Sunday, October 10, 2010

Phonological Awareness Deficit is not the cause of dyslexics being unable to read fluently - A Myth Busted


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.

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
(Stanovich, 1991).

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). 

Other common assessments for phoneme awareness include:-
  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 1950s, 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. 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 1980s and 1990s 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.

The questions to ask are:-

1.      Has the illiteracy level been reduced drastically or better yet eradicated?
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 nonreaders 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 March and see the improvement in your dyslexic child. It is free of charge and has been effective with all my dyslexic students.

I am passionate about teaching dyslexic children and success in teaching dyslexic children to read is my goal. Dyslexic children can be taught to read if taught correctly. It has to be something different from ‘phonological awareness deficit’ for dyslexic children to be able to read if taught correctly as mentioned by many educators over the internet.

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. It has nothing to do with having a phonological awareness deficit.


Stephanie Martin said...

Dear sir, I feel that you have listened to each of your students and have recognized the difference between phonological awareness and "shut down learners", First I want to thank you for hearing the kids, the experts have forgotten to get the answers from the subjects, the children. I was once again shocked at a statement I heard just yesterday from a public teacher/ mother of a dyslexic child "Well you know they make medicine to cure dyslexia, my child is taking it, but it keeps him up all night" I felt a horrible need to take the child and run,of course I did no such thing, but my point is, that society doesn't have time to stop and listen to the needs of these children, instead they are handing medicine out like candy to keep the children drugged enough to make it through school. Illogical thinking, "if we keep the kids quiet long enough the parents won't know the difference,and we can continue to push the kids through the system." Well guess what they grow up to be non productive citizens and cost us more to take care of them because they now are adults. These children need to be heard, they are frustrated beyond most understanding. And to "cure" the problem is not to medicate or mislabel these children and adults, it is to understanding their way of thinking. My child is so much more than a statistic, he needs you experts to hear him. He is not impaired he is a logical thinker, fighting against illogical methods.
Thank you and I hope you were listening.
S. Martin

Luqman Michel said...

Yes, of course I listen to all my readers and their comments. You are right, many people jump to label a child and their job is over. As a parents you will know what is best for your child.At least now you know that phonological awareness deficit is not the cause of a dyslexic not being able to read.
Best wishes.
Luqman Michel

Valrie said...

Dear Michel,

I am currently working with an Indian family with 2 young boys, one is 7 and the other is 9. The younger has severe problems and is continually confused with sound boxing, or chunking as it is call here In America. The fragmentaions of sounds makes him read like an imkbecile, of WHICH I assure you he is not! In less than 6 weeks I have him reading far more fluently than he does in his classroom and wit h the public reading specilaist using chunking, and phonological manipulation. Mat is sight wword read as mah ah t. Giving it 3 syllables. I ask you is this reading? NO it is toitally fragmenting authentic reding experiences. I implement DOLCHE sight words, repetition of oral, written and reding of the same words until they are automatic. His fluency rate and WPM is always ahead of the expected rate on his first reading, yet in school his teachers classify him severely below proficiency level. His parents first language is HINDI, and his is English. The older brother does not exhibit the difficulties of the younger. The younger one also has severwe attention problems and I utilize alternative teaching strategies to keep him focused and on task. He responds better to small group instruction, and excells when he is praised. I am at wits end trying to communicate with the reading specialist at the same faciulity for which I freuently substitue when I am not teaching my college courses in developmental reading, writing and English courses.

I concur with what you state here. Also globally illiteracy is compounded with the rate of e-literacy overtaking the youth of tomorrow's leaders. Critical thinkers are not being developed as the age of the Digital Native does all the thinking for them!

The Reading Doctor
MSE sum cum laude 4.00 GPA Elmira NY
Doctoral Candidate 2011 4.00 GPA
Professor MVCC, Utica, NY

Luqman Michel said...

Thank you very much. A reading specialist accepting what I have written is very encouraging.
I hope more of the researchers will use their critical thinking power and accept what I have written.
Once we channel our thinking away from 'phonological awareness deficit' being the problem with reading among dyslexics and look at why they shut down and take remedial action the world literacy level will rise.

Hakim said...

I concur!

To say that “The most common barrier to learning early word reading skills is the inability to process language phonologically" seems to clearly be a fallacy, as the ability to perceive sounds in speech depends greatly on the sounds that we are used to. That is to say, the sounds of our native language.

Considering that the dyslexic people I know have no problem pronouncing words (in English, Malay or Chinese), I'd say they don't have a problem with phonological processing.

They just have a problem reading English.

I just happened to be reading this yesterday:,%20I%20looked%20at%20my%20colleagues%20and%20smiled%22%20%22My%20japanese%20colleagues%20were%20straining,%20listening%20as%20hard%20as%20they%20could%22%20phonetic&f=false

It mentions an experiment about the perception of basic sounds. It mentions that Japanese people have a problem differentiating the /l/ and /r/ sounds.

They get along just fine though, and have no trouble reading Japanese because Japanese doesn't have any /l/ sound.

But when they read/speak English, they mix up pairs of words such as "climb"/"crime", "right"/"light.

This doesn't make them dyslexic, it just means they can't tell the difference.

Dyslexia is not a phonological processing problem. My dyslexic friends would all agree.

Luqman Michel said...

Thank you Hakim for your insightful comment. Unfortunately the link you gave has not come out correctly.
I hope the researchers who write otherwise will now look at this seriously.
Luqman Michel

Luqman Michel said...

Thank you again Hakim. I now see that one has to copy paste the link you have sent to visit the site you are talking about.
Wish you well.
Luqman Michel

Anonymous said...

Good evening, Luqman:

Sorry I couldn't respond to you yesterday. I appreciate your referencing me in your article.

One observation that I have made having assessed thousands of kids struggling with reading is that they are "predisposed" to guess at words based on the word's whole configuration. They (the kids or adults) are not oriented or "wired" to perceiving parts of words.

I still maintain that about 60% does this (chunk, etc.) fairly naturally. The 40% are the ones of concern who require much more structured and explicit instruction.


Richard "Doc" Selznick

Luqman Michel said...

Dr.Selznick, I am not sure of the percentage but yes, I agree that dyslexics need more structured and explicit instruction.
I do not know the reason but these children just have to be taught in a way (Structured and explicit as you put it) that is appropriate to them.
Thank you for your comment.

Anonymous said...

I disagree, I am a parent of a 12.10 yr old boy, he has had 7 yrs of Dyslexic teaching by specialists on a one to one, different programmes have been tried, he still cannot read even cat or dog and will laboriously decode 'it'. Because he has had many years of being spoon fed Phonics he can recognise some sounds, so for transporter for instance, he can just about work out, tr an sp or t er, he cannot put together ant part of it? even tran, how do you explain this, or as I say 'i, t'? He has been assesed many times and has been to a specialist Dyslexic School, NO CHANGE! I had to search for a solution and got great Comfort in Dr Neville Brown's work from Maple Hayes School, I researched and found a visual literacy programme from Americs, 'Picture me reading', In just 3 weeks my son now has a bank of at least 20 words he has learnt from sight with a PIcture, after a few times of checking with the Picture he can now transfer his knowledge to reading the same words in a book.
I know he has aniqueness amd is a severe Dyslexic, his probelm is Phonological processing for sure, it is absolute.

Luqman Michel said...

Thank you for your view parent.
Wish you well.
Luqman Michel

Eileen Lian said...

Hi Luqman,

I agree that phonological awareness deficit is not the cause of being unable to read fluently.

I tend to prefer Leonard Bloomfield's Let's Read linguistic approach, to phonics, when it comes to learning to read. I notice that your lesson plans are close approximations to his suggested lessons. E.g. Can Dan fan man? Nan can fan Dan. A man can fan Dan. And so on. :-)

Having said that, I'm a firm believer in respecting the internal schedules of children and not pushing them to wean, walk and yes, even read. You hear stories of the odd homeschooled kid not reading till they are 8, 9, 10. But when they start reading, you just can't stop them. They read voraciously, often several books a week, and often at reading and comprehension levels beyond those of their age peers. If they were in school they would have certainly been diagnosed with dyslexia or something else.

Of course, there are always exceptions and in those cases early diagnosis is key.

Luqman Michel said...

Thank you for your comment Eileen. Yes, I have heard of children who start reading after they are 8 or 9. I do not know the answer why but my guess would be -1. They suddenly realize that they should not make sense of every word they are reading. That is to say they should not try and read phonetically words that are not phonological.
2. I just recently read an article on myelin and how it develops late in some children. The article goes on to say that this is one reason why some children should be held back in school for a year if they find learning to read a problem.
Kind regards,
Luqman Michel

Unknown said...

My son did learn to read English, but he could not spell. He tried several programs, and the one that did help him was phonological based. But was it that he couldn't hear the sounds, or was it because English is confusing? At age 9, he still could not tell you what sounds the short a, o and u made. But, he was also very logical, so why does the word "a" make the short u sound, and then the "a" in cat, make the "ah" sound? And, then the a in "paper" make the long a sound? He still wants to spell police, "polees" because that makes sense using some English spelling rules.

His program that helped his spelling and improved his reading fluency, focused on him learning the LOGIC behind every single spelling rule in the English language. It was phonological based, but it showed why the phonemes sounds change. This way he could understand when and why the letter "a" changed sounds three times in "a", "cat" and "paper."

I will never know what causes his dyslexia! Is it phonological awareness, or is it the illogicalness of English spelling? Was his fluency problem tied to the inability to hear sounds (he spoke with no accent), or was it the illogicalness of spelling rules, confusing him every time he saw a different word? He could read big words better than small words, and he used context greatly.

I am just thankful I found something that worked. But only one person in a town of 300,000 people taught that program!!!! I feel for everyone who has a child who struggles with this issue. I always say parents are the best advocates for their children, and search till you find what works, and may God bless you with the resources to pursue it!

Luqman Michel said...

Hi Heidi, The fact that phonological based teaching was what has helped your son to spell goes to show that he does not have a phonological awareness deficit. It makes sense to spell police as polees. Believe me your son will have no problem learning Finnish as you spell a word as it sounds and you sound it as it is spelt.The same goes for Malay.

The fact the the vowels have many sounds (phoneme) also confuses a dyslexic child and he will shut down until one explains to him that some letters have more than one sound. My lessons here in my blog gives you all the sounds of the vowels and some of the consonants.

It is surprising that in US - a developed country- you have only one in 300,000 (in your area)who knows how to teach a dyslexic using that particular programme.

My lessons commencing in March in this blog should be helpful for parents with dyslexic children. Many have written to me to thank me for the lessons which are all free of charge.

Thank you for your Blessings. May God continue his Blessings upon you and your family.
Luqman Michel

Unknown said...

Good luck in your quest to help dyslexics all over the world Luqman! You are on the right track! Heidi

Luqman Michel said...

Heidi, Thank you for your encouragement.
I'll be posting less in my blog as I have written all that I wanted to and more. Now, I have been busy writing to researchers and to forums on dyslexia.
Hope someone out there will respond.

KildonanSchool said...

Great post! While a phonological awareness deficit can be crippling in school as well, some intense tutoring can easily help the child. On the contrary, dyslexic individuals sometimes must attend schools for dyslexic children for years in order to manage their disability. Thanks for clearing up the the two!

Luqman Michel said...

Thank you. Glad to have been of help.

dave said...

At last, someone on the net who speaks sense.
Well done.
I agree being dyslexic is not based upon phonlogical skills, however i have found difficulties in this area very common in the dyslexics i see. Yet some of the worst students have no issues with phonological processing but some kind of 'mental block' in joinng it all together - to form langauge.
I am off to read more of your blogs. now for a plug

the dyslexia shop

Luqman Michel said...

Thank you Dave. I have been busy writing to many researchers but most do not even bother to reply. Those who reply say that they are busy to read through my attachments.
I do hope people like you will help by talking to researchers you may know or to students who are looking for topics to do their masters.

Yes, I have seen many who "shut down" (you call it mental block) when some thing is not logical to them.Please refer to my discourse with Dr.Selznick in my June articles.

Sue said...

I am dyslexic and I also teach children in the UK who are dyslexic. I struggled to learn to read and spell and still struggle with the reading - to a lesser extent. I agree that it is not just or even a phonological problem but a whole range of problems. I struggle with the organisation of everything. To overcome this I feel like I go into 'robot mode' as I call it. I'm right brained so I guess my 'robot mode' is letting the left brain take over.

Luqman Michel said...

Thank you for your comment Sue. I would like to know what you mean by 'robot mode.' How do you go about doing it? Perhaps you could e-mail me and I can learn more from you.