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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.

Students 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 students 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 or perhaps third 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

As of August 2019, the Department of Education and Skills has updated its criteria on exemption from the study of Irish. In line with other Department policies, there has been a movement away from requiring a specific diagnosis and instead the new criteria are based on the identified needs of a student.

Children may be exempted from studying Irish in Primary School if their Word Reading, Reading Comprehension, or Spelling in English are at or below the 10th percentile, and if they have presented with significant learning difficulties that are persistent despite having had access to a differentiated approach to language and literacy learning in both Irish and English. 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.

The application procedure is similar for both primary and secondary schools. To secure an exemption, parents/guardians must make a written request to the School Principal for a Certificate of Exemption from the study of Irish on behalf of the pupil. The Principal must inform the parents/guardians that the application will be processed and the outcome confirmed in writing within 21 school days of receipt of the application.

Typically, a standardised test will be administered by the school to discern the student’s current abilities across the three skills (Word Reading, Reading Comprehension, and Spelling). The Department of Education offers guidance on the selection of tests at:

A psychological report, or a diagnosis of dyslexia, is no longer required by the Department.

There is an option not to exercise the exemption granted, without any loss of the right to exercise it at a future time.

The Department of Education has further information on their website at

Copies of the two relevant circulars are available at the following links:

–       Primary Schools (Circular 0052/2019) –

–       Post-Primary Schools (Circular 0053/2019) –

Also, there is an appeals procedure which is outlined in the circulars.

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, for some Civil Service posts.

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, 49 Merrion Square, Dublin 2. Tel. 01 4392424. ( Individual applications must be made directly to all other colleges.

Be aware also 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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DAI activities are part-funded by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government (Scheme to Support National Organisations 2016-2019 administered by Pobal), the Special Education Section of the Department of Education and Skills, SOLAS and KWETB.