education specifically and society in general.
The challenges that we face today are demanding and complex. There are many places where there is a clear and unspoken agenda, which often attempts to compromise effective and essential practice based on sound research, for reasons of paucity of resources.
As we move into the 21st century and individuals move around the globe for reasons of work, we must recognise the needs of their children, the multilingual learners for whom diversity of skills becomes a necessity. We must also recognise the needs of all countries comprising multi-ethnic communities, where many languages are spoken. In the context of equal opportunities, we have a duty to recognise the needs of all of these people.
Amongst the populations of multilingual communities, there is a sub-group of people who are dyslexic and have a learning profile which is significantly different to that of their peers. They have traditionally been lost in the world of research and practice because of the complexities of their condition. Teachers and psychologists have tended to misdiagnose or ignore dyslexia in these groups because of a multiplicity of factors that seems to be causes for failure. Reasons cited often include home background, different or impoverished language skills, inefficient memory competencies, unusual learning profiles, emotional stress, imbalanced speech development, restricted vocabulary in one or all languages, leading to reading, spelling and writing weaknesses. There is recognition that numeracy for some is affected too. However, educators are often aware that these students are very different from others who experience difficulty, as they are often bright and able orally or visually. The difference between their abilities and the low level of written work they produce is very obvious. There are similar concerns regarding pupils who have specific difficulties while attempting to acquire a modern foreign language; they too will be obvious in these communities due to demands of national curricula.
There is a recognised need to identify those children experiencing dyslexic type difficulties as early as possible if they are to make the greatest progress in their learning. There is a critical need to develop identification tools that will give assessors and teachers enough information to develop learning programmes which will be of maximum benefit to the children with whom they work. These tests must be culture-fair and give enough information to apply appropriate strategies for learning both across the curriculum and in language and literacy based areas specifically. There needs to be an understanding at national and local level that it is not sufficient to simply use translations of tests if there is no recognition of and adjustment for cultural differences. I believe that it would therefore be of great benefit if policy makers would recognise this range of needs. One way in which they might deal with training needs might be to encourage both teachers and psychologists to work with at least one multilingual child with one of the specific learning difficulties whilst in training. This would set the stage for greater understanding in these two key professions and by so doing provide a broader national base of expertise. There are many policy makers at government level who feel that whilst they might like to fulfil their responsibilities in this area they do not know what to do or have a group of experts upon whom they can call. There are very few models of good practice that can be cited.
Whilst considering the making of provision we need to acknowledge the need for the development of teaching and learning materials that address areas of learning support. These are likely to be broader for multilingual learners than for those who are monolingual. Specially developed reading materials might usefully provide stimulation and motivation for learning and enhance the development of literacy skills. It is important that the materials acknowledge the diversity of communities and of individuals within these communities. 
0ne vital factor in working with dyslexic children is the need to dispel misleading myths. 
Avenues for effective communication necessitate openness to ensure the effective triangular working partnerships of parents, schools and the individual children concerned. There are still communities in which dyslexia is misunderstood and for whom awareness and understanding need to be raised. Until such times success is likely to be limited. This greater understanding needs to be accepted and acted upon by policy makers.
To conclude this short article, I suggest that the way forward should be determined by two imperatives:
  • What we believe must happen on ethical and moral grounds relating to equality and human rights; and
  • What our knowledge, skills and understanding tell us can happen.
Much has been achieved in the field of monolingual dyslexia. However there is still much to be achieved in the field of multilingualism, literacy and the overlap with dyslexia. 
It is my hope that in the coming years we will see great changes in policy, research and practice which will influence work in the field. These changes need to be shared by those working in internationally, as it is highly likely that most of what is discovered and works successfully in one place will be of equal benefit in others.
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