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Dyslexic Learners Inform Instruction

Sarah Birmanns explains how the right language-teaching methodologies can put dyslexic learners on the path to success with world languages

After 25 years as a classroom teacher of Spanish, German, and English, I decided to make reaching dyslexic students in the world language classroom the focus of my efforts. I found that two mistakes were being perpetuated: special education students and specifically dyslexic students were not being permitted access to world language classrooms, and when they did get there, they were driven away by literacy-based methodologies, most of which have been proven to be ineffective for many students. Dyslexia is an established learning disorder with at least seven subcategories that affects 15–20% of the population to some extent, according to the International Dyslexia Association (2017). An estimated two million U.S. students get special education services for dyslexia, but at least three times that number are undiagnosed or underserved (Hanford, 2017). The vast majority of those students do not take world languages because it is believed that they should be focusing on their native language skills rather than trying something new. I was thrilled to find that not only was the “new” language attainable for dyslexic students but the very methods that I employed to attract and retain them worked wonders for my literacy-focused students as well.

In the 1980s and 1990s, most world language classrooms were full of students who were college bound, getting a 3.0 in their other classes, and older learners. Most high schools only permitted students who achieved a specific GPA or grade in English to begin world language learning. Until very recently, world language instruction has been an elective for the elect. According to the most recent national statistics, only 20% of U.S. K–12 learners are learning a language other than English, and most school districts do not have a plan for special education and specifically dyslexic learners to gain access to world languages (Mitchell, 2019). Even when districts announce a push to invite differently abled learners to take world languages, there is little follow-through on the part of world language departments and special education staff. This discrepancy in accessibility is disappointing, as I have found that many dyslexic learners have great success in world languages and go on to achieve fluency in the early stages of language development even faster than their fluently reading peers. The good news, as many educators know, is that when the learner who faces the most obstacles has those obstacles removed, the rest of the learners will also find success. Educators who are passionate about opening their classroom doors to dyslexic learners, however, are faced with the challenge of how to do that when reading and writing have been the cornerstones of world language instruction and assessment for decades.

Anchorage, Alaska, is one of the largest school districts in the U.S. and is also among the most diverse (Tunseth, 2016). Anchorage is also a leader in offering dual-language immersion opportunities, including Yup’ik (see Language Magazine, May 2019), French, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, German, and Spanish. For five years, I worked as a Spanish immersion teacher in Chugiak, Alaska, teaching the ninth through twelfth years of the K–12 program in dual immersion. The immersion approach to learning a second language was similar to my own previously successful methods as a regular secondary school Spanish teacher, but I was surprised that only students who had started in the immersion classroom before second grade were allowed to participate in these classes. Since most dyslexic students are not identified before they start formal schooling, about 20% of the immersion students turned out to be dyslexic. They were comparatively successful at speaking and listening but struggled with written tests and standardized assessments.

After five years, I changed schools and had the opportunity to develop my own curriculum based on the immersion model for a regular school classroom. Unbeknownst to my district supervisor, I did not use the prescribed textbooks nor the curriculum as assigned but instead created a series of speaking and listening lessons that spanned the first quarter of Spanish I, after which I switched to using some reading and writing as supporting methods. However, by Spanish II, I was again delivering almost all of my assessments through reading and writing. Students were very successful on the district-mandated tests and achieved better levels of fluency than in similar programs across the district that year, but it was not enough—no dyslexic students were taking Spanish, and the world language offerings at my school remained elitist. The next year, I asked the special education director to invite ten students who were receiving services for a variety of dyslexia diagnoses to take Spanish I. They were told that I would design the class to fit their needs and talents. Dyslexic students are often incredible auditory learners and excellent memorizers (Cicerchia, 2019). There was to be no writing or reading allowed until the second semester, and all assessments were to be administered one on one through speaking and listening. That year, all the dyslexic learners were on track with or even racing ahead of their peers from the first week of class.

To be clear, I had over 30 students in the classroom. The age range was eleven to 19. There was little extra planning time and I was only able to maintain this degree of differentiation thanks to a non-Spanish-speaking principal who had no idea what I was doing and a 25-year career of experience from which to draw. Most teachers do not have the time, experience, resources, or support to differentiate at this level. Because I had been privileged to take over a dozen different training courses in five states during my early career on advanced placement instruction and immersion methodology, I had the resources. A lack of oversight created the perfect place for me to experiment. My dyslexic students continued to achieve As and Bs and progressed to Spanish II and III with few difficulties.

One day in the Spanish II classroom, students were telling stories in the past tense about a series of events from picture dice that we were using, and one student, a normally high-achieving student who was getting a B+ in Spanish II, complained that Gretchen, a highly dyslexic student who had actually been held back one year in middle school because of her reading level (first grade), had it “so easy” because she was a natural speaker and that it was “not fair” that she sounded like a native speaker and got better grades for her pronunciation. What a moment! Other than noticing the obvious petulant nature of the complainant, Gretchen, instead of pointing out that every other subject was torture for her, just beamed. This was what I wanted—I wanted students who could pronounce perfectly and listen with acuity to challenge the note-takers and the written-test-lovers. I wanted to prove that kids who were failing English could be the best students in Spanish.

There was, however, a tremendous amount of complaining and frustration from the other students and their parents. Therefore, I encouraged everyone who wished to write and read to do so to their hearts’ content but warned them that the assessments would remain speaking- and listening-based throughout Spanish I. In all levels of Spanish, students who so desired were able to continue to be assessed without any reading or writing. Over and over I explained to students that they needed to stop relying on their best skills and instead develop new ones. I put up encouraging quotes about growth and resilience. I met with literacy-based students who had trouble hearing and filtering, helped them practice with online supports, and allowed them to record what was said in the classroom. Most students overcame their prejudice within a semester and went on to enjoy a class where they had to work a little harder. Most of the activities we did in Spanish I–II revolved around creating listeners and speakers who did not need to consult the text. These students found the upper levels to be much easier than my former students had done when I was relying more on reading and writing in the early levels. This new concept of focusing primarily (and not just philosophically but in actual practice) on speaking and listening in the early years really paid off in the upper levels. Students with only three years of Spanish passed the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam last spring with a success rate of 100% achieving a 4. The methods were working. It was not just a differentiation experiment and a desire for equity but rather a full shift away from what I had been taught and how I had been taught as a high school student learning Spanish to a new vision of what my classroom would look like.


There is a great deal of movement and kinesthetic learning in our classroom. That first year we had boxes of items we could use to illustrate meaning without writing. We had a box of plastic food, a box of clothes, a box of school supplies, and a box full of pictures of people’s faces for Spanish I, for example. Students performed skits at least once a week at all levels. I gathered over a hundred simple or traditional Spanish songs and we had Friday sing-alongs with musical instruments. Weekly participation grades that added up as 30% of the final grade were based on effort in Spanish only and not on perfectly correct responses. People who spoke English in class naturally got lower grades. I had to send home letters to parents explaining the participation grades and made sure that everyone knew what was expected and why. Students and parents were supplied with articles on language acquisition so that they could understand what we were doing.

One example of a lesson using only speaking and listening was the use of the imperfect tense in Spanish II. A homework assignment was given a week ahead of time—come to class with a picture of yourself at age five or six. Using a very old-fashioned opaque projector, we enlarged those photos and I modeled one sentence at a time. “I used to play baseball.” Then each student gave a “used to play” sentence. We grew the activity until each student could give five correct sentences from memory about their interests as a five- or six-year-old. Then students formed small groups and modeled their interests without talking while I modeled how to say “you used to” for each group. When they got the hang of that, we played charades so they would use the third-person singular and so on. They generally mastered the regular imperfect tense in one lesson, with enough movement and activity changes that they would have a little brain break every ten minutes or so. For the informal assessment, students held the pictures and described their interests, those of a friend, and one thing they had in common.


If one is teaching for verbal and auditory fluency, one has to assess for verbal and auditory fluency. This is a common mistake that I used to make—I would speak Spanish with my students, but then assess in writing. This is something that educators need to confront. I learned Spanish in ninth through twelfth grade from a teacher who was not a native speaker and who required us to translate German fairy tales to Spanish. I was also a highly visual learner. When I moved to Spain to improve my spoken Spanish for career reasons, I cried for a month. One of the most important skills in Spanish I is being able to answer questions, changing the verb from the second to the first person. After many games and activities asking and answering led by me, led by students, and with partners, groups of six or seven were given 30 questions to ask and answer. These were delivered both in written form and via an online data-sharing tool we used as a class. Students could use laptops to play the questions and answer them while I took volunteers to the front for formal assessment. After 30 minutes, the confident volunteers had been assessed and returned to their groups to continue practice. The next group of students now had time to finish learning the material or get up the courage to come forward. Almost every student would try the assessment twice to improve their grade. For assessments, I had students take turns one at a time with me in front of the class, volunteers going first while other students watched. After a third of the students were assessed, the class moved forward doing an activity while I took students who were nervous, shy, or unprepared aside and went through the assessment more privately. Every student who did not achieve 100% was allowed to reassess. Students were encouraged to help each other prepare and any student helper got more points for participation. This fostered community spirit and an environment of encouragement and support rather than competition.

If up to 20% of our learners are suffering from some level of dyslexia or reading disability and many others are emerging language learners in English, the world language classroom can be an oasis for them and a platform for further success. For me as an educator who has a passion for equity in the classroom, it has become increasingly important to continue to differentiate and to uncover potential success stories among the special education population. When I first took Spanish in ninth grade, only students who were excellent at English could even begin study in a world language. In a high school of 800 students, there were eleven in my Spanish III/IV class. We can do better. We are already doing better. If you want to learn to differentiate, start with the special education department at your school and recruit some bright young people to give your world language classroom a chance. And then, give them the chance to shine.

References are available at

Sarah Birmanns is a 30-year veteran teacher of Spanish, German, and English. She is also an artist, an avid traveler, and a passionate pursuer of equity in education. She was awarded Teacher of the Year for Southwest Minnesota in 2001 and was a winner of the BP Teacher of Excellence award in 2017. She earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania in 1990 and her master’s in applied, interdisciplinary humanities in 2003. She writes the travel blog “Peter and Sarah and the World” and is currently on sabbatical with her husband, also a language teacher.

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