Saturday, April 2, 2011

Dyslexia - Transparent and opaque orthographies

The following is a face book message received from one of my readers, Heidi Kroner, on what she had read in a book. This confirms my observation of my dyslexic students who have a problem only in reading in English but read fluently in Malay and Han Yu Pin Yin.

Full Circle
Well, this is going to be a long message, but you just have to bear with me, and read the whole thing! I was so excited while reading this book I found, and all three of you were "present" in my mind while I read it. I met the three of you through my research on Dyslexia; with Andrew asking Graeme a question resembling the following "Is dyslexia just a disease that occurs in the English language?" Well, today, while in the library, I came across the most fascinating new book called "Reading in the Brain - The New Science of How We Read" by Stanislaw Dehaene, copyright 2009. Stan is a French neurobiologist, psychologist and mathematician who studies how we read. You would all love to look at his book. He meshes all the things every one of you has observed, and makes it all work seamlessly together.

First, he shows all the research that shows how we read. And, on the page before his chapter on Dyslexia, he has the most interesting map. He shows the percentage of reading errors made by 1st graders on a map of Europe. At the end of 1st grade, readers in England make 67% errors in reading, and readers in Spain, Finland and other countries with "transparent" orthographies have error rates of only 2-8%, differing by country with Finland at 2% and Spain at 6%. He calls English an "opaque" orthography because our spelling is so oddly structured. Then he goes into his chapter on dyslexia, and he talks about how it is a phoneme based problem that arises because dyslexics' neurons do not navigate to the correct places in the brain during pregnancy. So the science totally backs up Graeme's point, but there is MORE that exactly supports Luqman's point. The Italians rarely diagnose dyslexia, and they called it an "Anglo-Saxon" disease. This interested researchers enough that they began studying why dyslexia appeared "more prevalent" in countries with "opaque" orthographies. What they found was that dyslexia does exist in every culture. And people with dyslexic brain makeup’s in Italy, did not make as many errors in reading and spelling as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, but when compared to readers in their own language, they were slower readers and made dyslexic mistakes. The more transparent the language, the less errors made, and the more opaque language, the harder it was for the dyslexic brain to work with it and decipher it.

So, this scientist can explain all the wiring problems in dyslexia, and explain why Luqman's students have few problems with languages that are spelled exactly like they sound, but trouble with English. English truly does cause dyslexic brains more problems than languages that have more consistent spelling rules.

He then went on to explain to parents and teachers that even though this is a brain based reading problem, it is not incurable. He goes on to explain that tutoring in the right methods will build the neuropath ways in the dyslexic brain so that eventually, their brains will find the right "scaffolding" as he calls it to read, spell, etc. He talks about how the neurons, during pregnancy navigate to build the scaffolding to read and write. In dyslexics, due to genetics, the scaffolding is not built in the same structure as the normal brain. All brains are plastic, and through learning, we can all rewire our brains, and also find redundant scaffolding that can accomplish reading, writing, etc.

Anyway, I just thought his book did an excellent job explaining all the different things we were observing. And to Graeme's auditory processing, he talks a lot about the different types, reading in colour, etc. It all goes back to the places the neurons migrate to during pregnancy, the degree to which they migrated correctly or incorrectly, to what parts of the brain they migrated, etc. Graeme, you may really dig his book. You may have already read it.

Anyway, I was astonished how a guy in France, two people in the US, one in Malaysia and one in England could all be in some way, in one place with me and my book in an Iowa Library.

To see a diagram that shows English children making 67% reading errors at the end of first grade in comparison to children in countries with more "transparent" languages click here

Heidi Kroner


Sarah Cox said...

Wow! That is very interesting! And it makes total sense. My husband is dyslexic and so is my son.
My husband struggled his whole school career through high school. But after finding his place in the medical field he is a great student and reads his text books from cover to cover.I think the "redundant scaffolding" of reading things within one topic (medical things) as helped him to become a better reader. But interestingly enough, he still struggles on reading a simple birthday card sometimes. Even though he can read long and difficult medical words.

Luqman Michel said...

Hi Sarah,
I wish I was in a country where people will come out and speak about dyslexia, like you do. Here parents are in a state of denial when it comes to their child being dyslexic.

Sarah Cox said...

Funny, here the school district is in denial that dyslexia is a real thing, so as a parent I have to really fight for the right services for my son. And getting him diagnosed was almost impossible! I am just lucky enough to work at his school so once I got the diagnosis (from outside sources, not the school district) I was able to cooperate with his teachers to come up with a program that works for him.
But there are states that are really working hard on helping students with dyslexia and they even have "Dyslexia specialists" in each school. I wish I lived in one of those states! But hopefully my state will be like that soon too.
Now, I just wish I could find a tutor like you here!