Mother-tongue dyslexia: What you need to know

Maybe your child’s struggles with his mother tongue aren’t just about exposure… The Dyslexia Association Singapore sets you straight.


A small but growing number of students are applying to be exempted from taking the mother-tongue exam during the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Channel NewsAsia reported recently that from 2010 to 2013, about 3.5 per cent of each PSLE cohort was exempted from the mother-tongue language requirement.
Dyslexia is cited as one of the top three medical conditions for such exemptions.

          More and more children these days are turning to the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS) for help — and in more languages. SmartParents asked Priscillia Shen, assistant head of the DAS Academy, for details on how dyslexia can differ according to language — and what can be done about this learning disability.

What are the differences between dyslexia in English and in Chinese?
As dyslexia is a language-based learning difficulty, the difference is due mainly to the nature and structure of the language.
          English language adopts an atonal, alphabetic system while the Chinese language adopts a tonal [the four tones in Mandarin] logographic system where most of the characters [parts of or whole words] contain a semantic element and a phonetic element to provide clues on meaning and pronunciation, respectively.

In Chinese, a student with dyslexia could:
• Confuse words that look alike, such as 午/牛, 家/象.
• Confuse words that sound alike, such as 九/就/球.
• Confuse or mismatch characters within a word, such as 学校 vs 校学 or 合作 vs 和作.
• Unable to write strokes in proper direction and sequence.
• Write characters with poor proportions, such as “胖” as“月半”, or with extra or missing strokes, such as “本” as “木”, or with parts in wrong order, such as “听” as “斤口”.
• Poor understanding of radical positions in a character, for example, they may be unsure if 氵should be on the left or right, top or bottom

In English, dyslexic kids may: 
• Confuse letters that look alike — b/d, p/q.
• Reverse letter sequences such as “was” for “saw”, “on” for “no”.
• Make anagrams of words — such as “tired” for “tried”, “wives” for “views”.
• Mix up words that start with the same letters — “there”, “that” and “the” for instance.
• Omit or add letters in words — “lip” for “limp”.
• Be unable to write down a word even when the letters are dictated to them.
• Be unable to identify the appropriate letter when given a sound and vice versa.

So, what’s in store for mother-tongue dyslexics? Read on…