Foreign language attainment of children/adolescents with poor literacy skills: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Alexa von Hagen*, Saskia Kohnen, Nicole Stadie

*Corresponding author for this work

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This systematic review investigated how successful children/adolescents with poor literacy skills learn a foreign language compared with their peers with typical literacy skills. Moreover, we explored whether specific characteristics related to participants, foreign language instruction, and assessment moderated scores on foreign language tests in this population. Overall, 16 studies with a total of 968 participants (poor reader/spellers: n = 404; control participants: n = 564) met eligibility criteria. Only studies focusing on English as a foreign language were available. Available data allowed for meta-analyses on 10 different measures of foreign language attainment. In addition to standard mean differences (SMDs), we computed natural logarithms of the ratio of coefficients of variation (CVRs) to capture individual variability between participant groups. Significant between-study heterogeneity, which could not be explained by moderator analyses, limited the interpretation of results. Although children/adolescents with poor literacy skills on average showed lower scores on foreign language phonological awareness, letter knowledge, and reading comprehension measures, their performance varied significantly more than that of control participants. Thus, it remains unclear to what extent group differences between the foreign language scores of children/adolescents with poor and typical literacy skills are representative of individual poor readers/spellers. Taken together, our results indicate that foreign language skills in children/adolescents with poor literacy skills are highly variable. We discuss the limitations of past research that can guide future steps toward a better understanding of individual differences in foreign language attainment of children/adolescents with poor literacy skills.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)459-488
Number of pages30
JournalEducational Psychology Review
Issue number2
Early online date11 Sep 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • bilingualism
  • dyslexia
  • foreign language
  • meta-analysis
  • poor literacy


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