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Dyslexia…Is it Overlooked in Spanish-Speaking Struggling Readers?

Categories: Assistive Technology, Audiobook Library, dyslexia, Education & Teaching, Educators, Learning Disabilities, Reading Strategies for K-12, Teacher Best Practices

Teacher working with students in a classroom on the computer. Reading difficulties, such as dyslexia, cross all ethnic and linguistic lines. For teachers of English Language learners, it may be doubly difficult to identify the signs of dyslexia when searching for the underlying causes of why a student struggles to read. 

In the United States, 10.9 million school-age children speak a different language, and 80% speak Spanish. Sadly, only 21% of Spanish-speaking English Learners in eighth grade have achieved “proficient” or “above proficient” levels in reading.

For these students, educators may misdiagnose dyslexia as simply the struggle to learn a new language. Additionally, some teachers lack the training to look for signs of a learning disability, particularly when it is cloaked by a language barrier. Even fewer teaching professionals are trained to use effective strategies and resources to teach and remediate such students. 

How do we recognize the signs of dyslexia in Spanish-Speaking English Learners?  What explicit strategies and resources can we use to empower these learners to be more socially and emotionally connected to literacy and learning? How do we build fundamental skills in decoding and comprehension while giving ample opportunities for the student to read grade-level text?

Strategies and Supports for Spanish-Speaking Struggling Readers

On August 7, 2019, Learning Ally hosted an edWebinar led by educators *Nelda Reyes, a Dyslexia Interventionist at San Marcos CISD, and Alexis Juusola, Education Specialist on the Academic Services Team of the Texas Region 13 ESC. These experts discussed actionable teaching strategies aimed at Spanish-Speaking English Learners who struggle to read. 

Earn CE certificates by listening to this edWebinar, and to learn how to:

  • Understand the relationship between the Spanish language and phonological processing

  • Learn assistive technologies that improve reading comprehension

  • Identify instructional strategies to try with Spanish-speaking struggling students

  • Build background knowledge, increase fluency skills and strengthen vocabulary 

  • Empower Spanish-speaking struggling students to become engaged learners

Characteristics of Dyslexia

If we notice a Spanish-speaking student struggling with fluency or rapid naming of digits, letters, and shapes, consider investigating a diagnosis of dyslexia. Some other characteristics to look for include: 

  • Inability to blend syllables and words together 

  • Difficulty accessing oral vocabulary words 

  • Finding the right word and looking for synonyms

  • Slow reading speed and comprehension

  • Following multiple-step instructions

  • Remembering a series of numbers

  • Intensive lack of prosody

  • Struggling to copy notes

Another important characteristic to watch for is when a student exhibits being an excellent “out of the box thinker,” but their writing skills do not match their oral language and vocabulary skills.

Number One Criteria in Diagnosing Dyslexia in Spanish-Speaking English Learners – Fluency and Rapid Naming Skills 

The Spanish language is syllabic and highly rhythmic; rhyming is important to the development of reading. A critical relationship exists between the Spanish language and a student’s ability to “phonologically process words,” i.e. develop patterns children often use to simplify adult language. 

Phonological awareness is important, however, it is not necessarily the key factor in recognizing dyslexia in a Spanish-speaking student. A common misconception is to use the same criteria to diagnose a Spanish-speaking student with dyslexia as we do an English-speaking student with dyslexia. 

Connecting Neural Pathways – Finding Common Ties Between English and Spanish  

English and Spanish are languages based on alphabetical symbols and common sounds. Research on brain activity shows cognitive advantages to biliteracy, such as a rapid transfer of skills when learning a second language. These changes in neurological processing can be achieved when the educator uses explicit instruction and resources, like audiobooks to provide a multisensory reading experience

To improve skills in comprehension, prosody and for independent reading, Mrs. Reyes and Ms. Juusola recommend human-read audiobooks to scaffold their instruction with digital content that is on grade-level and age-appropriate. 

Leveled Readers Are Only Part of the Answer 

Many teachers try to find “leveled” content that meets the students’ decoding level, rather than their intellectual level, but this isn’t always the best option. Without access to grade-level content, students lose the opportunity to develop vocabulary and background knowledge. Audiobooks give students the exact same content they would find in a book, but in an easy-to-absorb format. 

High-quality human-read audiobooks from Learning Ally enrich the reading experience because students can follow the highlighted text with their eyes while listening to the text spoken accurately and authentically. This allows their brains to process the information with automaticity so they can enjoy a deep reading experience. Deep reading, in contrast to “skimming” or “superficial reading,” is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading to enhance comprehension and personal enjoyment of a text. Being able to experience this with the assistance of audiobooks creates a positive reading experience that can lead to empowering a student’s social and emotional confidence. 

Join Learning Ally’s Empowering Struggling Readers Professional Learning Community 

Join a dynamic network of educators across the nation who believe in a common goal – “literacy for all students.” 

For more teaching strategies to enhance the learning potential of Spanish-Speaking English Language Learners with reading deficits, listen to the Learning Ally archived edWebinar in its entirety to receive professional learning CE certificates. 


*Nelda Reyes is a 2019 National Award Winner of the Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Award for outstanding performance and exemplary teaching in U.S. schools.

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