SINGAPORE: More students with dyslexia are seeking support to learn their mother tongue, according to the Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS), which has seen growing demand for its Chinese programme.
According to the Education Ministry (MOE), more students are being diagnosed with dyslexia each year, due to increased awareness of the condition and more systematic screenings.
Dyslexia affects the ability to process sound, which in turn impedes the learning of a language - be it in reading, writing or spelling.
"They would have difficulties translating sound and the letters that they see in print,” said Mr Ashraf Samsudin, director of Specialised Educational Services. “So for example, they may not be able to see that the first sound in the word cat is ‘k’, so if you translate that to words, it may slow you down in language acquisition.
“They also would not be able to see that there are similarities in the word cat and pat, with the '-at' behind, so when they learn both words, they would learn it in isolation.
“All languages involve the use of sound. So therefore, dyslexia affects languages across the board. However, different languages are created differently and have varying difficulties.”
For example in English, the sound "a" can be spelt in multiple ways such as "a-i" or "a-y", Mr Ashraf explained, whereas Malay is an easier language to master as how a word sounds is usually how it is written.
According to DAS, this depends on whether words are written the way they are said, so a pictorial language like Chinese can be confusing.
In a year-long study in 2010, the association found that dyslexic children may have difficulty remembering the sequence of symbols within a character and may also struggle with differentiating the pinyin tones.
"English is much more simplified because it is ... letter by letter,” said 11-year-old Axel Choo, who was diagnosed with dyslexia. “You can know the letter sounds and join them up, then make the English word sounds, but in Chinese, (it's just) the word. Some parts (contain) clues to the sound, but won't (tell you) the total sound."
STUDENTS WITH DYSLEXIA
DAS said based on global trends, about 10 per cent of Singapore's population - or 23,000 children - are estimated to have dyslexia. It currently serves more than 3,000 students through its various programmes.
This includes a Chinese programme that was started in 2013 to meet growing demand. It has about 100 students and another 20 on its waiting list. These students either take Chinese as an examination subject or have been exempted, but would still like to learn the language.
Typically, students with dyslexia are allowed to drop their mother tongue if they are unable to cope.
Between 2010 and 2013, about 3.5 per cent of each Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) cohort was exempted from the mother tongue language requirement, with dyslexia being one of the top three medical conditions for such exemptions.
Latest figures from the ministry are not available.
Currently, the Education Ministry provides support for English through its school-based dyslexia remediation programme, which was extended to all primary schools in January. About 2,700 students have benefited from the programme since 2012.
MOE also provides funding for DAS' English programme.
In response to media queries, MOE said the extent to which the condition affects the learning of a second language varies widely and it should not be assumed that students with dyslexia are "naturally incapable of learning a second language".
MOE added that research on dyslexia in the mother tongue languages (MTL) is still in early stages, particularly in the area of research application and learning support, and that the ministry keeps a close watch on research developments to see how it can support MTL learners.
For now, students who struggle with their mother tongue can choose to take foundation classes instead. Teachers would also give special attention to students with learning difficulties, such as by conducting small group teaching or remedial lessons.
DAS is looking to further support students in Malay and Tamil in the next three to five years.