Dyslexia and Irish-medium education

Bileog Disléicse 3

This section covers a range of questions that most parents ask before sending their child to an Irish-medium school, especially if Irish is not the first language at home.

The benefits of bilingualism are explained and you are guided towards research which affirms these benefits.

How do I know if a Gaelscoil is right for my child?

Before beginning school, it is difficult to know how a child’s interests will develop. Attending a Gaelscoil or Gaeltacht school maximises the options and opportunities your child will have as they grow older. In addition to the academic and cultural benefits of being bilingual, there are more and more employment opportunities for people who speak Irish in many different fields. It is also clear from research (see the References section) that children in Irish-medium schools develop English language and literacy skills to the same level as their peers in English-medium schools.

The most important thing is to make sure that the school itself is suitable for your child and that it has the resources and experience to support your child’s learning and happiness. This is the case for both English-medium and Irish-medium schools. Factors such as the ethos of the school, class sizes and extracurricular opportunities are important considerations. If your child has any additional educational needs, make sure that the school has the resources and experience to support them. Listen to the experience of other parents and ask for information from the school to help inform your decision.

A psychologist has suggested that a Gaelscoil would not be suitable for my child. What’s your advice on this?

This type of advice used to be common but this is changing based on the findings of research which supports the fact that children should be given the chance to become bilingual and that children can reach their academic potential in a gaelscoil. Research shows that, as a group, children with SEN perform as well as their peers in English-medium schools in English reading (see Question X). Children with dyslexia are capable of reaching their academic potential in gaelscoileanna and scoileanna Gaeltachta, provided they have the right support.

The main issue is whether the school can support the needs of your child. Find out about the level of support available in the gaelscoil, including what model of support they have for children with dyslexia, the experience they have in supporting children with dyslexia and the training that school staff have received in relation to dyslexia. The child’s overall wellbeing should be considered too, including the impact of moving a child from a Gaelscoil after they have settled in there.

Recent research (Andrews, 2020) examined the benefits that parents who have kept their children in Irish-medium schools have identified. These benefits include:

 

  • Their child becoming bilingual and being able to communicate in two languages
  • Academic benefits in post-primary school, including good marks in Irish and the transfer of skills to their third language.
  • Self-esteem, self-identity and pride: children felt that Irish was a strength for them compared to their peers in English-medium schools.
  • Opportunities for repetition: learning certain skills in two languages provided opportunities for repetition, which helped them master skills.

Should we stay with Irish-medium education at primary level once SEN have been identified? Particularly where more than one challenge has been identified, e.g. dyslexia and dyscalculia, dyslexia and hearing impairment?

The most important question is whether the school has the resources and experience to support your child’s learning and happiness. Irish-medium schools routinely provide education for children with special needs, both physical and educational; children with impaired sight or hearing, autism spectrum disorders, dyslexia and other special educational needs. Irish-medium schools offer the same supports for these children as English-medium schools do. Ask the school about the support they can provide to your child based on their needs, as well as the experience they have with children who have more than one diagnosis of SEN. It is not unusual for children with dyslexia to have co-existing needs in another area. Many children with dyslexia thrive and are very happy in Irish-medium schools.

If a child has dyslexia should they be in a Gaeltacht school? Would it not be better for him or her to attend an English school?

Gaeltacht schools provide the opportunity for children to develop literacy and spoken skills in English and in Irish in a very supportive environment. There is more support now than ever available as there are language support teachers in Gaeltacht schools since the implementation of the Policy for Gaeltacht Education. It is paramount that children have the opportunity to develop skills in the language of the community and in their family language, and children get that opportunity in Gaeltacht schools. Children in Gaeltacht schools can realise their full potential and the skills transfer benefits their literacy skills in both languages. Also, there are many academic advantages, both cognitive and linguistic, relating to education through the medium of Irish.

Is there any advice regarding the suitability of a Gaeltacht school for a child with dyslexia, when Irish is not the first language at home?

Since the implementation of the Policy for Gaeltacht Education in 2017, for the first two years at school the development of literacy skills is in Irish only in the Gaeltacht schools. This provides the child with a great opportunity to acquire the Irish language and to develop the relevant literacy skills in junior infants and in senior infants, regardless of the language at home. English isn’t undertaken until 1st class and the child has no difficulty transferring the literacy skills developed in Irish during the initial two years to the learning of English.

If I send my child to a reading school for 3rd and 4th class can they go back to the gaelscoil to finish 5th and 6th class?

We have been recommended a reading school for our son who is currently attending a Gaelscoil. I had heard a number of years ago when my older son was diagnosed with dyslexia that if a child is in a gaelscoil and leaves to go to a reading school they cannot go back into the gaelscoil after they finish the two years in the reading school. I am just wondering if this is still the case? If I send my son to a reading school for 3rd and 4th class can he go back to the gaelscoil to finish 5th and 6th class?

The National Council for Special Education has advised the following:

Regarding students who attend special speech and language classes for a period of one or two years, past and present practice is that these students return to the schools they were enrolled in immediately prior to the commencement of the placement in the SSLD class.

This is the shared understanding of the NCSE and the School Governance Section of the Department of Education and Skills.

If further information is needed on the precise administrative arrangements, these can be sought by emailing the Department at: schoolgovernance@education.gov.ie

Are there similar problems in Irish and in English regarding memory, reading and processing pace, sequencing, etc.?

Some people with dyslexia have difficulties in all those areas, and other people with dyslexia have difficulties in some of those areas. At the cognitive level (memory, processing, sequencing), a person with dyslexia has the same difficulties in any language. However, dyslexia has a different effect on reading and spelling in different languages. For example, in a language with a complicated writing system (e.g. English), mistakes can be made frequently in reading and spelling. In a language with a simple system (e.g. Spanish) quite often reading can be slow but accurate. Irish is more regular than English and children will be able to use that regularity if they are taught phonetics.

What are the objective metrics and criteria to see if Irish language teaching is helping or hindering my child’s development both in Irish but also more generally?

The new curriculum breaks up learning outcomes into a series of stages which allows teachers to measure progress and identify any areas in which a child’s progress is less than would be expected in relation either to their peers or to the child’s skills in other areas. Teachers may also use the Próifílí Measúnachta don Ghaeilge sna Scoileanna Gaeltachta agus Lán-Ghaeilge, which lays out the language development of children in a set of stages to examine progress. If a teacher identifies any area in which a child is not meeting learning targets then supports will be put in place (refer back to the section on Identifying dyslexia for information on the Continuum of Support). However, if you are worried about your child’s progress in Irish or in other areas you should make an appointment to speak to the class teacher.

Is there any research that compares outcomes for children with dyslexia in English-medium schools with children with dyslexia in gaelscoileanna or scoileanna Gaeltachta?

Based on the available evidence, it appears that as a group, children with additional educational needs perform as well in immersion education as in English-medium education. There are additional advantages to gaelscoileanna and scoileanna Gaeltachta beyond literacy outcomes. A recent study (Andrews, 2020) examined the opinions of parents of children with dyslexia in gaelscoileanna. The benefits of immersion education that they have identified include:

 

  • Bilingualism: their child is able to communicate in two languages
  • Academic benefits in post-primary school, including good marks in Irish and transfer of skills to their third language.
  • Self-esteem, self-identity and pride: children felt that Irish was a strength for them compared to their peers in English-medium schools.
  • Opportunities for repetition: learning certain skills in two languages provided opportunities for repetition, which helped them master skills.

 

There is one study that compares the literacy development of students in Irish-medium schools, scoileanna Gaeltachta, and English-medium schools (Parsons & Lyddy, 2016). The participants include the full range of reading ability, including good readers and poor readers, though none are diagnosed as dyslexic given their age (Senior Infants – Second Class). The study found that by Second Class, as a group, those in gaelscoileanna had English reading skills that were as good as their English-medium peers and superior Irish reading and vocabulary to their English-medium peers. Children in Gaeltacht schools also had superior Irish reading and vocabulary skills than their English-medium peers, and had comparable English decoding skills to their English-medium peers. This is a group study, so it is not possible to tell how the skills of individual students developed. However, another study (Ní Chiaruáin, 2009) examines the development of three individual students with dyslexia in a gaelscoil. The findings suggest that they make good progress in both languages, with slightly better reading skills in English than in Irish.

There have been group studies carried out with French immersion students in Canada who have additional educational needs. These studies are reviewed by Genesee and Jared (2008). The evidence suggests that students who have additional educational needs have comparable English reading skill to their peers in English-medium education (who also have additional educational needs), and superior reading skill in French. The educational context of French immersion students in Canada is very similar to that of students in gaelscoileanna in Ireland.

How does a parent recognise if his or her child’s English has developed adequately while in the Irish-medium or Gaeltacht system?

From the research that has been undertaken, the children’s English vocabulary in a Gaelscoil is as good as the children’s vocabulary in English-medium schools. Also, having started to learn English in school, the children’s English vocabulary in Gaeltacht schools is as good as the children’s vocabulary in English-medium schools.

If the child speaks Irish at home, there is a possibility that the child’s English spoken skills will develop slower than children who are raised through the medium of English, but there is no possibility that they won’t be able to master the English language after primary school. It is worthwhile continuing the development of Irish language skills at home, and the English skills will catch up over time.

How does the teaching of reading (especially English reading) differ in a gaelscoil or scoil Ghaeltachta compared with English-medium school?

English reading instruction is taught in a similar way in Gaelscoileanna, Scoileanna Gaeltachta and English-medium schools, usually using a combination of phonics instruction and whole word instruction. The sequence of introducing English and Irish reading differs from school to school. Some introduce English reading first, some introduce Irish reading first and some introduce both at the same time. Gaeltacht schools introduce Irish reading first, in line with An Polasaí don Oideachas Gaeltachta (Policy on Gaeltacht Education), whereby immersion in Irish is compulsory in the first two years in school.

Previous research (Parsons & Lyddy, 2016) shows that regardless of the sequence in which English reading is introduced, the English literacy attainment of children in gaelscoileanna is the same of those in English-medium schools by Second Class. It also shows that children in gaelscoileanna have higher Irish literacy attainment than those in English-medium schools.  Similarly, the study showed that children in Gaeltacht schools have better Irish reading and vocabulary skills than their English-medium peers, and comparable English decoding skills to their English-medium peers.

Anxieties about vocabulary when English is the main language at home

English is the main language at home for the most part. When my son (7 years old) gets older, his English vocabulary will expand as that is what he speaks. He will come across a lot of words in reading that he won’t initially recognise and then he won’t be able to read them. Is that not difficult for him? I’m worried that his vocabulary in Irish won’t expand at the same pace.

As with a lot of children is Irish-medium primary schools, he thinks that Irish is a language being taught and he has no interest in cartoons or in reading in Irish at home.

The acquistion of reading is a process which happens gradually. Your child will progress in the spoken language as he progresses in the written language. Don’t forget that you child has been immersed in the Irish language in school, and that he will learn new words in the same way as he learns them in English at home.

In addition, while reading we normally come across new words. Reading is one of the most effective ways to learn new words. That is why phonetics are taught – so that the child can decode new words. A lot of words can be understood in the context of the sentence, even if a person already knows them. The more he reads, the better: there are wonderful books available in Irish for all age groups and on may themes and varied topics.

It is worthwhile speaking to your child in Irish at home, even if English is the language he or she speaks to you. You could add to the contexts in which your child uses Irish. Various groups organise family events (refer to www.peig.ie and select “suitable for families” (oiriúnach do theaghlaigh) from the list), for example. Gaeloideachas can advise you in relation to various organisations depending on your requirements.

How do phonics work for a child with dyslexia? If the child does not have Gaeilge as his or her home language will it affect their phonological awareness?

Phonics is a method of instruction that makes the links between letters and sounds clear. The following skills provide a good base for phonics instruction: (1) an awareness of the sounds of a language (2) an understanding that words can be broken up into smaller sounds (phonemes) and smaller sounds can be blended to make a word, and (3) an ability to recognise letters.

For the first skill, the child will need to become aware of the new sounds in Irish which do not exist in their first language. This can be done as part of a phonological awareness training programme. At home, listening to e-books in Irish or to programmes on TG4 can help to develop this still too. The second and third skills transfer across languages and are not dependent on knowledge of the language. If your child can break up words in English into sounds it is very likely that your child will be able to do the same in Irish. Practicing this skill at home with word games in your home language  will help to develop their literacy skills.

Download this as a PDF