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Is it English as Additional Language Difficulty, A Specific Learning Difficulty or Both?

by Mary Mountstephen

In this article I have tried to raise awareness of issues that face some EAL students in our schools which may remain ‘hidden’. The implications are significant at many levels.

As the number of overseas international students attending independent schools  increases, those involved in the interview, assessment and intervention process face challenges in accessing appropriate test resources.


The task of identifying EAL individuals with potentially additional specific learning difficulties requires a more specialist approach and one that moves beyond assessments of language knowledge alone. In this article, I will look at some of the features of dyslexia that may also be apparent in EAL learners and ways of overcoming some barriers to the identification of underlying learning differences.


At the initial interview, screening tools in common use are generally produced and standardized for the English speaking population and this, by definition, can place any EAL student at a distinct disadvantage.  This can, however, be at least partly overcome by either using tests which are not so heavily reliant on language or, on using some assessments which can be carried out in the individuals first language. This can then help guide the individual pupil’s support programme.


In addition to the day-to-day life of the student, there are also ethical and inclusion issues to be considered to ensure that the student is not overlooked in terms of access arrangements for examinations in term of extra time, reader and scribe.


These considerations become more relevant also in relation to the inspection process, when schools need to demonstrate that there is a proactive and planned process for the identification of ‘hidden’ barriers to learning and academic achievement.


I have been providing 1:1 assessments of academic potential for EAL students when there have been concerns expressed by teachers in independent schools  about a student’s progress.


The assessment process includes a number of tests that are less reliant on vocabulary and language and more reliant on the sub-skills of visual and auditory processing in addition to tests of non-verbal ability and self-rating scales covering concentration and focus.


What Is Dyslexia, and how does it vary Across Languages?

There are countless definitions of dyslexia, but the following one appeared as part of an article about the development of a multilingual test for dyslexia.


‘Dyslexia is a difficulty with the acquisition of reading, writing and spelling which may be caused by a combination of phonological segmentation and assembly, visual and auditory processing deficits. Word retrieval and speed of processing difficulties may also be present. The manifestation of dyslexia in any individual will depend upon not only individual cognitive differences, but also on the language used’ (Smythe, 2000).

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Does It Vary Across Languages?

Much of the research and writing on dyslexia focuses on languages which are alphabetic and of those, some such as English and French, are seen as more difficult to learn than, for example , Spanish or Italian.


Literacy studies have shown that even for children without literacy difficulties, these languages are easier to learn. However, there is little evidence that these more regular systems would significantly decrease the percentage of individuals with dyslexia due to the other aspects of dyslexia such as the visual, auditory and working memory aspects.


Different languages have different cognitive demands and thus any one specific cognitive deficit in an individual will have different consequences, depending on the particular language.


From this information, we can begin to draw together an identification / screening programme which is more holistic in nature and which opens teachers’ minds to the possibility that Titus or Dante may not just be a little slow or unwilling to learn English; they may have underlying difficulties which have not been identified in their own country for whatever reason.


Early Identification

Early identification is crucial in helping a child work with and around a developing learning barrier and in ensuring that school, boarding staff  and home understand how it affects their learning, confidence and self-esteem.


Children need the right support and to know that they are not ‘stupid’, that there are ways they can learn to develop effective learning strategies and strong self-esteem, and be on target for success. For the individual who is learning English as an additional language, the way in which this handled is particularly sensitive, depending on the cultural perspectives prevalent in their native country in relation to the perception of learning differences.


Dyslexia can easily go undetected in early schooling. Children can become frustrated by the difficulty in learning to read and they may show signs of low self-esteem and behaviourial problems which develop out of frustration.


Some Indicators Suggesting Further Investigation

Inconsistent performance:

  • sometimes cannot remember the names of objects such as ‘computer’.
  • Problems with memory ( Lists, prep, maths tables)
  • Problems with concentration, focus and recall( Following instructions, recalling correct sequences, forgetful)
  • Problems with organization (Management of boarding life, kit, books etc.)
  • Issues around motor control and hypersensitivity to sensory input: distractable!

If these signs are evident in an individual while in other ways they seem bright and alert, it is possible that these are indicators of a dyslexic type learning difficulty. This is not always the case however, but the possibilities should be explored.



In this article I have tried to raise awareness of issues that face some EAL students in our schools which may remain ‘hidden’. The implications are significant at many levels, from the importance of nurturing the individual student’s inner sense of worth and achievement to the accountability of the school in meeting each pupil’s needs effectively.


The original question I raised was: Is it and EAL difficulty, a Specific Learning Difficulty or Both? Each school needs to have a structure in place to show how this is being addressed so that students such as Titus and Dante are recognized, supported and challenged in order to succeed.




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About the Author

Mary Mountstephen is a child development education specialist. She provides a range of training courses for teachers and 1:1 assessments and advice.

She works with international organisations including Move To Learn in Australia and has published several books.

She has developed an Assessment of Academic Potential process that has been adapted for 1:1 assessment of students with EAL. Visit Mary's website

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Publishing positive education information for parents and teachers since 2000

Publishing positive education information for parents and teachers since 2000