English Learners and Dyslexia

Determining if reading difficulties stem from where a student is in the English language development process or if it stems from a true disability.


  • Dyslexia is neurobiological in nature.
  • Dyslexia tends to run in families.
  • Dyslexia presents in different ways depending on the language written or spoken.
  • Dyslexia will present in an English learner’s home language, not just in English.


  • Students learning to read in a language other than their native language are likely to exhibit poor reading skills for some period of time while learning the second language (Everatt et al., 2010; Youman, 2012).
  • When English learners are acquiring English they lack both vocabulary knowledge, phonological awareness and phonics skills. This is a normal stage of English language development.
  • Students developing language in a bilingual setting may often fall behind their monolingual peers for a time.
  • Students literate in their home language may experience interference from that language as they learn English; this is not dyslexia.


A writing system is a set of symbols that can represent individual phonemes or sounds (alphabets) or syllables (syllabaries). There are also writing systems, such as Chinese and Japanese, which use symbols to represent both sound and meaning (semanto-phonetic). There are also languages such as American Sign Language that do not have a corresponding written system. In fact, only about one-third of the world’s 6,912 languages have writing systems.

The characteristics demonstrating dyslexia may be different depending on the type of language the student speaks. Some languages are written with syllabic representation rather than letters (such as Japanese Kana) and others may be logographic, meaning the symbol looks like the object it represents (such as Chinese).Languages with a phonemic orthography (such as Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Finnish, Czech and Polish) have a close correlation of letters to sounds.

In English there are over 250 possible letter combinations (called graphemes) to represent 44 sounds (called phonemes). (Moats, 2005). For example, the long /a/ sound can be spelled in at least six different ways: a, ai, ei, ay, ey, and a-e. One reason for this variety of graphemes is that English has been influenced by several languages, primarily Anglo-Saxon, French, Latin, and Greek (Moats, 2005). An English Learner may require more instruction in spelling than he or she may have required in his or her home language: spelling challenges may be expected and may not constitute a sign of dyslexia.


  • Has instruction in English been appropriate?
  • What is the student’s current English language proficiency level and have they made progress over time?

Determining if an English Learner has dyslexia

  • Characteristics of dyslexia will appear in both the student’s native language and in English; assessments done in both languages will help distinguish English learning difficulties from dyslexia.
  • Conferences with the family will help to determine the student’s history in home language development. Ask when the student learned to speak and if they had any difficulties learning to read and write in the home language.)
  • Testing in the student’s native language for skills such as phonemic awareness will be most beneficial.
  • In FCPS the Dual Language Assessment and Consultation team provides services to assist school teams seeking solutions for English Learners who are experiencing ongoing or significant academic difficulties.  Services are provided through a consultation and when appropriate, through a dual language assessment.


The definition of dyslexia indicates that the difficulties are often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.”

In the case of English Learners, difficulties are not unexpected, and the difficulties with the phonological component of language are often accompanied by difficulties in oral language comprehension as well. Thus, the characteristics of dyslexia are often not truly recognizable until English oral language comprehension skills have been developed and begin to outpace the skill development in the phonological component of language.

There are 7 integral factors that should also be considered when determining whether or not an English Learner indeed has a disability.  These are: learning environment factors, personal and family factors, academic achievement and instructional factors, previous schooling factors, cross cultural factors, physical and psychological factors, and oral language and literacy factors.

Characteristics of second language acquisition can look like dyslexia.  We must be careful not to diagnose early in the student’s acquisition of English. It is important to ensure that appropriate English language development instruction and scaffolds are in place for the student.

For books, articles and websites about English Learners and Dyslexia, see “Dyslexia Resources.”

Everatt, J., Ovampo, D., Veii, K., Nenopoulou S., Smythe I., al Mannai, H., & Elbeheri G. (2010). Dyslexia in biscriptal readers. In N. Brunswick, S. McDougall, & P. de Mornay Davies (Eds.), Reading and dyslexia in different orthographies (pp. 221–245). Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press.

Moats, L. C. (2005). How spelling supports reading: And why it is more regular and predictable than you think. American Educator, Winter 2005/06, 12-22, 42-43.
Youman, M. (2012). Dyslexia in different languages and English language learners. In N. Mather & B. J. Wendling, Essentials of dyslexia: Assessment and intervention (pp, 223-240). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.


The FCPS online dyslexia handbook provides information and resources to FCPS schools and parents alike as they support students with dyslexia.

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