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Nijakowska, J. 2010. Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Reviewer: Debbie Clarke

17 September 2012

It was very pleasing to see the publication of this excellent book given the dearth of research in the area of dyslexia and foreign language teaching and learning.   Although the focus of this work is on school-age children, it is not difficult to see how the principles and some of the teaching activities can be adapted to suit the needs of dyslexic international students in or entering higher education.

The first chapter provides a thorough and helpful discussion of the various definitions of dyslexia, which highlights the complexity of the condition.  My only concern here is that the opportunity to introduce social models of disability, which are so crucial in our understanding of how educational systems create barriers to learning for dyslexic students, has been missed (see Riddick, 2001).  The chapter continues by providing a useful review of spelling and reading acquisition models and in relation to this, bottom-up and top-down processing.  Towards the end of the chapter, grain size theory which explains ‘substantial differences in reading accuracy and speed across languages’ (p.24) is explored.  Whilst being very informative this section appears not to reflect on the nationalities most likely to be seen by EAP practitioners (UKCISA, n.d.), so could be complemented by research on Chinese and Indian languages.

In chapter two Nijakowska addresses the causes of dyslexia. Given that this field has been and continues to be widely researched, she hedges her analysis by stating ‘causes are things that increase the likelihood of an outcome’ (Hulme and Snowling, 2009 cited in Nijakowska, 2010, p.33) rather than causes being fixed.  She comprehensively summarises the genetic and neurobiological causes of dyslexia and gives a detailed account of the phonological deficit hypothesis with clearly defined terms.  This chapter makes frequent reference to the anatomy of the brain, so knowledge of the vocabulary area would be an advantage for the reader.  Nevertheless, for those with an interest in learning about dyslexia, Nijakowska provides and intelligent overview of competing theories.

The central message of chapter three is that success in foreign language learning (L2) can be predicted by one’s native language (L1) ability.  I feel this is an important message since, in my experience, some ELT teachers’ question whether dyslexia exists in one language but not in another.  She discusses reasons other than dyslexia for difficulty in foreign language learning using the Matthew Effect as a vehicle and follows by citing perception studies that show the lower the foreign language aptitude, the higher the anxiety, the lower the motivation and optimism for learning.  This clearly has implications for practitioners in that teachers should aim to provide achievable goals and a supportive and motivating atmosphere in addition to teaching for variations in learning style.

For those EAP practitioners who wish to deepen their knowledge of dyslexia, chapter four offers an extensive discussion of the signs of dyslexia.  Although the focus continues to be on children, there is a small section that discusses dyslexic traits specific to adults.  It would not be a great leap for readers to see that this discussion exposes the difficulties of identification of dyslexia in international students whose common errors when learning English may be akin to common native-speaker dyslexic student errors. A brief overview of multilingual dyslexia assessment is given, but I feel some scripts, for example Chinese are treated simplistically and would be complemented by further reading (Pak et al, 2005, Swan and Smith, 2001).  Nevertheless, the detail that Nijakowska goes into in her exploration of dyslexic symptoms is excellent.

I completely agree with the conclusions that are drawn in chapter five of this book which emphasise the importance of multisensory learning (MSL) and the need for repetition and review when teaching dyslexic learners. These principles, rather than being the preserve of children, are important throughout the dyslexic student’s life and support the development of metacognitive skills and in turn learner autonomy.  In this chapter, Nijakowska describes the results from one of her studies where dyslexic students took a course in L2, focusing on the phonology/orthography relationship using the MSL method.  At the end of the course the dyslexic group outperformed both their non-dyslexic and dyslexic peers, who had taken traditional classes, in spelling and reading. This is a testament to the MSL method.

Nijakowska also stresses the importance of immediate positive feedback to bolster self-esteem which is a crucial aspect of supporting students who have possibly had quite discouraging experiences during their education. Furthermore, she supports inclusive education as dyslexic students can indeed benefit from normal classes in which small pedagogic changes will benefit all students.  Moreover, she has assessed materials intended for dyslexic students using L1 as suitable for teaching dyslexic bilingual students. These are important considerations for EAP teachers who often find resources are limited.

This informative chapter on teaching methodology is followed by a chapter that features some sample activities.  The activities show how the MSL methodology works in practice.  Pages 166-7 provide activities for orthographic awareness, page 176 has a very useful activity to promote morphological awareness and page186 features a game to promote grammatical awareness.  I have evaluated these as the most useable activities from an EAP teacher’s perspective.  However, as indicated previously, these activities cannot really be used without some alteration since they are unlikely to meets the needs of EAP students in their original form. However, they do incorporate the principles explained in this book and would support teachers in creating further materials to ensure they are providing a more inclusive classroom environment.

This book covers the main points with regard to teaching L2 dyslexic students.  I would highly recommend that a copy of this book is made available to all EAP practitioners.


Riddick, B., 2001. Dyslexia and inclusion: Time for a social model of disability perspective? International Studies in Sociology of Education, 11(3), 223-236.

Pak, A.K.H, Cheung-Lai, A., Tso, I.F., Shu, H., Li, W. and Anderson, R.C., 2005. Visual chunking skills of Hong Kong children. Reading and Writing, 18, 437–454.

Swan, M. and Smith, B., 2001. Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.

UKCISA, n.d. International students in UK higher education: key statistics. [online]. London: UKCISA. Available at: <URL:> [Accessed 30 August 2012].

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