Your child’s struggles with mother tongue might not just be about lack of exposure. Our expert from Thomson Kids Specialised Learning sheds more insight into the condition known as Mother Tongue Dyslexia.

Dyslexia isn’t just confined to the English language − children can and do struggle with reading and writing in their Mother Tongue as well. 

While there are no studies on the prevalence of Mother Tongue Dyslexia in Singapore, 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.

A more recent 2019 report by Today also indicated that there are 3.9 to 9.7 per cent Chinese dyslexics among native Chinese speakers in Singapore, and 5 to 17 per cent English dyslexics among native English speakers.

So what exactly differentiates Chinese dyslexia from English dyslexia? Frances Yeo, Principal Psychologist and Programme Director at Thomson Kids Specialised Learning, shares about how dyslexia differs according to language, what characterises Chinese dyslexia and what can be done about this learning disability.

How exactly is dyslexia defined?

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 that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. 

Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience. These can impede growth of vocabulary and general knowledge. 

What is the difference between English and Chinese dyslexia? 

Dyslexia can occur in any language, not just in English. It manifests differently from one language to another. Some children with dyslexia in the Chinese language, for instance, may experience no difficulties learning English. 

The difference results from how different languages are structured. Learning to read a language with an alphabet requires learning to sound out words. The visual form maps on to the sound of the word. Chinese, by contrast, maps the graphic form, the character, on to the meaning. The phonetic sound of the character does not necessarily correspond to the form of it. The letter-sound conversion in English does not apply in Chinese.  

A neuroimaging study in 2008 led by Dr Siok Wai Ting also showed that different parts of the brain were involved in learning the two types of language. While the left temporoparietal regions are crucial for learning English, the left middle frontal gyrus region is important for reading and writing Chinese. 

What are the signs and symptoms of Chinese dyslexia?

The signs of Chinese dyslexia include: 

- Poor retention of characters learnt

- Difficulties in keeping sounds in short-term memory, especially unfamiliar sounds. This adds to the difficulty in learning symbol-sound associations.

- Confusion with visually similar characters, such as 车/东

- Confusion with phonetically similar characters, such as 是/事

- Confusion with semantically similar characters, such as 学/校

- Invert the components of characters. For example, 和 becomes 口禾

- Add or omit strokes in characters 突/突 with no 点 above 大

- Difficulties with stroke sequences

- Poor spatial awareness. For example, 胖 is seen as 月 半

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

No, as English is an alphabetical language and Chinese is not.

Do bilingual kids who are dyslexic have the same weaknesses in both languages?

Children with dyslexia can present with different strengths and weaknesses. Some may struggle only with one language, while others struggle with two languages.

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

Definitely, as dyslexia or specific learning disorders are lifelong conditions which affect how a person acquires and retains information. 

Is it hard for dyslexics to learn new languages?


How does dyslexia work in Bahasa Melayu and Tamil?

Not many studies have been done on dyslexia in these languages. But I believe that dyslexics will struggle learning these languages too. I have seen how dyslexic kids struggle learning French.

How can parents provide support for kids with mother tongue dyslexia?

Parents need to first recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all learning approach. About 5 to 10% of students need a different learning approach to help them encode and store information into their long-term memory.

Parents can use various word recognition techniques to help their children gain mastery in reading Chinese characters. They can also read Chinese books with them and use the language to communicate with their children.

In terms of school exams or PSLE, how does exemption / special provisions work when supported by a doctor's and/or psychologist's report?

Most students with specific learning disorders like dyslexia may need access accommodations such as extra time for written and oral examinations, enlarged fonts, lined paper for writing and increased spacing between the text of exam papers.

They may also sit in separate rooms from other children. A prompter may be provided as well, to remind students who are easily distracted and off-task. These will help level the playing field and give these students the best opportunities to succeed.

How is an assessment for Chinese dyslexia carried out?

A battery of psychoeducational tests will be administered together with examining schoolwork, and assessing a student’s proficiency in Chinese language.

How is treatment for Chinese dyslexia carried out at Thomson Kids? 

The design of the Chinese curriculum at Thomson Kids is based on the MOE Primary School Chinese syllabus. The curriculum supports students in various aspects of learning the language, including listening, speaking, word recognition, reading comprehension and writing. We also teach students exam skills and answering techniques.

Could you elaborate more on the Chinese curriculum, techniques used and what parents can expect in a typical session?

The Orton-Gillingham approach is an evidence-based, structured literacy approach widely used to teach struggling readers. The design of the Chinese curriculum at Thomson Kids applies the principles that govern the approach. These include:


- Learning is based on the characteristics of the language. We teach students word recognition strategies such as the pictorial method which helps students give meaning to the characters. This method is language-based and can be used to learn pictographic characters and other characters.

- Pictographic characters resemble drawings and visually represent the meanings of the characters. For example, the character “山” is a pictographic character which means hill or mountain. The character looks like the drawing of three mountain peaks.


- Students are encouraged to think through any language obstacles, instead of guessing.

- For example, students learn the semantic radical 走之底 which is associated with the meaning “walk”. This will help them in remembering characters which contain the semantic radical, such as “进” which means “enter”. You need to walk to enter, hence the character contains the semantic radical.

- Structured, sequential and cumulative: Students learn basic concepts and progress to more complex ones. Each lesson is cumulative, building on concepts previously learnt. For example, students learn the character components 田 which means farmland and 力 which means strength, before learning 男 which means male.

Simultaneously multisensory:

- Learning that takes place in a simultaneously multisensory manner lets students utilize the major pathways to the brain, to ensure learning.

- For example, when learning to write a Chinese character, students are guided to first look at the Chinese character. This is using the visual pathway. Next, they trace the character and sound it out. Tracing involves movement and uses the kinesthetic pathway. Sounding out lets the student hear the sound of the character and used the auditory pathway. Then, they write and sound out the character a few times. Writing involves the kinesthetic pathway while sounding it out involves the auditory pathway. Lastly, the student covers what has been written and tests themselves by writing and sounding out again.

- We also let students trace, write or make Chinese characters using various media, such as play dough, sand or ice-cream sticks so they learn through the kinesthetic-tactile pathways. 


- Lesson contents are designed based on the learning needs of students.

Emotionally sound:

- Lesson contents are designed such that the students’ confidence in learning is boosted.

- Essential scaffoldings are provided to aid learning. The curriculum also injects fun into learning with hands-on activities and games.

- We design our own games using apps and technology to increase motivation and interests.


If you suspect your child might have Mother Tongue Dyslexia, consider seeking a dyslexia assessment for them, as well as specialised instruction at centres like Thomson Kids Specialised Learning. Visit Thomson Kids’ website for more info or to book an appointment for an official assessment. 

Photos: iStock

Like us on Facebook and check SmartParents regularly for the latest reads!

Other stories you may like…

Is junior slow at reading and writing?

Is my child dyslexic?

“Two of my sons have autism”