It is a fallacy to state that phonological awareness deficit is the main or even one of the causes of dyslexia as claimed by many researchers and Dyslexia Associations.
I have given the definition of dyslexia as defined by The Learning Disabilities Association of the US. I have also written that dyslexia is just one of the Learning Disabilities. (For want of a better word)
Let us clearly define what is not dyslexia.
Standard exclusionary criteria include conditions that began or existed prior to school entry such as severe attentional problems, mental retardation, oral language impairment, emotional disturbance and/or behavioural difficulties, deficits in hearing or visual acuity, neurological disorders such as autism or childhood schizophrenia, or chronically poor health. Historically, the notion of “unexpected underachievement” has been the central defining feature of dyslexia. Children are identified as having dyslexia only when factors that would be expected to cause problems in all areas of learning, not just reading, are excluded (not ruling out the possibility of comorbidity). For example, children with severe attentional problems would be expected to have problems in all areas of learning, not just reading and writing. Such children should therefore not be diagnosed as having dyslexia. Similarly, children with deficits in auditory acuity due to otitis media (or “glue ear”), for example, would be expected to have trouble with learning in general, because their deficits in auditory discrimination would impede oral language development, which in turn would make understanding classroom instruction in all areas of learning difficult. These examples relate to a core assumption of dyslexia, which is the assumption of specificity, the notion that the child diagnosed with dyslexia has a deficit that is reasonably specific to the literacy learning task; that is, the deficits displayed by such children should not extend too far into other areas of cognitive functioning
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines dyslexia as:-
“Dyslexia is a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person's ability to read. These individuals typically read at levels significantly lower than expected despite having normal intelligence. Although the disorder varies from person to person, common characteristics among people with dyslexia are difficulty with spelling, phonological processing (the manipulation of sounds), and/or rapid visual-verbal responding.”
Assoc Prof Dr Lee Lay Wah from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s (USM) School of Educational Studies says the difficulties faced by children with dyslexia include weaknesses in processing the sounds of language, poor memory and sequencing skills.
I do not support phonological processing as the cause of dyslexia. Dyslexia is a language barrier and not one of phonological processing.
Let us examine phonological processing in depth.
Phonological processing/awareness refers to knowledge of the sound units (phonemes) used in a language, including the ability to hear and produce separate phonemes.
· Phonological awareness also involves knowing that words are composed of spoken sound units and that sound units can be combined to form words. For example, the spoken word "mat" consists of three phonemes: /m/, /a/, and /t/. Phonological awareness refers to (1) the process of breaking a spoken word into its sound units-such as being able to discriminate the sounds /m/, /a/, and /t/ when the word "mat"' is spoken and (2) the process of producing and blending sound units to form spoken words-such as being able to produce and blend these three sounds when one wants to say the word "mat."
· Students are classified as phonologically aware if they are able to break a spoken word such as "mat" into its three constituent sounds; to combine the /s/, /k/, /il/ and /l/ sounds to create the spoken word "skill"; and to say "kill" when asked to delete the /s/ sound from the spoken word, "skill". This is an example of phonological awareness assessment (referred to respectively as phoneme segmentation, phoneme blending, and phoneme deletion).
1. phoneme isolation (e.g., "Tell me the first sound in 'mat' ")2. phoneme substitution (e.g., For 'boy' change the /b/ to /t/).
3. phoneme identity (e.g., Tell me the sound that is the same in 'cat,' 'cow,' and 'cot' ) and
4. phoneme categorization (e.g., Tell me which word does not belong: 'bat,' 'boy,' 'mug')
As detailed, all assessments of phonological awareness involve spoken words and sounds and never involve printed words or letters. What happens when a child cannot answer some of these questions? He is branded as a child with a phonological awareness deficit.
If the questions are only verbal researchers may be able to differentiate dyslexics from non dyslexics but does it mean that those who cannot do these exercises have a “phonological awareness deficit?” I look forward to answers to this question.
In the late 1950’s, students in Malaysia were never questioned like this. They were taught phonics and simple sight words - Dolch sight words. They were read to and asked by teachers to read aloud. Those who were weak were given extra classes and more reading until they too became good readers. Perhaps this method of teaching, wherein there is more reading in a class, should be reintroduced. In fact, most of our current Ministers had learnt their English in primary school this way.
“The most common barrier to learning early word reading skills is the inability to process language phonologically (Liberman, Shankweiler, & Liberman, 1989). Moreover, developments in research and understanding have revealed that this weakness in phonological processing most often hinders early reading development for both students with and without disabilities (Fletcher 1994).”
The above was written in the 1980’s and 1990’s and every other researcher and many dyslexics believe in this statement without question. The same thing continues to be written to this day.
For at least the last 30 years researchers have been talking about the contribution of phonological awareness to reading acquisition.
1. Has the illiteracy level been reduced drastically or better yet eradicated completely?
2. Is there explicit instruction in letter-sound correspondence? Are children who learn English taught that many of the letters in English represent more than one phoneme (sound)?
3. Is phonological awareness the culprit in students not being able to read? Could it be something else?
4. If phonological awareness deficit is what makes reading difficult then how is it that dyslexic students can read fluently in Malay and Romanized Mandarin? How is it that they can spell well in both these languages?
5. Would all the students who were classified as able to process the English language phonologically, based on the above study, be able to read the following words if it was the first time they had seen it and had never heard the words before? – said, island, quay, which, salmon and hundreds of other similar words. About half of the common Dolch words also fall into this category.
As I have said many times, many dyslexic students can read fluently in Malay. They can read as well as any other child. Why is this so? Plainly stated it is because all words in Malay are phonologically consistent. (Except for the letter ‘e’ as pointed out in my earlier articles)
My dyslexic students who read in Hanyu Pin Yin (Romanized Mandarin) can read fluently in this language. The question posed is why? The letters used in both Malay and Romanized Mandarin are the same 26 letters used in English.
These dyslexic students can also read a list of individual words as fluently as any other child in English.... provided these words are phonetically correct. Despite their ability to read fluently in Han Yu Pin Yin and Malay, these students are certified as dyslexic due to their inability to read English books fluently. By this premise, are non readers of Hanyu Pin Yin and Malay also dyslexic?
I do hope that some experts out there can please help me with this question - Is phonological awareness deficit the problem with dyslexic students having a problem reading in English? If so what about all the research reports by the various researchers which say that dyslexics can read fluently in orthographically consistent languages.
I am concerned that the research findings about phonemic awareness are being misused or over-generalised. I believe that we can reduce the illiteracy level by more systematic instruction and engagement with language early in students’ preschool, and kindergarten classes. Use the lessons in my blog from the month of March and see the improvement in your dyslexic child. It is free of charge and has been effective with all my dyslexic students.
I have spoken about ‘Shut Down Learners’ and how they shut down when something illogical is taught. I believe that most of the dyslexics fall into this group of shut-down learners. If we teach them in a way appropriate for them they learn to become good readers.
Talking about dyslexics having a phonological awareness deficit and trying to figure out a solution is like pouring petrol into a diesel engine and asking why the engine is not working. The problem is not the engine, it is the fuel. A dyslexic child needs to be taught in a different way - in a manner acceptable to him/her. It has nothing to do with having a phonological awareness deficit.