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 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.



Can techniques that are taught in English be applied to dyslexia in Chinese?

The techniques taught in Chinese help dyslexic students cope with their reading and writing difficulties based on the nature of language. However, these techniques are different from those used for English because of the difference in these two language systems. But the same set of teaching principles is adopted in supporting dyslexic students in Chinese.

Some studies have found the Orton-Gillingham approach effective in helping dyslexics cope with the English language; and given its structured flexibility, there have also been recent attempts in adopting this approach to teach non-English languages.
The key to teaching dyslexic students in Chinese is to target their weaknesses through direct and explicit teaching of phonology, syntactic and semantic components of the language.

“The Chinese language can be more complex than the English language, in terms of the transparency between speech sounds and print.”

If a child is dyslexic in both languages, do they have to work twice as hard?

Dyslexia varies across languages and the manifestation of its symptoms depends on an individual’s cognitive-processing capabilities and the nature of language. It can be a challenge for a bilingual dyslexic learner to learn two languages of different orthographies [such as English and Chinese spelling systems].

However, not all dyslexic students struggle with learning both languages. Although dyslexia is a language-based learning difficulty specific to the areas of reading, spelling and writing, an individual’s strengths in certain cognitive processes could compensate some of the difficulties faced.

A dyslexic learner with strong visual memory may find the Chinese language easier to learn than the English language. The Chinese language can be more complex than the English language, in terms of the transparency between speech sounds and print. Hence, it requires more visual-perceptual processes to learn the characters as compared to the English language, which is relatively more transparent in its sound-print relationship.

For most dyslexic learners, they would have to work harder to cope with language learning than their normal peers.

How does dyslexia work in Bahasa Melayu and Tamil? More like English or Chinese?

As mentioned, symptoms of dyslexia can be manifested differently in each language and every individual. Singapore’s linguistic environment can be very diverse with the four main languages possessing different sound-print mapping systems.
English is an alphabetic language, Chinese is a logographic language, Malay is a Roman-alphabetic language and Tamil is a syllabic, Brahmi language.

As most research on dyslexia is based on the English language, it would be interesting if more research on dyslexia can be conducted in relation to other languages and multilingualism in the future.
If you are worried about your child’s reading or writing ability, contact DAS for an assessment.

Priscillia Shen is the assistant head, DAS Academy. She has been co-presenting papers on learning difficulties in Chinese language and Mathematics in relation to dyslexia at conferences since 2012.

Photos: iStock

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