Last week I tweeted about the New Scientist piece:”Dyslexia’s roots traced to bad brain connections”. Since then an L.A. Times ‘Science Now’ story about the same research is making news in dyslexia circles. The story is based on the work of a Belgium based research team who have been studying the connections between the areas of the brain involved in producing the experience of reading. To the surprise of many, their findings suggest that dyslexics have less trouble with phonetic representations (elements of processing) than with processing the elements fast enough.
Bard Boets, a clinical psychologist at the Catholic University of Leuven, in Belgium, and the lead author of the study, used a computer metaphor to explain it this way: “For a long time it was thought that in dyslexics the data on the server are somehow degraded. Yet, here we show that the quality of the data is intact, but the connection to reach this data is too slow.”
This is an important step towards better understanding the underlying processing issues involved in ‘reading improficiency’ (according to NAEP affecting 6 in 10) as well as ‘dyslexia’ (according to the LA Times article affecting 1 in 10).
Why do some children process slower? Some are innately/neurobiologically wired/endowed differently. Some develop in insufficiently speed-stimulative environments. Some learn maladaptive processing strategies that, analogous to bloated software, are inefficient and consume too much processing time. Some children develop aversions to the bad feeling of the difficulty involved in learning to read that distracts and dissipates their attention with self-negative emotional arousal. Obviously, many have aspects of more than one of these causes or contributing factors.
But why is speed so important in the first place? What is it about reading that requires so much processing speed? Word-recognition. If word-recognition doesn’t happen fast enough, attention and working memory become stressed and the sub-processes involved lose sync (which appears as the hesitations, stutters, and drop-outs we hear in the voices of struggling readers). The slower the rate of word recognition, the greater the difficulty in maintaining all the other processes involved in reading including the flow of comprehension.
What is it about word recognition that takes so long? The most common impediment to word recognition speed is the time it takes to recognize non sight-automatic words – the time it takes to disambiguate a word’s sound from a word’s spelling. Unlike the neurobiologically innate or life trajectory learned factors that influence speed, this disambiguation process is complexly, artificially, confusing.
The greater the reader’s experience of confusion in word recognition, the slower the rate of word recognition.
As we recognize that processing speed is a bottleneck issue, we are faced with two options: boost speed and/or reduce the need for speed. Because virtually everything about processing speed (in most children) is plastic, we can use neuroplasticity principles to stretch and improve processing rates. On the other side of the equation, we can develop pedagogical on-ramps into reading that are designed to build up speed while starting out with a reduced need for it. By reducing the confusion involved in the early stages of learning to read we reduce the processing challenges that eat up precious time; we reduce the risk of forming maladaptive strategies; and we reduce the risk of developing emotional aversions.
In quite a parallel to the subject of this post, last week I was visiting with a bright and verbally dexterous 6-year old boy. Only a few months ago he had shared with me how much he loved learning in school.
David: So how is it going in school? What is your favorite part of school?
David: Why recess?
Boy: Because we don’t have to learn hard.
David: Are you having difficulty learning? What is most difficult for you?
Boy: Reading and math
David: What is so difficult about learning to read?
Boy: Sounding out words.
David: What is so difficult about sounding out words?
Boy: They don’t sound like their spelling.
Interested in how we might reduce the confusion involved in learning to read? I’ve been working on this for decades – since 1991 when another young boy with similar gifts made the exact same observation.
We are in trial with a completely out-of-the-box approach to taking off in learning to read. If you are interested in learning more write me.
Thanks for reading.
Sounding out words is easier in Spanish than English. Are there fewer dyslexic children in Spanish speaking countries?
Yes, there are fewer. There are more children diagnosed with dyslexia in English then in any of the other language in the world.
I am not sure what the components of deep orthographies in languages such as English might be, beyond the obvious inconsistencies in spelling. But I suspect if our spelling system were to suddenly become more user-friendly, reading problems in English would quickly match languages with shallow orthographies.
With most texts now digitized, a fairly simple program could translate any existing digital text into a newly invented, easier spelling system. Has anything like that been tried?
Yes we’ve had hundreds of years of attempts to reform the orthography. Even today international contests are held to compare alternative schemes. It’s a fascinating story. The problem isn’t our technical ability to change it’s the inertia (a grand scale ‘qwerty’). See “Paradigm Inertia”