Dyslexia isn’t just about bad spelling – teachers need to try a variety of strategies to build confidence.
I have this issue with how I hear words, Gareth, a 31-year-old graphic designer, tells me.
“So for example, while I was growing up, it was really hard to tell the difference between the words ‘girl’ and ‘grill’ because the ‘ir’ and the ‘l’ kind of overlapped in time unless you spoke really slowly. My teachers were always just flabbergasted that I couldn’t tell.”
To most of us, it seems obvious that the “ir” sound in “girl” comes before the “l”, but for Gareth, like many dyslexic sufferers, a dysfunction in the processing of neurological signals relative to each other in time, means that the letters tend to slip.
This problem snowballs when it comes to learning to read. It’s vital to be able to hear the sounds of the words and associate them with a symbol before you can decode them on a page.
But like all neurological disorders, dyslexia is not a static condition. The brain has an astonishing capacity to adapt and overcome hindrances which may be present in our neurobiology when we’re born – an ability referred to as neural plasticity.
This process works through a combination of repetition and feedback, in other words, practising. It’s the same way a violinist gradually learns to find finger positions on the strings.
System is skewed against dyslexics
Through persistence, and repeatedly trying to hear the differences between words, Gareth says he’s overcome many of the problems he faced when younger. But he feels that the education system is skewed against dyslexics.
“From my perspective, the big problem is that schools teach everything by telling. A teacher tells kids, ‘here’s how the world works, here’s how you solve this type of problem – now go and solve problems just like it’. But that impedes deep understanding. And it’s even worse for dyslexic kids who have problems with language.”
Indeed, many researchers say that the biggest problem for dyslexic children is not so much their condition, but that the current system – with its emphasis on memorising facts and meeting fixed milestones at young ages – leads them to lose confidence and their willingness to try.
It’s something the Mind Research Institute in California is looking to tackle by implementing a new system of learning for primary school children. This revolves round interactive puzzles and games, which ask probing questions, and crucially, are designed to engage the brain’s natural learning mechanisms.
“This game-based format is a way of guiding them along a path, without having to rely on language,” says Matthew Peterson, a neuroscientist who founded the institute back in 1998.
“And it works because, from a neuroscience perspective, you really need to learn by doing. You need to be put in situations where you have to figure things out, learn from your mistakes, and that’s not happening. The principle goes back to Socrates. He says, don’t tell people things, ask them questions and leave them to build their own knowledge.”
Learning through doing connects the back lobes of our brain – involved in sensing the environment – to the cognitive, emotional, and memory networks in the frontal areas. This “perception-action cycle” is the driving force behind learning. And it depends on making mistakes, recognising them, and then adjusting.
“The education system right now is just engaging the perception part of the cycle,” Peterson says. “Kids are listening and watching, there’s no action going on.
“And for dyslexics, it’s pretty common to have working memory issues. Language adds an additional level of working memory which makes learning even more difficult. If you directly engage the perception-action cycle through activities, it has a tighter loop and requires less working memory.
Not just a reading disorder
For many years, dyslexia was viewed simply as a reading disorder, rather than a multi-faceted neurological condition that can combine auditory, visual and memory-based language difficulties. As a result, many of the programmes for dyslexic children were fixated on phonics and distinguishing between the smallest sounds (phonemes) that go to make up words.
Phonics are one side of a very complex story. It’s become increasingly apparent that dyslexia can manifest as a range of symptoms. These overlap with other disorders such as dyspraxia and dysgraphia because many of the same brain areas are involved.
“The phonics approach often leaves out the idea of semantics,” says Anna Pitt, a researcher at the Dyslexia Research Trust at Oxford University. “The more contextualized the concept or word the child is trying to remember or spell, the easier it is for them to learn, because they go by the understanding rather than the memory. And phonics only works for regular words. If you try to apply phonics to the word island, you’ll come out with is-land. To recognise irregular words when reading, you have to use your visual memory.”
Dyslexia researchers say that very often the visual aspects of the condition are ignored. These are more subtle but can be seen in the problems many dyslexics have with differentiating between the letters “b” and “d”. It’s common for dyslexic children to complain that words appear to move as they try to read.
The visual problems dyslexics suffer sometimes result from an inability to control the convergence of the tracking of their eyes. This is believed to be due to a malfunction in one of the brain’s visual pathways.
Some of these children can be helped by using coloured glasses or paper in the classroom to give them a more reliable representation of what’s on the page. A new programme has recently launched to help dyslexics learn to control their visual attention through classroom-based exercises involving body and eye movement. It’s based on the theory of embodied cognition, which suggests that improving motor control throughout the body can improve attention and problem solving ability.
“We’re learning that tackling the attention side of things is often getting to the root of the problem far more effectively than just working on spelling,” Pitt says.
“You have to be prepared to let children find a way which works for them. If you look at dyslexics like Einstein or Richard Branson, their condition forced them to challenge the norm and find a new way of doing things. Sometimes this results in a solution which is better than the regular one, leading to fantastic new ideas which is how society develops.”
By David Cox, originally published in the Guardian / Mon 22 Sep 2014 14.35 BST
By David Ludden.
Humans have likely been speaking since the dawn of the species a quarter million years ago. Over evolutionary time, the human brain has been molded for language, as regions such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas have become specialized for speech production and perception. These aren’t new brain structures or unique to humans, but their exact functions in our hominid ancestors and primate cousins are still unclear.\
Language has encroached on other functional areas of the brain as well. For example, the cerebellum, which coordinates the rhythmic movements of the limbs when walking, also guides the rhythmic production of syllables when talking. In short, natural selection has reprogrammed the human brain for speech.
Reading, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. Almost all of us learn our mother tongue effortlessly as a normal part of growing up. But learning to read is hard work, and many of us struggle with the task even in adulthood.
In fact, reading is a very unnatural act for humans. Writing is a recent invention, going back only a few thousand years—a mere blink of the eye on the evolutionary time scale. Furthermore, the concept of universal literacy is an even more recent phenomenon, and it’s still more of a lofty goal than standard practice in many places around the world.
Reading is an unnatural task—and a difficult one for many people.
Since there’s no evolutionary history for reading and writing, it’s clear that the brain can’t be hardwired for processing written language. Instead, we make use of areas that perform other functions and retrain them to process reading and writing. Consequently, all writing systems have certain features in common that enable them to be learned by the brain.
Writing systems may represent language at the word, syllable, or phoneme (speech sound) level. But they’re all alike in terms of the symbols they use. That is, all writing systems consist of characters that are composed of lines and curves in contrasting orientations.
In other words, letters are line drawings. This is true whether the language is written with stylus on clay tablet, pen on papyrus, or ink brush on paper. And it’s not due to the limitations of the writing instruments, since all of these media can be used to produce other kinds of visual designs.
Your smart phone can read this, but your brain cannot.
Because the brain isn’t hardwired for reading, writing systems have to conform to the way the brain processes visual information. Primary visual cortex is located in the occipital lobe at the back of the head. An early process in visual perception is edge detection, and it’s one of the brain’s first steps in distinguishing the various objects in the visual array.
This early process explains why objects in line drawings are often easier to identify than in photographs. Line drawings highlight the edges of objects so your brain doesn’t have to. Thus, the brain first interprets letters as visual, not linguistic, objects.
The brain also needs a place to store information about the writing system it’s learned. Running along the bottom of the occipital lobe, where line detection takes place, and the temporal lobe, where object recognition occurs, is a structure known as the fusiform gyrus. This is an area that processes complex visual stimuli.
The fusiform gyrus processes complex visual stimuli, such as familiar faces and written words.
One function of the fusiform gyrus is face recognition. This is where we store representations for the faces of the thousands of people we know. People with damage to this area can still recognize an object as a face, but they can’t tell whose face it is. So that man across the dinner table from you could be your husband of thirty years, or it could be Brad Pitt—you just never know.
Also in the fusiform gyrus is the visual word form area. This is where the symbols of the writing system are stored, regardless of the language or the type of script. The visual word form area is informally known to language researchers as the brain’s letterbox.
The brain hasn’t evolved to process written language the way that it has for spoken language. So the discovery of the visual word form area was quite a surprise. Even more surprising was the finding that all writing systems, including the complex Chinese script, are processed in this same area.
It’s not quite clear what humans were doing with their visual word form area for hundreds of thousands of years before they started reading. Perhaps our hunter-gatherer ancestors used that portion of the brain for “reading” animal tracks and distinguishing edible from inedible plants. At any rate, writing systems have to use symbols that are similar to the kinds of information this area originally processed, and that’s why all writing systems are so similar.
This recruitment of a specific brain region for use as the visual word form area is known as neuronal recycling. That is, brain areas originally designed for one function can be reorganized to perform another, somewhat similar function. It’s neuronal recycling that gives us the ability to learn all sorts of novel complex behaviors, such as driving a car or playing the piano, that our brains weren’t preprogrammed to perform.
Changizi, M. A., & Shimojo, S. (2005). Character complexity and redundancy in writing systems over human history. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, 272, 267–275.
Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The new science of how we read. New York: Hudson.
Dehaene, S., & Cohen, L. (2011). The unique role of the visual word form area in reading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 254–262.
Perfetti, C. A., & Tan, L.-H. (2013). Write to read: The brain’s universal reading and writing network. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17, 56–57.
Zhang, M., Li, J., Chen, C., Mei, L., Xue, G., Lu, Z., . . . Dong, Q. (2013). The contribution of the left mid-fusiform cortical thickness to Chinese and English reading in a large Chinese sample. NeuroImage, 65, 250–256.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications)
About the Author: David Ludden, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College.https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/talking-apes/201501/the-brain-s-letter
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