Dyslexia in the Immersion Classroom

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2004, Vol. 7, No. 3

By Mona Anton, Parent, LíEtoile du Nord French Immersion School, St. Paul, MN

When we learned that our daughter had dyslexia, my husband and I had many questions.  The first was, “What do we do about school?” Our daughter, Susan, had been in a French immersion school since Kindergarten and had just started third grade.  The clinician’s answer was simply, “Youíve got to get her out of that school.” She reasoned that my daughter would be too confused to learn to read and write in either language and she would fall farther behind every year.  Then, before our meeting was over I mentioned that I was inclined to have her complete this year in her current school so we could make a careful decision about the move.  Everyone agreed this was a good idea and we left the therapist’s with a recommendation regarding the kind of school suitable for my daughter.  We spent much of that year looking at schools, both public and private.  We visited schools large and small, some with dyslexia-specific Special Education services and s me without any additional services.  Each school was English only.


We began to realize that Susan was already in a good learning environment.  She had a small class of only fourteen students.  Her teacher was aware of her needs and my daughter received extra help with math.  She was given smaller pieces to memorize for the reading and writing assignments.  In writing lab, Susan learned to put her ideas down on paper and edit out the spelling mistakes.  She brought the editing home so I could decipher her spelling.  She was given five spelling words instead of ten and would bring them home over the weekend to begin studying for the following week.

In third grade, Susan started after-school private tutoring for reading.  The tutoring was always in English and this helped with word decoding and comprehension.  She did well in science and was keeping up in social studies.  Because formal reading in English wasn’t introduced until third grade, we worried that moving to a new school would be putting our daughter into a larger classroom where she would be several reading levels behind the rest of the students.

My daughter was also evaluated by a school district social worker.  The social worker arrived, visited with my daughter for less than five minutes, and then spoke only to the adults.  Her analysis was very simple: since her work wasn’t consistently one year behind her classmates in every subject, she did not qualify for any Special Education services.  The social worker pointed out that because this was an immersion classroom and English instruction was just beginning, it was normal to be reading below grade level.

I read everything I could find on dyslexia in the classroom.  It is difficult to find books that have much information or a consensus of opinion regarding children with learning disabilities in second language classrooms.  Dyslexia is not just one issue or one diagnosis – it encompasses problems with reading, writing or math in varying degrees of severity.  Many children with dyslexia have difficulty with organizational issues or study skills.  The more I read, the more I realized that there was no right answer, but this might be Susanís one chance to learn a second language.  I could find no conclusive studies showing immersion was harmful.  She stayed in immersion for fourth grade.

For third, fourth and fifth grades my daughter had teachers from Canada, Belgium and Switzerland.  All three were new to this school district and their abilities to deal with a special needs student were minimal.  Susan has never had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) requiring any special instruction or program adaptations.  Anything that has been done to help her has been due to the kindness of her teachers and my continued persistence.  I have met with teachers, volunteered in the classroom and made myself available for quick informal meetings about “what we should do .” Susan continues to see tutors for reading and math.  These small-group tutorials have made a vast difference in her reading and math achievement and have probably been the main reason she has been able to stay in an immersion setting.


While the attention my daughter has received from teachers has been caring and helpful, the districtís testing policies are punitive to immersion students who donít test well on annual standardized tests.  We have received letters from the district saying, ‘Your child will attend summer school.” The first of these letters arrived three days before school let out at the end of fourth grade.  We had already enrolled Susan in a summer tutorial program, plus some recreational camps of her choosing.  While she had received a perfect attendance award and really liked school, she viewed summer school as punishment.  Similarly, our school recommended that my daughter sign up for Area Learning Center (ALC), an afterschool homework program.  Again, we received a letter stating, “Your child will attend ALC.’  The program is loud and packed with K-6 students.  A few teachers circulate around the room helping children with homework.  It looks a lot like after-school childcare.  We recycled both letters.  I couldn’t take my daughter out of her after-school activities (which she enjoyed and which provided opportunities for success) to spend more time in school.

By the end of fifth grade, Susanís reading scores had started to approach average grade levels and she had started staying up late at night reading in her bed! Despite the advice of the first expert, my child is now in sixth grade in the same French Immersion program.  Each year we have made the decision that this is the right place for her.  We have been lucky to have responsive teachers who are willing to adapt the curriculum to something more manageable for our daughter.  She has found a way to succeed in school and to get her homework done on time.  We feel that this has been the best school choice for her.

There are no easy answers to dyslexia difficulties in any classroom but for our daughter, the gift of second language fluency in elementary school has been well worth the extra work. RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PARENTS

While no two childrenís educational experiences are the same, a dyslexic child can fit well into an immersion classroom if:

  • parents and teachers are willing to communicate and keep the needs of the child a priority.  This may mean that the decision to leave or stay in the immersion setting must be reevaluated annually.
  • realistic goals are set for your childís progress.  Even though a dyslexic child is progressing at her individual rate, progress is success.  Your child may not be as verbally fluent in either language as her peers.  She is still receiving a rich language experience she can build upon her whole life.
  • we recognize that learning a second language may seem much easier for young children, but is not easy.  Be patient with homework and be willing to spend extra time letting your child listen to tapes and explain homework in English as needed.
  • Families recognize that time spent learning the second language may indeed be time away from English and supplementing with instruction at home or with a tutor may be necessary.
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