In recent years, it has become more and more common to hear terms like “special needs education” and “dyslexia” within the educational society and, particularly, among the second language acquisition sector. The impact that such learning difficulties may have on the learning process of a foreign language and the decoding of new information has been a major concern that has arisen among teachers as well as language specialists and, of course, parents. However, this concern is mainly focused on young learners. But what happens with the adult dyslexic population?
In 30 years working as an English teacher, I have encountered countless adults whose difficulties in reading and language acquisition persist from their childhood. This, unfortunately, has a negative impact on their lives, as they fail to achieve an acceptable level of mastery of reading and writing in a foreign language. In most cases, the adults I have taught are highly passionate, motivated and successful business people, each one in its own field. From accountants to lawyers, from engineers to CEO´s, all of them have thrived in their jobs. However, they had never been able to read in English, let alone incorporate vocabulary or grammatical structures.
Most of these students arrive at the first lesson with the same statement: “If you talk to me in English I can understand almost everything you say, but I cannot read”. The frustration they experience when faced with simple words in English which they cannot utter creates a barrier and blocks them from the learning process. To clarify the immense gap that some people experience between their audio comprehension and their poor (if even existent) reading skill, it is crucial to mention some of the complexities that the English language presents. The most notorious one is the fact that the English alphabet consists of 26 letters (graphemes) which produce 44 different sounds (phonemes). Furthermore, if we consider that in order to acquire literacy, especially in alphabetic writing systems such as English, segmentation of speech into phonemes is crucial (Brunswick, McCrory, Price, Frith, 1999), then the aforementioned characteristic of the English language can be regarded as an extra difficulty that dyslexic students must face. In the words of Fantoni (1999): “English is an “opaque” language, characterized by discrepancies between the phonetic and the graphic dimension. This is a problem for the dyslexic students, who tends to write words exactly the way he listens to them.”
Therefore, the immense effort that conversion from grapheme to sound, and vice-versa, represents for dyslexic students blocks their language learning ability. By teaching them the technique of reading and the principals that lie beneath the reading skill, we unblock the path and allow language acquisition to flow naturally. As Kelli Sandman-Hurley says: “People with dyslexia have the ability to learn to read, they just need to be taught the way they learn, and they require accommodations to succeed via other learning modalities (…)”. In other words, students with dyslexia are not failing at acquiring a second language, but rather the system is failing to provide them with the necessary teaching/learning accommodations to succeed.