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Giving a voice to dyslexic adult students who speak English as a second language
Jay Jericho D.Soc.Sc Syd
The Free School
This paper discusses best practices for tutoring post-secondary adult students with visual
perception dyslexia who speak English as a Second Language (ESL). There is a virtual
absence of scholarly research literature that examines the intersection of these two learning
challenges with reference to the peculiar dynamics that occur in the one tutor, one pupil
learning environment at post-secondary level. This study aims to fill this void in the literature
by examining the story of ‘Hiro’, aged 18. This student speaks Japanese as a first language.
Hiro presently studies social sciences and humanities undergraduate coursework subjects at a
leading research intensive Australian university. This paper examines aspects peculiar to
Japanese culture, such as Japanese masculinities.
This research paper aims to give post-secondary students with dyslexia a “voice” (Fuller et
al., 2004, p. 459) in the academic domain. I offer a self-reflexive account of what I am
discovering about a learning disability termed “dyslexia” from teaching ‘Hiro’ as a private
subject tutor since March 2015.
Hiro is 18, was born in Japan and emigrated to Australia with his family at age nine. A
neurologist diagnosed Hiro with a condition termed “visual perception developmental
dyslexia” at age seven (Eisenberg, 2007, p. 595). This form of surface Dyslexia is identifiable
by the way in which dyslexics read at a slow pace. Moreover, they distinguish text characters
a rate that is significantly slower than readers without a visual cognitive processing disability
(Robertson & Bakker, 2002, p. 100).
Hiro is a semi-fluent speaker of English. He speaks Japanese as a first language at home and
in most social situations and so he is classifiable as an English as a Second Language (ESL)
speaker (Lundberg, 2002). Hiro informs me that he struggles to study using the English
language partially because of the complex inconsistencies that exist in the orthography of his
non-native language (e.g. Dombey, 2009). Furthermore, being dyslexic exacerbates his
difficulty to master the English language. For example, Hiro (2015, NP) explains to me that
one reason which explains why he finds English a “daunting” language to learn is because
simple words such as “boy”, “box”, “toe” and “too” are “irregular” as they assign a different
grapheme to the letter “o”.
Hiro’s disability impedes his ability to read, prepare academic assessments and complete
written examinations under normal time constraints. Medical tests and anecdotal evidence
confirms that Hiro has an above average intelligence quotient (IQ) which is not uncommon
among students with dyslexia (e.g. Skues & Cunningham, 2011). Hiro studies a
double-degree Arts course that requires a minimum University Admission Index score of
96%. This fact is consistent with research that shows that dyslexics with a higher IQ are more
likely to succeed in the academic domain (Snowling, 2012, p. 7).
Hiro’s medical assessment states that his visual perception dyslexia is classifiable as “mild
dyslexia” (e.g. Lindgrèn & Laine, 2010, p. 184). His visual processing difficulties mostly
occur when he reads prose text such as words that appear in consecutive sequences such as
sentences and paragraphs (Warrington et al., 1993, p. 871). This impairment affects his
ability to read in Japanese and English, consistent with the language performances of most
bilingual dyslexics (e.g. Woolley, 2010, p. 84). The nature of Hiro’s dyslexia is consistent
with what Warrington et al. (1993, p. 871) terms “attentional dyslexia”. Hiro normally
requires approximately 60% more time to read and comprehend a scholarly piece of work
compared to students in the same cohort who do not have dyslexia.
Hiro’s visual cognitive dysfunction is not strongly linked to his auditory capacities. His
auditory processing skills are only slightly impaired and he is able to distinguish/process
spoken words without delay or difficulty in more around 95% of cases. This observation is
supported by a body of research that shows that written and spoken words are processed by
different sensory systems (Coltheart et al., 2001, p. 210). The bio-organic origin of Hiro’s
dyslexia is among the least common types of dyslexia. Research consistently shows that most
dyslexics suffer from a material deficit in phonological processing and this in turn
undermines their ability to map sounds to words. This sensory dysfunction also reduces
dyslexics’ capacity to distinguish words and assign the literal meaning to them in their
isolated form (Snowling, 2013, p. 7). Once Hiro learns/memorises a new word, he rarely
struggles to apply this to use his skills that are “structural components” (Brandone et al.,
2006, p. 499) of the language system, i.e., syntax, semantics, pragmatics and morphemes.
Hiro’s multilingual background is a factor that impedes his ability to study and learn and this
disadvantage affects other bilingual dyslexics in a similar manner (Woolley, 2010). For
example, Hiro (2015, NP) informs me that he “thinks and dreams” in Japanese. Hiro (2015,
NP) believes that being a pupil who studies using ESL “complicates” the effects of his visual
disability as he is able to read and comprehend Japanese prose “approximately 20% faster”
than English prose. Woolley (2010, p. 88) defines the reading difficulties faced by ESL
speakers with a learning disability as a “complicated and multifaceted process”. It is difficult
for the learner and educators to distinguish whether a bilingual student is struggling to
perform a language task because of their “mild dyslexia” or because they are translating text
between their native and non-native language (Archibald et al., 2008, p. 53).
I concur with Hiro (2015, NP) that his university administers a ‘one-size-fits-all’ disability
policy that cannot accommodate all dyslexic students. His university allows mild dyslexics
17% additional time to write exams (University of Queensland, 2015, NP). From Hiro’s
perspective, this policy does not create what MacCullagh (2014, p. 93) terms “equitable
participation and experiences in higher education by students with dyslexia”. Hiro requires
around 60% more time to process strings of text. Hiro’s average exam scores are circa 40%
(c.f. the cohort average score of 60%). His mean mark is 82% for other assessments that he
prepares at home over a period of one to two weeks, such as essays and PowerPoint
presentations. This pattern is consistent with research that shows that many dyslexic students
find exams the most difficult form of assessment as they struggle to cope when they must
conform to tight time constraints imposed on them. This pressure in turn increases their
anxiety levels and further lowers their productivity during exams (e.g. Meehan, 2004).
The disability services unit argues that the 17% additional time Hiro that receives to write his
exams offers ample extra time to comprehend the written instructions and questions. Hiro
(2015, NP) concludes that this unit’s staff must not realise that there are other obstacles
dyslexic students encounter. For example, many units of study offer open-book exams. There
is a perception among some scholars that examiners expect well developed answers from
examinees under these conditions because students can refer to coursework materials (e.g.
Gupta, 2007, p. 49; India, 2005, p. 459).
When I first met with Hiro, I asked him to practice reading coursework materials aloud so
that I could monitor which types of prose are more difficult for him to digest. The sub-lexical
reading approach draws on “rule-based grapheme-to-phoneme” (Brundson et al., 2002, p.
386). A study by Lindgrèn & Laine (2010, p. 187) which examines the performances of
dyslexic ESL university students term this technique “reading aloud of running text”.
Evidenced based practice research shows that reading text aloud may enhance the visual and
cognitive processing skills of some persons with any form of dyslexia. Therefore, trialling
this technique with dyslexics who struggle to process textual material is best experimental
practice (e.g. Baddeley, 1982, p. 193) as it may benefit those who are positively responsive to
the “dual route” mode of digesting written text (Castles & Coltheart, 1993, pp. 150–151).
This intervention may be counterproductive for some dyslexics. For example, those with deep
dyslexia are more likely to make orthographic and semantic errors if they read aloud,
particularly when there is an absence of context to support written educational materials
(Richardson, 1975; Coltheart, 2000). At the conclusion of our fourth meeting, Hiro (2015,
NP) advised me that he is “confident” that his ability to read and comprehend prose “feels
little easier and slightly faster” when he reads aloud.
Using the ‘reading aloud’ approach allows me to analyse the way that Hiro decodes written
text, so that I may draw on theoretical literature that discusses the “dual route model of
reading” (Dombey, 2009, p. 3). Using this information, I am able to adapt my work practices
to map the orthographic path of the English language with Hiro’s visual processing disability.
For example, when I teach Hiro new words, I use the “automatic orthographic route” (Ehri,
2005, p. 167) also known as the ‘site word reading’ approach. I encourage Hiro to learn to
memorise pronunciation of the word, rather than using the “synthetic phonetic approach”
whereby educators encourage students to spell out words using single letters or commonly
identifiable pairs of letters to ascertain pronunciation (Dombey, 2009, p. 3).
Hiro’s desire to achieve high grades is a factor that causes him to be co-morbid for ‘anxiety’.
This observation is consistent with research conducted by dyslexia experts such as Richard
Sparks, who examine anxiety levels of college pupils with dyslexia who study using ESL
(e.g. Sparks et al., 1994, p. 42). Hiro believes that his visual processing disability undermines
his chances of achieving above average grades regardless of how hard he works. This
mindset in turn increases his risk of failing a unit of study.
Most dyslexic pupils experience higher anxiety levels when they study using a foreign
language when compared to students without a disability who engage using their native
language (Piechurska-Kuciel, 2010, p. 382). In many instances, a student’s anxiety levels
correlates negatively with their proficiency at using English for academic purposes. Studying
at post-secondary level using ESL is a disadvantage that high anxiety levels might
exacerbate. Students may lose focus on their studies and centre on negative outcomes and this
may create a “language anxiety” (Sparks et al., 1994, p. 42).
I constantly aim to divert Hiro’s attention towards his strengths. For example, I remind him
that he is being proactive by appointing a subject tutor who teaches Arts subjects at
post-secondary level. I also remind him that he is a diligent student as he has created a
timetable during the first week of term that plots realistic milestones that he aims to achieve
on a calendar. Root (1994, NP) argues that this positive-thinking approach is best practice for
mentoring an ESL student with a disability. Teachers who focus on an ESL student’s
weaknesses may silently communicate a message that imagines their disability as a “limiting”
factor that undermines their chances of succeeding (Root, 1994, NP).
The social construction of masculinity may impose another challenge for educators who work
with dyslexics. Male dyslexics outnumber female dyslexics by a ratio of at least 2:1, although
the exact figure could be higher as no reliable global data exists (e.g. Hawke et al., 2009).
Hiro (2015, NP) states that his maleness and Japanese ethnicity are socio-cultural factors that
have previously prevented him from seeking additional assistance from a tutor. Japan has a
very macho culture (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 835). Men who admit to having a
medical problem or seek to succeed in the academic domain are regarded as feminine in
many Western societies (Connell, 1989, p. 295; 1996, pp. 216–217).
Hiro (2015, NP) advises me that he never wears his “rose tinted glasses” in public or around
other people, “especially other men”, unless he trusts that others will not reject him or
question his masculinity. I advised Hiro that I have previously read scholarly works that
discuss the positive reasons why “many” dyslexic students wear tinted glasses (e.g. Wilkins,
2003, p. 83). Hiro informed me that this perception is a common myth. The orthodox
consensus among biomedical scientists is that there is no evidence that tinted glasses improve
dyslexics’ ability to read and comprehend text/images (e.g. Harries et al., 2015).
Hiro’s neurologist suspects that he is afflicted by Meares-Irlen Syndrome. Neurological
testing shows that Hiro’s visual perception distortions improve by around 10% when he
wears tinted glasses (e.g. Rello, 2015). Meares-Irlen Syndrome is not recognised by the
International Classification of Disease (ICD-10) (World Health Organisation [WHO], 2015).
However, this syndrome is recognised in authoritative biomedical scholarly publications.
These publications argue that this syndrome has a higher co-morbid occurrence among
dyslexics that is statistically significant (e.g. Evans, et al. 1996; Loew et al., 2014, p. 88).
My discovery that I harbour beliefs that are a false stereotype caused me to engage in private
research to distinguish between terminologies such as “visual perception dyslexia” and
“surface dyslexia” (Marinac, 2009, p. 85).This literature review has aided me to customise
my teaching plan to suit Hiro’s cognitive abilities and his educational needs.
Hiro’s neurologist recommends what Hudson (2014, p. 88) terms “multi-discipline input” to
minimise the negative impacts of “sensory-motor dysfunction” (p. 89) and other mental
health conditions that pose “specific cognitive difficulties” such as “anxiety” (p. 86). Before
agreeing to work with Hiro, I advised him that I do not hold qualifications in medicine or
allied health. It is evident that there are healthcare workers and researchers with specialist
knowledge about how they may use a holistic bio-psychosocial approach to work with
teenage male adult students with learning disabilities such as visual dyslexia (e.g. Tanner,
2010, p. 43)
Hiro agrees that consulting a medical specialist may improve the quality of his studies and
wellbeing if he is able to access these resources. Hiro (2015, NP) informs me that he visited a
“male educational psychologist recommended by his psychiatrist” on “ten occasions” via the
“Medicare Better Access” (The Department of Health, 2015) scheme. Hiro (2015, NP)
advises me that he feels that he obtained minimal benefit from these sessions, as this
“healthcare worker had no training in preparing extended essays using a discursive writing
style”. He also felt that there was “constant disconnection between the general study tips the
psychologist was offering me, and the specific needs I have as a double-degree Arts student.”
(Hiro, 2015, NP)
Hiro (2015, NP) further informs me that this psychologist’s assessment reports use many
quantitative statistics and “jargon” that are difficult for the layperson to comprehend (e.g.
Skues & Cunningham, 2011, p. 170). Furthermore, he states that he is no longer eligible for
Medicare funded psychology services, and that educational consultants charge around “$200
per hour” and he cannot afford any sessions as he comes from a “low-income family” (Hiro,
2015, NP). This account is consistent with the corpus of contemporary case study literature
that documents how Australian students with dyslexia who belong to lowest ranked
socioeconomic categories cannot afford the services they require to realise equitable
outcomes in the education sector (e.g. Chanock et al., 2010; Skues & Cunningham, 2011).
Exploring Hiro’s story helps me to learn about dyslexia from a layperson perspective. There
are multiple types of dyslexia and varying degrees of impairment. Furthermore, some
frontline healthcare workers recognise and treat medical disabilities such as Meares-Irlen
Syndrome, even though the WHO does not recognise this disorder. I surmise that biomedical
science is yet to fully understand the complex causes of dyslexia and its subtypes.
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* Hiro is a pseudonym that protects the identity of the subject.
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