How Language Difference becomes Learning Disability: Challenges in Assessing for Dyslexia in the Indian Multilingual Context

This is the third blog in a series by Distinguished Fellow Maya Kalyanpur on her research in India on children with learning disabilities.

Using a post-colonial lens (Motha, 2015), this study examined the process by which low-income students from non-English-speaking backgrounds are labeled as learning disabled within the context of the Sustainability Development Goal of quality of education.  In the new millennium, the number of children labeled as learning disabled or dyslexic in India has increased exponentially:Currently, about 10% or 30 million children are estimated to have a learning disability (“10% of kids”, 2012). There is no research to explain this trend.The label, new to India, was officially recognized in 2009 when the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995 was amended to include the category of Specific Learning Disabilities. In post-colonial India, more children than ever before are accessing an education facilitated by the Indian government’s Education forAll program launched in 2001 and the 2009 Right to Education Act. Recognizing English as the language of opportunity and social mobility, parents are increasingly choosing to send their children to English-medium private schools rather than government schools where the medium of instruction is in the regional or national language, even though they may speak a regional language at home.

Part of a larger qualitative study on the quality of educational services for struggling students in English-medium private schools conducted in a metropolitan city in India over four months, this blog focuses on an analysis of assessment practices in three low-fee-paying schools and two learning disability clinics to ascertain the process by which students are labeled learning disabled. Data sources included document analyses of psychometric assessments used at the clinics and curriculum-based assessments used in schools, participant observations of instruction in schools, and interviews with teachers, parents and clinicians.

Photo courtesy of Educate Girls Globally (EGG)

Findings indicate that students who struggle academically are caught within a fiercely competitive educational system that is hierarchically tiered by students’ socio-economic status and, by extension, their access and familiarity with English. Students from elite backgrounds, fluent in conversational and academic English, attend Tier I or the top-ranked schools, which gives them access to top-ranked universities and colleges both nationally and internationally. On the opposite end, students from low-income, non-English-speaking backgrounds attend Tier 3 schools, such as low-fee-paying schools, and aspire to the lifestyle that access to fluent English provides in India (“Goddess of English”, 2014). While the national No Retention Policy requires that students not be retained until Grade 8 even if they are failing, unlike in the US, there is no legal mandate to provide academic support services in schools.

The Challenges of Creating Standardized Assessment Measures

Yet, there is a strong dependence on the US service model. The definition of Specific Learning Disabilities in the 2009 amendment of the Indian Persons with Disabilities Act mirrors that in the US Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, specifying that assessments should ascertain a “discrepancy factor” between achievement and aptitude. Most of the measures themselves are imported from the US and poorly standardized on Indian norms, resulting in students outside the norming group being identified as learning disabled. For instance, the Indian version of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV, 2012) published by Pearson, the American publishing company, is normed on just 334 children (118 boys, 153 girls) studying in English-medium schools with almost 84% parental educational levels of college graduate.


 Some Test items expect students to recognize items like a sled, mittens and a snowman,hardly culturally appropriate for the Indian context. Further, the number of officially recognized languages in India makes creating a standardized assessment measure for the specific detection and educational intervention of children with LD problematic (Narayan, et al., 2003; Unni, 2012). While the Dyslexia Assessment in Indian Languages (DALI), an indigenously developed screening tool that uses linguistic knowledge of the language rather than translated versions, is a creditable alternative, it is currently only available in four languages and for elementary grades. At the two clinics observed, the DALI was not a systematic part of the diagnostic process.

For low-income, regional language students, the lack of appropriate assessment tools is particularly problematic. Many are first-generation school-goers, and their home environments preclude access to conversational English, either through TV or within the community. They are enrolled in low-fee-paying English-medium schools because of their parents’ lifestyle aspirations, where they are introduced immediately to academic English. The large class sizes of up to 60 students make individualized support for academically struggling students impossible, and render the mode of instruction primarily teacher-led with heavy reliance on rote memorization. Teachers are not trained to scaffold students’ learning through translanguaging pedagogy (Garcia & Wei, 2014) which enables students to acquire English by building their comprehension in their native language; in any event, even multilingual teachers are unlikely to speak all the languages represented in any given classroom. English language acquisition becomes contextualized to the curriculum and students’ academic achievement is filtered entirely by their ability to acquire what is essentially for them a foreign language. Even the remedial classes offered to struggling students focus on reinforcing the curriculum through memorization rather than increasing conceptual comprehension.   

Learning Disability?  English Language Acquisition?

The No Retention Policyaverts major crises until Grade 10 when students take the high-stakesschool-leaving statewide tests, which determine access to all post-secondarypaths. At this point, students may receive minimal government-permittedconcessions of extended time on tests and scribes for students with dysgraphia(Karande, Sholapurwala & Kulkarni, 2011), but, as in the US, they must bedeemed to have a learning disability. Thus, desperate to pass students willseek a certificate of disability, despite the enormous social stigma attachedto the label and even though, in most cases, the learning barrier islanguage-based, not cognitive. The study concludes that, despite the SDG ofquality education, these assessment processes further disadvantage low-incomestudents, despite their fluency in regional languages, by conflating difficultywith English language acquisition with learning disability.

Meet Maya Kalyanpur


Garcia, O. & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 

“A ‘Goddess of English’ for India’s down-trodden” (February 15, 2011). BBC News. Retrieved from:

Karande, S., Sholapurwala R. & Kulkarni, M. (2011). Managing Specific Learning Disability in schools in India. Indian Pediatrics, 48, 517-520.

Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York: Teachers College.

Narayan, J., Thressiakutty, A.T., Haripriya, C., Reddy, K.G., Sen, N. (2003). Educating children with learning problems in primary schools: Resource book for teachers. Secunderabad: National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped.

Unni, J.C. (2012). Specific learning disability and theamended “Persons with Disability Act”. IndianPediatrics, 49, 445-447. Retrieved from: