Sometimes screening students for specific learning differences can be a bit like staggering through a teaching and learning jungle; a place where languages are plenty and, for a dyslexia support tutor, the tools are not quite what you need.
Last year, for instance, a student (I’m going to call her ‘Tiger’), whose first language (L1) was Norwegian, came to the service thinking that she may be dyslexic. She presented as orally fluent, even though she had less than a year of immersion in daily English (L2). It was really hard to find suitable screening activities that would show typical indicators of dyslexia because the level of ‘Tiger’s literacy skills was not on a par with those of her L1.
There are factors you have to bear in mind when controlling for bi/multi-lingual interference during screening; the other languages’ orthographies being one of them. Tiger’s L1, Norwegian, has a pretty ‘transparent’ or ‘shallow’ orthography (Seymour, 2005- cited in Mortimore et al., 2012) in that the sound/symbol (phoneme/grapheme) correspondence is – you write what you hear, from your language knowledge, and it’ll most probably be right! English, however, boasts one of the deepest or most opaque orthographies (more than 120 graphemes for 44 phonemes), making literacy skills’ acquisition much more of lottery. Teasing apart the bilingualism and the potential SpLD for Tiger was a real challenge, but the screening eventually managed to show positive indicators. An assessment in her L1 back home went on to find that she did indeed have an SpLD. ‘Tiger’ is now registered with the Neuro-diversity Service and receiving support.
And so Julia Pairman and I set about our collaboration. It’s basically been a project about how learning differences can be identified in bilingual/multilingual students. The project’s main aim has been to adapt the dyslexia screening questionnaire and screening tasks we have now to cater for those multilingual students accessing the service who think they may have a specific learning difference (SpLD).
In May this year, we went on some training run by ELT Well . It was a short, sharp workshop exploring a great set of assessment materials for adults, Cognitive Assessment for Multilingual Learners+ – CAMLs. They’re not standardised but are still really useful for bringing out indicators of neuro-diversity.
Fast forward a couple of months, and with the help of a CAML, I have just piloted the materials on ‘Lion’, a student with Turkish as L1. Her profile was radically different; English was barely even her L3. Equally importantly, she already had Turkish and Arabic vying for L1 status. Turkish has quite a transparent orthography but it is an agglutinative language. This means that even though, broadly speaking, each sound in Turkish will really only ever have one letter to represent it, literacy skills can still be hard to hone in accuracy. This is because words are ‘glued together’ to make one word that conveys a whole concept; the 70 letter Turkish word muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine ( meaning ‘As though you are from those whom we may not be able to easily make into a maker of unsuccessful ones’) is the longest and most extreme example of this.
I discussed this with Lion. She admitted that she stumbles over these huge words in Turkish because she cannot segment them efficiently enough into morphemes.
Nevertheless, the CAML assessment materials still managed to show up evidence of neuro-diversity because it was possible to observe and screen her literacy skills in L1. Qualitatively, anyway. It was great to witness how the materials did their job and showed up a potential SpLD while making room for active learning to help Lion express herself. She grew in confidence, too.
Our favourite of the CAMLs so far, though, has to be a particularly nifty scanning test to investigate underlying reading strategies. Essentially, it asks the student to find series of patterns of wingdings- type symbols in random patterns using their symbol recognition, pattern matching and tracking skills. This innovative tool will be just as handy for screening non-bilingual students as well.
Note: no actual lions, tigers or camels were used in this project.