Academic Quarterly

Reading Expert Fall 2019

Reading Disability or Developmental Challenge? How to Distinguish the Difference with English Learners

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month. The Reading Expert column in the Academic Quarterly has highlighted dyslexia in the Fall 2018 and Winter 2018 editions. In these editions we highlighted the misconceptions about dyslexia and offered some insight into the difference between screening for reading difficulties and evaluating for dyslexia. In this edition of the Reading Expert, we will discuss a few ways that educators can distinguish between a true reading disability and English language development challenges in English learners.

Determining whether a student who is learning English is having difficulty with reading due to the developmental nature of language learning or due to reading disability can be difficult; however, distinctions do exist and can be considered when addressing the needs of English learners.

Let’s begin with some basic assumptions about dyslexia that are confirmed by research.

  1. Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/ or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003).
  2. Dyslexia is not a visual problem and special colored lenses cannot help to improve students’ word reading difficulties.
  3. After students who have word reading difficulties receive evidence-based interventions, brain imaging studies have confirmed that brain activation patterns change to resemble the activation patterns of typically developing readers (Simos et. al, 2002).

The graphic below developed by Esther Geva and her colleagues at the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education shows a framework for thinking about reading comprehension for second-language (L2) learners (Geva & Wiener, 2015). It is divided up into four main sections. On the left (blue) the components of oral language development are highlighted (phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics). On the right side (green) the components of literacy are shown (concepts of print, letter sounds and phonics, word reading and fluency, text structure, text fluency, and comprehension strategies). On the extreme left and right sides (orange) are contextual factors that play an important role in developing reading comprehension in L2 learners. At the bottom (yellow) are foundations or the building blocks for the components listed above.

An important feature of this framework is that text fluency is situated between language comprehension and reading comprehension strategies and is separate from word reading fluency (shown under text fluency). This distinction between word and text reading fluency is important and relates to the extent that oral language proficiency plays a significant role. More on this distinction will be forthcoming.

Geva and her colleagues also suggest that assessment of cognitive processes can support distinguishing the factors that relate to word reading skill. These cognitive processes include rapid automatized naming (RAN), phonemic awareness, working memory, and executive functioning. “These largely innate universal cognitive abilities predict word reading, reading comprehension, and reading fluency cross-linguistically even when the oral language proficiency of the L2 learners is still developing” (Geva et. al, 2019, p.11). The research is clear that oral language in the L2 does not have to be well-developed in order for L2 students to be reliably assessed for reading difficulties (Geva et. al, 2019).

This idea that oral language proficiency is a prerequisite for word reading skill is a common misconception among educators and is one source of under-identification of students who may have reading difficulties.

Students with decoding difficulties also displayed similar cognitive profiles on working memory, vocabulary, listening comprehension, and syntactic skills, which were distinct from those displayed by poor comprehenders or typical readers, even though those who were L2 learners performed worse on language measures than their L1 peers. (Geva et. al, 2019, p. 28).

Geva and her colleagues suggest that assessment in RAN and phonemic awareness are two common assessments in a battery of assessments currently used by school psychologists to determine reading difficulties and these can be reliably assessed in the L2. The key to interpreting these data is to not only assess the L2 student(s) who may be having difficulty, but also to assess typically developing L2 students in RAN and phonemic awareness so that a comparison can be made between typically developing L2 learners and the L2 learners having difficulty. If RAN and/or phonemic awareness are below standardized norms or below those of typically developing L2 learners, then that provides some evidence that these L2 students may have a word reading difficulty ( i.e., dyslexia), and should be provided with intervention. However, other data should be explored as well.

The following other data should be explored:

  • Family history of reading difficulty. If one parent has had a past reading difficulty or still does, there is about a 40% chance that the child will also have a reading difficulty.
  • Response to intervention. Have the L2 students having difficulty been provided with evidence-based intervention and are still not responding thus showing persistent word reading and spelling difficulties? Again, compare to other L2 learners who are receiving word reading interventions.
  • Typology and phonology of the first language compared to the second language. For example, the phonology and writing system of Spanish and English are much more similar than Chinese and English. The level of difference between languages’ phonology and writing systems has implications for how quickly students learn to read.
  • Prior schooling, prior literacy experiences, and age at which students begin to learn to speak and read in the second language also play a role in the development of L2 reading skills and comprehension. There is scant research to guide assessment of word reading difficulties for students above 4th grade who are just beginning to learn to speak and read in the L2. Thus, multiple factors have to be taken into consideration.

Fortunately, we know how to intervene for students with word reading difficulties. For younger students who are second language learners and typically developing, they can learn decoding skills at a similar rate as do their native speaking peers.  Oral language proficiency is not a prerequisite to learn how to decode. This knowledge is helpful for those students who are having difficulty and similar approaches to intervention can be applied.


Lyon, G.R., Shaywitz, S. E., Shaywitz, B.A. (2003). A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 1-14.

Geva, E. & Wiener, J. (2015). Assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse children and adolescents: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Springer

Geva, E., Xi, Y., Massey-Garrison, A., & Mak, J. (2019). Assessing Reading in Second Language Learners: Development, Validity, and Educational Considerations. In Kilpatrick, D. A., Joshi, R.M., & Wagner, R. K. (Eds.). (forthcoming) Reading problems at school. New York: Springer.

Simos, P.G., Fletcher, J.M., Bergman, E., Breier, J.I., Foorman, B.R., Castillo, E.M., Davis, R.N., Fitzgerald, M., and Papanicolaou, A.C. (2002). Dyslexia-specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial training. Neurobiology. 58:1203–1213.


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