Dyslexia in a second language? A dynamic test of reading acquisition may provide the answer

Carsten Elbro, Hanne T. Daugaard & Anna S. Gellert


Specific reading difficulties may be hard to diagnose in a second language. A poor performance on a test of reading may be caused by poor language proficiency. The study was concerned with the effects of second language proficiency on three types of reading tests. The aim was to evaluate a language independent test of individual potential to learn to read with an alphabetic writing system.


A dynamic test of literacy acquisition was developed. It involved learning of three novel letter shapes and their sounds and subsequent reading of non-words using the three letters. Instructions were non-verbal. The dynamic test was administered to 160 adults together with standard tests of non-word reading, word reading, and several language measures. The adults were selected from four groups: Diagnosed dyslexic and non-dyslexic native speakers of Danish, and non-native speakers of Danish some of whom were suspected by their teachers to be dyslexic while others were not.


A significant interaction between reading test and group indicated that the experimental, dynamic test was the relatively easiest for the second language learners. Several of the second language learners with suspected dyslexia appeared to be mis-classified by their teachers.


Current measures of word and non-word reading may be confounded with language proficiency and hence under-estimate the potential for reading acquisition in some second language learners. A dynamic, language independent measure of acquisition of the basic alphabetic principle may provide a more valid indicator of specific reading difficulties in second language learners.