Dyslexia: Learning to Read in your Native Language is a Little Like Learning A Second Language

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Feeling and knowing something experientially is different than hearing about it or only understanding it intellectually.

You could be super bright and intelligent, but when your reading is marked by slow and inefficient decoding of single words, its hard to comprehend what you’re reading.

Makes sense, right?

It’s the most basic and common sense awareness someone can have about why there’s often a gap between “listening comprehension” and “reading comprehension” for students with dyslexia.

When you’re bogged down when reading individual words, getting meaning from what you read is reduced. There are other factors that impact reading comprehension, but this is the ground floor.

Now, living abroad and being a beginning Spanish student, I get it. I get a little more than before. I can feel it a little bit in my bones.   I’ve been an expert in reading and dyslexia and learning differences for a long while.

But… knowing it personally is different than hearing it intellectually and even clinically.

I’ve heard it said, and I’ve said it myself:  Since most people with dyslexia struggle with the mechanics of language (rather than higher order language skills), learning to read and spell is similar to learning a second language. Given that we know that the core weakness of dyslexia is the struggle to translate speech sounds to the graphic language code (letters, syllables, letter combinations), this makes almost perfect sense.

For me however, understanding this connection between decoding and comprehension was at first an intellectual one.  Then over time, working directly or indirectly with close to a thousand kids with learning differences, my sensitivity, understanding and compassion grew. Over the years I saw and to some extent felt their frustration. It was however,  from that comfortable distance, a clinical divide. I could “appreciate” the issue more personally, but not so much from the inside.

Now as a Spanish student living abroad, I get it more than ever!

Since the rules and patterns and irregularities of Spanish are different enough from English, when I read out loud in class I can feel my comprehension dip significantly as direct result of my slowness in decoding. I’m pretty accustomed to looking at language from a structural point of view. and perhaps somewhat talented in learning language.  Still, if I try and read Spanish paragraphs too quickly, I don’t know what I’m reading. I now know the individual sounds and letter correspondence, but they’re not yet automatic.

The other reality is this: I’m in a class where all my classmates are in the same boat. So, though I don’t like the feeling of not knowing, my peer group can relate.  We’re all in need of occasional life preservers. more time, explicit instruction, and compassion and empathy from each other.

When you’re feeling like you’re the only one, as most kids with dyslexia feel, it’s a lonely and shaming place to be.

Sanford Shapiro

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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2 Responses to Dyslexia: Learning to Read in your Native Language is a Little Like Learning A Second Language

  1. Sanford says:

    Richard, yes it’s me. And I’m so out of web blogging shape that I didn’t sign my name originally to this post. Glad you’re paying attention.

    You said: “However, you already know a language, and you already know you’re smart. Imagine you were struggling like that with your first language and that that struggle made you feel slow and less than smart.”

    Yes, for sure. That’s what I was getting at when I said, “I’m pretty accustomed to looking at language from a structural point of view. and perhaps somewhat talented in learning language.” and, “The other reality is this: I’m in a class where all my classmates are in the same boat. So, though I don’t like the feeling of not knowing, my peer group can relate. We’re all in need of occasional life preservers. more time, explicit instruction, and compassion and empathy from each other.

    And “When you’re feeling like you’re the only one, as most kids with dyslexia feel, it’s a lonely and shaming place to be.”

    Now that I’m mostly retired, I have time to put in for this site that you started so very long ago :). And while the technical stuff backstage is still a bit daunting for me, I’ve got more time now and know there’s still plenty of need. Hope all’s well with you.

  2. Richard says:

    I take it this excellent post is you, Sandy, and you’re in Central America struggling with Spanish.

    Indeed, you’re now experiencing something similar to what us dyslexics feel. However, you already know a language, and you already know you’re smart. Imagine you were struggling like that with your first language and that that struggle made you feel slow and less than smart.

    I would love to learn a second language and I know it’s possible, but when many foreign language classes are based on the structure of English and I’m weak there, it gives me pause.

    Have fun, keep on reporting, it’s interesting reading.

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