by ph d ian smythe
international dyslexia consultant surrey, england
most people are now comfortable with the idea that there are some individuals who have difficulty learning to read and write despite being very competent in other areas. and although there are many arguments about the terminology to be used, such as whether to refer to specific learning difficulties or dyslexia, there is now, with the advance of analytical tools such as brain scans, little doubt that about the neurologically basis of such difference, with brain scans.
but whilst we know the consequences, and in particular the difficulties of learning to reading and write, what is less understood is the impact of specific learning difficulties in a second language. the purpose of this article is to ask what are specific learning difficulties, what are the underlying causes, and do the causes vary between countries? it will also suggest that what works in one language may not work in another language, and offer the intriguing conclusion that there could be individuals who may be dyslexic in one language, but not in another.
defining dyslexia and specific learning difficulties
specific learning difficulties should be considered as those neurologically based processing differences which impede a specific area. although the terms dyslexia and specific learning difficulties (spld) are often used interchangeably, this is due to the prevalence of dyslexia, rather than being technically correct. other splds that also cause problems include dyscalculia difficulty with maths, and therefore dyslexia should be seen as one of several splds.
there are many definitions of dyslexia, and the lack of a consensus of the difficulties has been one of the reasons why there advances in understanding the issues have not been as fast as has occurred in some other areas within psychology (stanovich and siegel, 1994). furthermore, much of our understanding of how literacy skills are acquired is based on research in roman alphabet based languages (smythe and everatt, 2000). however, recent research (see for example figure 1) suggests that a test battery which will account for over two thirds of the variability in english will only account for half that amount in chinese. since there is no evidence that factors such as teaching methodology and motivation would be such major contributors, it is suggested that a different battery of tests may be required for each language.
presented here is the authors definition which attempts to offer an understanding of dyslexia that is more universal than some alternative definitions, and research has demonstrated that by using this wider framework, it is possibly to explain more of the difficulties some people have with the acquisition of reading and writing skills.
dyslexia is a specific difficulty with the acquisition of literacy skills (reading, writing and spelling) which may be caused by a combination of phonological, visual and auditory processing deficits. word retrieval and speed of processing difficulties may also be present. the manifestation of dyslexia in any individual will depend upon not only individual cognitive differences, but also the language used. the manifestation of dyslexia in any individual will depend upon not only individual cognitive differences, but also the language used.
the first part of this ‘definition’, that it is possible to have a specific reading and writing difficulty, is agreed by most teachers, researcher and even politicians. this is reinforced by examples championed by dyslexia organisations who have failed to learn to read and write, at least at the level of their peers, and yet have still succeeded in their chosen profession (possibly because of their dyslexia). example include famous people from the past, such as thomas edison, leonardo da vinci, and albert einstein to current leaders in different fields including richard branson (billionaire businessman, whose business interests include travel and music), beruj benacerraf (geneticist and nobel prize winner), john chambers (chairman of global computer company, cisco systems) and charles schwab (founder of one of the world’s leading internet financial services companies).
some would argue for the explicit inclusion of skills such as comprehension, while others suggest that you should have different terms for reading and writing difficulties. furthermore, some countries use the term dyslexia differently. for example, in russia the term dyslexia is used exclusively for a reading difficulty, whilst dysgraphia is a writing difficulty. but in italy, dysgraphia is used for a handwriting difficulty, and dysorthographia is used specifically for spelling. and of course this should not be confused with the polish term for difficulty in automated handwriting skills, dysautographia. (salter and smythe, 1997)
on the underlying causes, there are many reasons why a person can fail to acquire literacy skills. these will include teaching environment, home environment, motivation, and missing school through illness. but there may also be neurological issues, that is there could be differences in brain structure which affect the way the brain processes information. and this where the next part of our ”definition” comes in, the part that suggests the difficulties may be due to phonological, visual, auditory, word retrieval and speed deficits.
to explain in more depth, ”phonological” refers to the ability to break down and build up the sounds within words, auditory is concerned principally with short term memory for sounds, and the ability to distinguish between sounds. visual is also about short term memory for images, as well as the ability to differential and remember sequences visually. word retrieval refers to the ability to access and retrieve what is in the word memory stores correctly, either as whole words or parts of words, while speed will determine how quickly, and efficiently the process is preformed. what is particularly important here is to distinguish between certain components. many workers, practitioners and researchers, tend not to differential between the different elements that go to make up a cognitive profile, and as a consequence, underlying abilities such as the ability to recognise that some words rhyme, ie they have phonological segmentation and assembly skills, are mixed in with other ”language” skills, such as sound discrimination and auditory short term memory. however, it may be argue that only by making these distinctions can one determine the real causes of the difference. furthermore, the author has recently demonstrated that using this more specific framework, it becomes clear that dyslexia manifests itself in different ways in different languages and scripts.
different language, different problems
it has long been acknowledged that some languages are more ”transparent” (ie there is a close correspondence between letters and sounds) than others, and that, therefore, may offer different problems for the dyslexic individual. this happens with regular languages like hungarian, finnish, and to a lesser extent swedish and spanish. as you get older, so you start to remember bigger chunks of words, and it is this ability to use these bigger chunks that allows you to both read faster and to read new words. but with less regular (or opaque) languages such as english, there is greater need to learn the larger units, such as the rime.
recent research suggest that while the difficulties with the phonological manipulation modules may be the biggest cause of dyslexia in the english community, other aspects take greater prominence in other languages. that is, as suggested in the definition, the cognitive difficulties that lead to reading and writing difficulties will be dependent up on nature of the scrip. thus whilst in english it is the ability to acquire rhyming skills that is one of the biggest predictors of literacy skills in english, it is the ability to hear the difference between sounds that determines the spelling ability of the hungarian individual. furthermore, results from tests of short term memory appear to predict spelling ability in chinese. however, it is not the expected visual short term memory, but auditory short term memory that appears to be the best predictor.
figure 1 shows a comparison between three language for spelling results: english, hungarian and chinese. the bar graphs show the level of prediction in each of the languages, mapped to the framework as discussed in the definition. furthermore, the graphs compare and contrast the predictors of good and poor spellers who were matched for intelligence.
the intention here is only to highlight the differences, and the need to appreciate the influence of the script. as can be seen, it is the phonological (red) tasks that are the biggest predictor in the dyslexic (poor spells) in english, though rapid naming (the speed at which somebody can say a string of numbers) that is more predictive for controls.
however, for hungarian, whilst it is the phonological skills that predict in the dyslexics, it is the auditory task of being able to distinguish between sounds (blue) that is the largest predictor for controls.
in chinese it is again auditory tasks (blue) that are most important, but this time it is auditory short term memory that is the significant predictor. however, it is also important to note that each module cannot be represented by a single task, and that in this case the auditory tasks which predict literacy skills in chinese dyslexics are language based short term memory tasks, while for controls it is a non-linguistic auditory memory task that is most predictive.
figure 1: comparison of cognitive predictors of spelling ability in different languages for dyslexics and controls (smythe, 2002)
what this suggests is that it would be inappropriate to suggest that test battery used for the diagnosis of dyslexia in english would also be relevant in other language contexts.
is it possible to be dyslexic in one language but not another?
so if a specific cognitive difficulty may not lead to a difficulty in one language, but could in another, then one has to consider the possibility that there may be those who learn two languages, and due to the presence of a specific difficulty could have problems in one language but not the other. this will of course depend on a number of factors, not least of which is the difference between the two languages (eg norwegian and swedish as so closely related that it is hard to imagine that one could have difficulties in one but not the other due entirely to differences at the neurological level. but motivation may be a major issue.)
not only is this possible in theory, but there is some evidence of that existing around the world. for example klein and lee (1972) in a study in canada, found that most children learning both english in chinese had no problem with either language. however, some had problems with chinese but not english, while others had trouble with english and not chinese. wydell in 1999 reported a case of child who reportedly was dyslexic in english (first language) but not in japanese. there is also some interesting cases with patience with acquired difficulties. this includes research that shows the two types of japanese script, kanji (chinese) and kana (a type of syllabary) can be separately affected in alzheimer’s patients. furthermore leker and biran described a patient who developed difficulties in reading hebrew (right to left), but whose english (left to right) reading skills were left untouched. in 2000 paulesu used brain scans to demonstrate that normal english and italian individuals process the same words in different parts of the brain.
even more interestingly louis miller-guron (2000) of the university of gothenburg found individuals who could learn to read and write in english better than in swedish, even though swedish was their first language. this research challenges the notion that the since a dyslexic individual has difficulties in their first language, they will have difficulties in their second language. furthermore, it suggests that in some cases it may be found that the individual demonstrates no dyslexia symptoms in literacy acquisition in their first language, but may have dyslexic related difficulties when trying to learn a second language.
one example of this could be in spanish, whereby a child learns to read and write in their first language without difficulties. the language only demands a simple letter-sound correspondence to able to read and spell, at least until the child reaches about the age of eight or nine. then larger units, such as the rhyming units, are required. if they stay in the spanish system, the difficulties, hopefully, will be recognized. however, if the child happens to transfer to a different language environment (eg english, where the rhyming skills are important) then, since there is apparently no history of literacy difficulties, it will be assumed that the difficulties of acquiring the new language are not specific learning difficulties. that is, the problems are undiagnosed, and the child will continue to fall further behind, and those difficulties will persist into adulthood.
explaining the differences
as suggested in the ”definition” above, it comes down to the starting place, which is that different languages have different requirements at the cognitive level. and an individual with a given cognitive deficit may experience problems in one language but not another.
take for example the swedish children who learn better literacy skills in english. this is exactly what would be expected a child who fails to learn the sound-letter correspondence, but has other abilities that may still be useful in other languages. there are two possible ways that they could turn out to be better at english. there is the possibility that they can use the larger units such as the rime unit to remember and to read words. although this skill could be used in swedish, it would lead to slower progress that their peer group, whereas using the rime would allow these children to apparently keep up with other children learning english. furthermore, any elevation in say visual memory skills may also assist more in english than in swedish, because of the greater dependence on the larger rime units which obviously can also have a visual component.
when it comes to chinese the distinction becomes more clear. chinese literacy skills may be considered to be acquired by rote learning. the learner is given various aids in remembering chinese characters, such as stroke sequence, and the possibility of breaking the word into various components, ie sound and meaning components. however, the high level of inconsistency means that the clues in the components are often a hindrance rather than a help, though individuals with good literacy skills are often found with greater ability to note patterns in the relationships between characters and their pronunciation. this may be analogous to the english example of the rhyming words mint/hint/tint (where the ‘i’ is pronounced as in ‘sit’), as opposed to the exception word pint (where the ‘i’ is pronounced as in ‘bite’). consequently, as in other languages, the ability to build relationships between sound and written representation is important, and may be improved by the implicit recognition of patterns and exceptions. however, with 1500 phonetic radicals (the sound component of chinese characters) to learn (perfetti and tan, 1999), and only 25-40% (depending on age of the reader) of characters being pronounced as their character suggests, it is not surprising that the difficulties of the chinese dyslexic individual may be very different from those of the roman alphabet dyslexic.
implications for research and practice
consider the fact that many dyslexic japanese and chinese individuals go to england to study, because their university system demands that not only do you have to pass examinations in the area you wish to study, but also in literacy skills in english. however, british universities only require one to demonstrate abilities in the subject of study and sufficient english language skills to do the studying. hence a dyslexic japanese student who could not get into university in japan, was recently able to come top in his maths degree course at cambridge university. but if the difficulties encountered, ie writing in a foreign language, were not important for the course, why should he have been excluded from that course in his home country?
the answer lies in a lack of understanding of the issues by policy makers for primary, secondary and tertiary education, despite various international agreements (eg un, 1994; salamanca, 1994). where these issues are addressed in policies, a failure to implement frequently occurs due to a lack of understanding of the individuals fundamental rights, often hidden behind such arguments as financial constraints, a misguided belief that to make courses more accommodating will devalue the course, and a reluctance to move forward in accordance with more enlightened understanding of the issues.
by understanding the specific difficulties of the individual, and working with their strengths and weaknesses, it is possible to ensure that every individual is given an opportunity to achieve their potential. this does not mean that we have all the answers, but, as the checklist in table 1 suggests, we can go a long way towards helping the dyslexic individual, provided we have an open mind, and ask very specific questions, such as why is this individual having difficulties in this specific language.
· assess as many of the areas known to be related to dyslexia as possible
· assess in the home language and language of instruction where possible
· monitor progress and learning over time
· look beyond oral language proficiency
· provide direct instruction in reading skills
· provide language enrichment opportunities
· consider the transfer of specific skills from the first language
· delay assessment until oral language proficiency has reached an ”appropriate” level
· assume that word recognition and word attack skills are unimportant
· assume persistent language and reading difficulties will ”catch up” if ignored
· seek to establish a discrepancy in order to justify a label of reading disability
· assume that persistent difficulties merely reflect ”negative” transfer from the first language
· use test norms based on the child’s first language
table 1. a checklist concerned with what should and should not be done with the multilingual dyslexic individual based on that developed by geva and woolley (in press).
published aug 2002
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