The nature of reading difficulties

Schoolkids in classroom. Girl reading task aloud at lesson.New findings about the nature of reading and reading difficulties have emerged in the last decade, report researchers Sally E. Shaywitz, M.D., and Bennett A. Shaywitz, M.D., Yale University. They contend that there is a convincing body of evidence showing that reading relies upon the same brain systems used for spoken language, and that reading disability reflects a deficit within the language system.

Studies have been made of both good readers and disabled readers to compare the areas of the brain activated during reading. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), individuals are asked to read nonsense words. The neural signature for dyslexia is an underactivation of the neural systems in the back of the brain that are activated in fluent readers.

Good readers activate three neural systems for reading, one in the front of the brain and two in the back. In contrast, dyslexic readers underactivate the reading systems in the back of the brain and overactivate the system in the front of the brain. The Shaywitzes report that many individuals with reading disabilities learn to use other, compensatory brain systems and are able to read accurately. However, their reading is usually not fluent or automatic. Such disabled readers need phonologically mediated reading intervention as early as possible. The Shaywitzes report that intensive, early intervention results in the development of the brain systems responsible for skilled reading.

Diagnosing Reading Problems in School-Age Children

Dyslexia reflects a reading deficit that is unexpected for a person’s age, intelligence and level of education. Test results reveal difficulty reading single words and great difficulty decoding nonsense or unfamiliar words. Individual strengths in reasoning and problem solving may lead to reading comprehension that is superior to decoding skills. However, reading speed is usually reduced, making homework very slow. Spelling is often very difficult for dyslexic readers as well.

The Shaywitzes recommend that diagnosis of dyslexia should include reading achievement tests that contain sections for reading real words and nonsense words, and a measure of oral reading to test both accuracy and rate of reading. Oral reading, in their opinion, is important to the assessment of reading disabilities. They find that the most consistent and telling sign of dyslexia is slow and laborious reading and writing. Therefore, it is critical to measure reading fluency to uncover dyslexia, especially in bright young adults.

The connection between reading and language leads these researchers to conclude that it is the conversion of print on the page into a linguistic code – the phonetic code – that must be explicitly and intensively taught to disabled readers to improve their skills. They write that beginning readers must discover that spoken words have parts and that the word they hear comes apart into smaller pieces of sound. This is the development of phonemic awareness and must be systematically taught to disabled readers. They agree with the findings of the National Reading Panel indicating that “in order to read, all children must be taught alphabetics, comprising phonemic awareness and phonics skills; reading fluency; vocabulary and strategies for reading comprehension.”

They stress the need for ongoing feedback and guidance by highly skilled teachers. For disabled readers, they assert, early intervention is critical and reading instruction must be delivered with great intensity over a considerable period of time in order to close the gap between disabled readers and their peers. Research has shown that while disabled readers often make steady progress through school, they rarely close the gap with nondisabled readers.

Shaywitz and Shaywitz conclude from converging research evidence that dyslexia is a lifelong disability that runs in families. It is carried as a genetic trait, and recent studies have implicated a number of genes involved in dyslexia. One-quarter to one-half of children who have a parent with dyslexia also have the disorder, and if one child in a family is affected, chances are half of his or her siblings will also be affected. While many more boys than girls are referred for reading problems, equal numbers of boys and girls are diagnosed with dyslexia.

“The New Science of Reading and Its Implications for the Classroom”, Education Canada Volume 44 Number 1 Winter 2004 pp. 20-23.

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