I have a student who has Dyslexia, the reading & writing disorder. He is over 30, he has difficulties differentiating "p" and "q", "o" and "a" and vocabulary learning is a very challenging task for him. He now would like to learn English as a secondary language, which could help him in his career.

I can teach general students grammar and vocabulary without a problem, but in his case it is quite different. He is very eager to learn, but he just can't differentiate the vocabulary, e.g. "contact" and "contract".

What is the best strategy to teach him English?

His mother tongue is Cantonese, but I don't think it's related.


My brother is dyslexic and I've read and thought about the issue a lot. I also have experience learning 4 different languages to varying degrees of fluency. Also my dyslexic brother has learned a language with good success. So don't despair.

Is there any fundamental reason you need to push through the mud of dyslexia right away. I use that term not derisively but to emphasize that it can really feel like pushing through mud rather than walking on the sidewalk.

If reading and writing are like pushing through mud for a dyslexic person then why do it if you don't have to. Learning a language involves four skills: talking, listening, reading and writing. If you want him to experience success you need to focus on talking and listening; not reading and writing.

I have used the Pimsleur method to learn 4 languages with great success. They take the student far using audio only. I love the method and highly recommend you use that approach for learning English. English for Cantonese Chinese Speakers

If purchasing the lessons is not an option you could try adapting the method and see how it works.

Once he has success with speaking and understanding then you can evaluate whether reading and writing are important. Then he will have more courage to tackle the difficulties of written English.

If you think that this approach is bad, think about how much worse it is for your student to simply give up because it's too hard. Better to try what already works.

I do think that English is much worse than many other languages for a dyslexic person. For help see Davis Dyslexia Association International Also there are varying degrees of dyslexia; not all have the same degree of problems.


The best bit of advice is this: don't go anywhere near English. I'm 16, and I don't know anything about it, and it's the only language I know.

But, that would never do, I'm positive it's not all too difficult a task.

Problem one: the alphabet. Becoming familiar with the good ol' Roman alphabet is best achieved by just knowing it, saying it, writing it> This'll ease issues surrounding similar looking letters. When and only when he has the alphabet in his head, start working on words.

The ability to read quickly is a skill learnt long before the ability to read properly. Younger students I've worked with can read at astonishing speeds but they'll mix up words with as much ease. Listing words with a single syllable will boost confidence, but before looking at longer words, try listing shorter words with similar spellings:

Root Boot Loot Look Book Rook Rake Bake Lake Sake Soak Seek Reek Leak Late Rate Beak Geek Meek.

The beauty of words such as this is that there are so many of them. This list was an ad lib by someone with no real skill in teaching.

Looking at similar spellings with build up the skill of looking at a word and understanding it before reading it and starting another. Expanding the list to two syllables and further on will keep progress steady, but slow down if the 'first time' recognition stops happening as often.

Once the recognition is there, learning the connections of the words can begin more easily.

  • 1
    "don't go anywhere near English" Forsooth, thou art jesting. You have some push/pull logic in your first two paragraphs that are just confusing. – D_Bester Mar 19 '14 at 13:04
  • Also your suggestions are exactly the kinds of things that cause great despair to dyslexics. Just ask my brother. For real help see: dyslexia.com – D_Bester Mar 19 '14 at 13:05

I have little experience but fully support many of the points made by D_Bester - most of what I am saying is reiterating his points.

  • As a teacher, we should strive to learn more about teaching students are different - be that dyslexia, or autism, etc. if you have a pupil in your care with such traits. Understanding how to deal with such persons goes a long way towards helping you get through to the person.

  • If you try a method several times, and it doesn't work, it's probably a good idea to change the method, even if that is how you were taught to teach. Even with normal folks, there really isn't one right way to teach as everyone receives information differently.

  • I do think learning English for native Cantonese speakers to be especially hard. I don't profess to understand why, but if you look at superstars of the Cantonese speaking world - Chow Yun Fatt, Jackie Chan, etc. - after 30 or more years they still speak with difficulty. Cantonese has more intonations than Mandarin, and perhaps somehow that makes differentiating similar sounding words in English difficult.

  • So long as there's a willing student, as a teacher we should give it our best shot. I'm of the idealistic belief that anyone can learn anything at any age so long as the will is there.

  • One thing you haven't mentioned is if the student is in an immersive environment for English. It's great that they are eager, but language is all about immersion and without it, picking up any language is hugely challenging.

@D_Bester - I would like to be able to ask you some questions, if you are ok with it? My contact information is available on my profile.

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