Are we raising a breed of ‘dyslexic’ foreign language learners?

All teachers who have taught dyslexic children at some point in their career will know how challenging it can be to keep them engaged and motivated, how low their self-confidence as language learners usually is, how frustrated they often get as they struggle to make sense of what they read. But hang on, doesn’t this description also apply to quite a few of the language learners we teach?

Well, in fact, one may argue that many of our students do exhibit a form of deficit in their foreign language competences akin to a disorder called ‘Phonological dyslexia’, described by Ellis (1984) as the inability ‘to read unfamiliar words or non-words aloud, suggesting impairment of grapheme-phoneme conversion and/or phonemic assembly’. In other words, ‘Phonological dyslexics’ are individuals who are not able to sound unfamiliar words out. This inability to convert graphemes (letters) into phonemes (sounds) – unsurprisingly – seriously impairs these individuals’ reading comprehension skills.

Erler (2004) is highly indicative of this state of affairs. In her study of 359 year 7 students of French (from two middle-achieving English comprehensive schools) she found that after one year of instruction (with two contact hours a week) their knowledge of spelling-sound rules was poor, both schools obtaining the same mean score at the rhyming-word test she administered, i.e. 2.75 correct choices out of 14. She concluded:

The results seem to indicate that, with a few exceptions, pupils had little idea after one year of learning French about spelling-sound rules for principal vowel sounds in the language and for the general rule of silent final consonants. These are key rules for being able to decode from print to sound, and are essential for reading comprehension (p. 5)

What is equally interesting – and tragic – is that only 7.6% of Erler’s informants reported they felt ‘happy’ when reading French aloud in lesson; the vast majority of the students felt negatively about decoding and spelling written French.

Another interesting finding by Erler was that 75 % of the total sample Year 7s thought that it was indeed useful to know pronunciation and 63% stated that they were aware of subvocalizing to sounds when reading in French, confirming what we know about automatic phonological loop activation in working memory during reading (in simpler words: whether we are aware of it or not, the brain automatically converts letters into sounds as we read, even when we are not reading aloud).

These findings are dispiriting for several reasons. Firstly, because, as much L1 and L2 research clearly indicates (e.g. Stanovich, 1980; Bryant and Bradley, 1983; Sprenger and Casalis, 1995; Gathercole and Baddeley, 2001) decoding skills are crucial to comprehension of written texts and poor readers often exhibit serious deficits in their deployment. Heaps of research indicate that a child’s early knowledge of phonological awareness is a strong predictor of their fluency in later years (Stanovich, 1986). Muter and Diethelm (2001) found that students of French as a foreign language who were able to tell where syllables in a word begin and end were more proficient readers than those who didn’t.

Secondly, as I have argued in many of my posts and will write about more extensively in my forthcoming book ‘Breaking the sound barrier’ (Conti and Smith, 2017), phonological awareness is crucial in listening comprehension in that it helps the brain make sense of the speech flow by identifying word-boundaries, intonation patterns, etc.

Thirdly, and more tragically, as Erler’s concluded, the students she investigated exhibited decoding deficits (in French) comparable to those symptomatic of dyslexic reading impairment. Now, students who are de facto dyslexic are less likely to have high levels of can-do attitude and self-confidence in language learning, both strong predictors of success in language learning (Macaro, 2007). Could this be one of the reasons why many of our students don’t enjoy learning languages? Could addressing this major deficit enhance their motivation? I believe so.

Erler’s findings chime with my own experience as a veteran MFL teacher with over 20 years’ experience at primary, secondary and tertiary level. Decoding skills – also referred in the literature as GPC (grapheme-phoneme correspondences), spelling-sound rules or Phonological Awareness  – are not duly emphasized in British schools and, when they are indeed embedded in the curriculum, instruction is undermined – in my opinion – by the following shortcomings which serious limit its effectiveness:

1.Decoding skills instruction is not given sufficient prominence in the curriculum;

2.It is often an add-on; it is not fully integrated with the curriculum content and goals;

3.As per Dr Rachel Hawkes’ approach, phonics are often taught through gestures and tongue twisters, but the target phonemes are rarely consciously and systematically recycled in the lesson through listening, reading and speaking tasks which aim at their organic acquisition. This approach limits the acquisition of the target phonemes as it is divorced from fluency across all four skills and from real-life-like communication. In my approach the target phonemes are consciously recycled in every single task (both receptive and productive) I stage to teach the topic-at-hand (be it grammar, communicative function or vocabulary);

4. Instruction rarely ventures beyond word-level practice, which is not conducive to acquisition – the input we process and the output we produce usually contains more than one word…;

5.The target graphemes are usually sequenced randomly without considering (a) the level of challenge they pose to the learner; (b) how their teaching contributes to facilitate other aspects of L2 acquisition, such as grammar – for instance: (in French) a focus on letters that are silent earlier on in the instruction process will serve the purpose of assisting the acquisition of present tense forms. Instructional sequences ought to be based on a (possibly evidence-based) rationale;

6.Each target phoneme is not usually focused on for sufficiently long periods of time and recycled consistently and extensively across the curriculum;

7.Phonemic awareness skills (see picture below) are not focused on explicitly in the early years of L2 instruction, yet I have found that primary and year 7 students benefit greatly from practising them and research shows clearly that they prime the connection of sound to print.

Figure 1 : the Phonemic awareness development continuum (Courtesy of University of Oregon)


8.Students with poor phonemic sensitivity are not identified at the beginning of the course, yet I found it extremely useful to have a good idea from day one as to who was less gifted in this area of language aptitude (the natural predisposition to decode letters and repeat and manipulate sounds);

9.Students are rarely – if ever – tested on their decoding ability or phonological awareness (to assess progress in these areas). This is a serious shortcoming considering how pivotal this set of skills is for language learning effectiveness and success; I found that including opportunities for assessment (e.g. old school dictation or short transcription tasks) has increased my students’ focus on decoding skills and their motivation to learn them.

These and more common shortcomings of decoding skill instruction will be dealt with in greater depth in my next post.


Many foreign language students in England appear to have poor decoding skills. This hinders the development of their reading and listening fluency whilst seriously denting their confidence. As I have written in my forthcoming TES article ‘Enhancing MFL learner motivation – the road less travelled’, one of the most important reasons why our students lack confidence and motivation may relate to their inability to make sense of the target language, be its grammar or its decoding/pronunciation.

One of the group of students I have been trialling my decoding-skill training program with reported to me the other day that they were so much happier to be finally able to read out written French following a set of specific spelling-to-sound rules. They felt empowered by the decoding pinciples they had been taught, as the constant -often random – guessing frustrated them. I do believe that in languages like French and English, where spelling-sound correspondence can be challenging, a students’ sense of efficacy as a decoder can substantially enhance their motivation.

In conclusion, much more effort and thought should be put into effective decoding-skill instruction, which should go beyond the teaching of sounds through gestures, a few tongue twisters and listening or singing along to song; a principled framework should be arrived at, which integrates phonics instruction organically and systematically with the teaching of grammar and vocabulary and extensive practice across all four skills to ensure long-lasting retention and automatization.

To find out more about our ideas on decoding skills instruction get hold of our book, The Language Teacher Toolkit,