Dyslexia and Different Languages
This month, a fascinating study was reported, showing that dyslexia affects different parts of children's brains depending on whether they are raised reading English or Chinese. The study was conducted by Li-Hai Tan, a professor of linguistics and brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Hong Kong and was reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI's), Tan's group studied the brains of students raised reading Chinese. They then compared those findings with similar studies of the brains of students raised reading English.
What appears to happen is that different writing systems (i.e., the symbols the child has to read) require the use of different areas of the brain. For example, English-speaking children have to deal with letters and learning how the sounds of letters combine to form words. By contrast, Chinese youngsters memorize hundreds of complex symbols which represent whole words. In other words, the reader uses different parts of the brain depending on the writing system that he or she has been born into.
These changes occur in all children. However, what also happens is that some children have difficulty with the process. Often their difficulties are placed under the rubric of dyslexia. Keep in mind that most children who have difficulties in reading are not dyslexic. However, that term has had a kind of magnetic attraction that has led to its becoming prominent in the field of reading difficulties--and almost synonymous with reading failure. It is also a term that is marked by major misconceptions. For example, though it has long been shown not to be the case, many people think that dyslexics see backwards, or in reverse.
What is known is that dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that can include problems in reading, spelling, writing and pronouncing words. Reading an alphabetic language like English requires different skills than reading Chinese, which relies less on sound representation, instead using symbols to represent words.
Given the importance of reading and reading disability, the findings have naturally led to the issue of intervention: How can they be used to help the children learn more effectively? Tan has suggested different treatments are needed for different languages. As a general principle, this is excellent.
As so often is the case, the devil is in the details. For example, one of the first suggestions is that treatments of English dyslexia focus on letter-sound conversions and sound awareness--since those skills seem central. But this is exactly what has been done for years--with little success. What comes to mind is Albert Einstein's definition of insanity which is said is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
It's not difficult to figure out why the failure rate remains stable and high. As I have indicated over the course of many blogs, current techniques focus endlessly and almost exclusively on sounds and sound analysis--the areas that pose greatest difficulty for the children. From the perspective of learning and motivation, this cannot be a recipe for success. What is needed are new approaches that via more appealing and less stressful methods offer the children entry into the world of print. What is not needed is using brilliant, intriguing studies to reinforce tired, ineffective methods.