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Irish/Language Learning

Dyslexia occurs at the individual word level, with the result that language learning, and in particular achieving accuracy and fluency in written language, is challenging.  Dyslexia occurs across a continuum from mild to severe.  Students at the mild end of the spectrum may manage learning additional languages. However, students with more severe dyslexia will struggle and may need to get an exemption.  There are quite strict guidelines laid down which students must meet before the Department of Education will grant an exemption from Irish.

Children with dyslexia experience difficulty with phonological processing, working memory, auditory discrimination, syntax and sequencing, all skills necessary for language mastery.  To succeed at learning a second language, one must first have reasonable competence in one’s first language.   This does not mean however that learning a second language is not possible at a later stage.  Due to the additional support provided in primary level and which parents provide outside of school, some children who are exempt from Irish may become competent enough in their first language to enable them to take on another language when they reach second level.

A significant factor which affects language acquisition is orthographic depth.  The orthographic depth hypothesis, which is well known to linguists and informed educationalists, proves that the more complex or ‘deep’ the orthography of a language the more difficult it will be to learn.  A transparent language is one which has a very clear letter-sound correspondence and much regularity.  In contrast, a deep or opaque language is one which has a more complex phoneme-grapheme correspondence and more irregularities.  English is one of the most complex languages, and while Irish orthography is not as deep as English, it is not considered to be a transparent language.  In European terms, Finnish is considered the most transparent European language.  Spanish and Italian are also quite transparent; French and Danish are more opaque as is English (Seymour, Aro & Erskine, 2003).  The orthographic depth hypothesis clearly explains why students can learn some languages more readily than others – this applies to all students, but in particular those with dyslexia and other language acquisition difficulties.  Therefore, evidence shows that these students should logically opt for a more transparent language when choosing an additional language to learn, in order to minimise the impact of their diagnosed learning difficulty.


Exemption from the Study of Irish



A pupil is not allowed to be exempt from the study of Irish simply because he or she is dyslexic, or because they find the subject difficult. Children may be exempted from studying Irish in Primary School if their reading and spelling levels in English are in the bottom 10% of their age group.  The application procedure is similar for both secondary and primary schools. To secure an exemption, parents must make a written request to the School Principal and must provide a copy of an assessment report from a Psychologist.  This report must be less than two years old.  If the school principal grants the exemption, then a certificate is given to the parents. This should be kept safely as it will be required when the student transfers to second level school. Once the exemption has been granted it follows the student right through school system and on to third level if appropriate. Download the relevant DES circular (12/96) here: DES Circular pc12_96 (WORD format).



The following is taken from the Guidelines for Psychologists on Assessment and Reporting (DES Guidelines for Psychologists) (1995) in relation to exemption from studying Irish in schools: “a school may grant an exemption from the study of Irish only to pupils who function intellectually at average or above average level but have a Specific Learning Disability (dyslexia) of such a degree of severity that they fail to achieve expected levels of attainment in basic language skills in the mother tongue…..the criterion for marked failure is taken as a test score at, or below, the 10th percentile….”.

Download the relevant circular (12/96) HERE

Paragraph 7(i)) of these Guidelines indicate that two scores at or below the 10th percentile are required in order to be considered for an exemption.

In the case of applications based on specific learning disability, an exemption from the study of Irish can be granted where the child (a) has an average IQ score and (b) a word reading score at or below the 10th percentile AND a second attainment score in literacy/language at or below the 10th percentile.

The decision whether or not to grant an exemption from Irish lies with the school principal, and there is currently no formal appeals process although parents can approach the relevant section of the Department of Education if they have not resolved the issue at school level.


Third Level

Formal exemptions will be recognised by the National University of Ireland and most third level institutions. These institutions will allow students with such exemptions to be exempt from college matriculation requirements regarding the number of language subjects a candidate is required to have.  Even if a formal exemption has not been granted, it is worth seeking such an exemption from the NUI if a serious problem exists. There are still a few careers where Irish is a compulsory requirement, e.g. primary teaching.

Students with dyslexia can apply directly to third level institutions for an exemption from the matriculation language requirements.  This can usually be done at any stage after Junior Cert. Application to the NUI colleges, such as UCD, UCC, UCG and Maynooth, is done centrally via the NUI office in Dublin. Application forms are available from the National University of Ireland (  Individual applications must be made directly to all other colleges.

Also be aware that some courses will require Irish or other languages, because they are integral parts of the course, e.g. Irish is a compulsory subject for a primary teaching degree; a European Studies or Business course may require a modern European language.  In such cases where a language is an integral part of a course it is obviously not possible to get an exemption.  However, for most courses there exists a comparable course, in the same college or in another college, which offers the same core degree without the language component.


Learning Foreign Languages

Language learning is always a difficult issue where students with dyslexia are concerned.  The benefits of having a second or third language are undoubted, and many students with dyslexia become quite competent in other languages.  This applies particularly to students with good oral and aural ability.  As increasing emphasis is now placed on oral and aural performance in Junior and Leaving Certificate, students should, at least, be given the option to try languages at second level. However, consideration must be given to the difficulty experienced by some students in acquiring literacy in their first language.  As a rule of thumb it could be said that a student who met the criteria for exemption from the study of Irish would be likely to encounter difficulty with the written form of other languages.  Each case must be looked at individually and no hasty decisions taken which might close off later options.

Meeting entry requirements for third level education, and working and travel abroad, particularly within the E.U., are the main reasons for choosing to study languages.  The colleges of the N.U.I. (U.C.D., Maynooth, U.C.C., N.U.I., U.C.G.) normally require three languages for entry.  However, as Wyn McCormack points out in  her book Lost for Words “A student who has been allowed an exemption from the study of Irish at school, on the basis of specific learning difficulty, will qualify for exemption from the NUI Irish language and third language requirement for matriculation.” Students who did not apply for, or receive, an exemption from the study of Irish while in the school system, may still apply to the N.U.I. for an exemption from the third language requirement on the grounds of severe dyslexia.  So, a student may be able to secure exemption from second and third level requirements for N.U.I. matriculation before entering senior cycle at second level, thus enabling a more rational choice of subjects.

In the area of language and third level education, it is wise to research which courses of study involve a compulsory language element.  Some I.T., Business and Engineering courses may include a language, even though a student may gain entry to the course without having taken this language at second level.

If a student decides to study a foreign language, then it is advisable to choose languages which are similar phonetically to English and have a more transparent orthography. Spanish or Italian might therefore be a better option than French for students with dyslexia.  While Latin is not often offered in schools these days, many teachers feel it is a ‘dyslexia friendly’ choice.

Finally, life is not only about exams and college entry. Many people with dyslexia will find benefit from studying and speaking a foreign language and may further develop their competency later in life. They are more likely to succeed if they have overcome the difficulties with literacy in their first language.

Books on Dyslexia and Learning Other Languages

  • Brunswick, N. et al – Reading and Dyslexia in Different Orthographies – Psychology Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-1841697123. 
  • Crombie, M. and Schneider, E. – Dyslexia and Modern Foreign Languages – David Fulton Publishers, 2004. ISBN: 978-1853469664.
  • Nijakowska, J. – Dyslexia in the Foreign Language Classroom – Multilingual Matters, 2010. ISBN: 978-1847692795.
  • Peer, L. and Reid, G. (Eds.) – Multilingualism, Literacy and Dyslexia: A Challenge for Educators – David Fulton Publishers, 2000. ISBN: 978-1853466960.


Useful websites/apps for language learning: (also iOS and Android). This site provides interactive learning of languages in progressive stages with extensive writing and diction exercises.  Languages include Irish, French, Spanish, German and Italian.  (also iOS and Android). Memrise focuses on teaching languages to students and uses visual flashcards to help them remember words and phrases for many different languages. Although the app focuses on languages it can be used to learn geography, history and sciences. This website has links to French and German newspapers and radio stations.

Think bilingual! (iOS). This App guides the learner to think in the target language through immersion in real-life situations.  The current version is free.

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