Anxious dad awaits Arabic dyslexia test for daughter

Dyslexia in children goes largely unnoticed in the UAE as no standardised Arabic tests are available. Those with the disorder have problems reading, spelling and recognising words. Warning signs can only be picked up from a child's colloquial language.

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DUBAI //RK suspects his daughter, 7, is dyslexic. She reverses letters and fears her study hours.

But to confirm his suspicions, the Emirati father will have to fly to Kuwait to have her assessed.

Dyslexia in children goes largely unnoticed in the UAE as there are no standardised Arabic tests for the disorder.

Those with the disorder tend to have problems reading, spelling and recognising words. They can struggle with word recall and may also have poor handwriting.

For bilingual children, there is no problem. Many tests are available in English, based on UK and US standards.

But no special-needs centres offer tests in Arabic.

"There are no standardised tools in Arabic yet," said Dr Yasir Nattur, associate professor of speech pathology at UAE University. "In its absence, psychologists resort to informal testing but then that leads to informal intervention."

RK said: "It is frustrating that there are no schools or institutes here that provide one. If it is in English, I will have to explain it to her and that will not work."

Warning signs of dyslexia can be picked up from a child's colloquial language, if they mispronounce words or have a short attention span.

RK's daughter shows some of those signs. But to give her effective therapy, he needs concrete evidence.

The Kuwait Dyslexia Association is one of the few institutions that has made an effort to devise such Arabic-language tools.

It has translated a computer-based dyslexia screening and assessment method into Arabic. A similar test has been developed in Egypt, but neither is yet offered in the UAE, nor has anyone developed a UAE-specific test.

The absence of systematic assessments at the school level in the UAE was highlighted in a study published last year. Researchers at UAE University found that of 2,500 Emirati university students, about 450 had symptoms consistent with dyslexia.

They used a specially designed test - the Emirates Dyslexia Indicator Test - that measured areas including the students' ability to identify letters, sequencing and mathematical ability, academic performance and reading enjoyment.

Most registered an academic performance of average to excellent in English and Arabic, but none professed any real enjoyment in reading, writing and spelling, instead finding it a burden.

The rate of problems found by the UAEU study was far higher than the global incidence of dyslexia, which is between 4 and 6 per cent.

The researchers said lack of school screening programmes to identify, define, and try to fix difficulties early allowed problems to hamper students through university and beyond.

Abu Dhabi Education Council is working with higher education institutions to come up with diagnostic tools and support programmes for Arab pupils, but nothing is yet in place and no time has been set for its introduction.

Dr Hussain Maseeh, a social-care expert at the Community Development Authority (CDA), the Dubai social services agency, said there had been a lack of awareness and will in the Arab world.

"There are some tests that have been translated and verified but still more needs to be developed," Dr Maseeh said. "While you can get results from English-based assessments, they too have to be used with caution. There will always be language and cultural barriers."

The CDA conducts a battery of tests to compare the intellectual ability and achievement of the child and identify any special needs.

But because the translated tests are not specific to Arab culture, they can be misleading.

Dr Maseeh said one example was "visual images [that] can be misinterpreted because they are unfamiliar to Arab children".

And vocabulary is not necessarily comparable.

"What words Arab children should know at that age is very different from American and British children at the same age," Dr Maseeh said.

Dr Nattur would like to see more funding for research into language tests, and a study on word frequency in Arabic.

"You cannot say the child is not learning at his age unless you know the frequent words and at what age they should acquire them," he said.

"Children with dyslexia have a problem with word recall, so if we have a list of the most common words, then a scientific programme can be developed for therapy."