Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Why Johnny Can't Read, Part 4: Brain-Based Reading Disorders

The 4th in a series on vulnerable readers

Some children's brains have difficulty processing written words and text. Such children may have difficulty decoding words, reading fluently, and comprehending what they read. These reading difficulties are not related to level of  intelligence or creativity, and indeed, these reading disorders are often discovered when children's performance in reading is below expectation for their age and grade level. The estimates of the incidence of these brain-based disorders varies widely from about 2% to 20% of the student population, depending on what source you read. The International Dyslexia Association sets the number at between 15 and 20% of the population having "symptoms of dyslexia", which may include "slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, and poor writing."

The label many give these reading disorders is dyslexia. The label may be comforting to some, but according to the International Literacy Association, (ILA) the nature and causes of the difficulty, and even whether or not the label itself is helpful, are still matters that are under investigation. One problem with the dyslexia label is that there are many mythologies and misleading concepts surrounding the term. For example characteristics such as clumsiness, attention deficit, fine motor problems, creativity, or handedness are not considered indicators of dyslexia. Severe reading difficulties also do not result from visual problems that produce letter and word reversals

While the reading difficulties are related to genetics and neurology, we also know that environment and good instruction can ameliorate the impact. Again, according to the ILA survey of research:

When beginning literacy instruction is engaging and responsive to children’s needs... the percentage of school children having continuing difficulty is small. In fact, interventions that are appropriately responsive to individual needs have been shown to reduce the number of children with continuing difficulties in reading to below 2% of the population (Vellutino et al., 2000).

In sum then, brain-based reading difficulties are real, related to difficulties in decoding words, and responsive to good instruction. What should that instruction look like?

Controversy as to the best methods of instruction continue. The differing recommendations generally come from the differing orientations of the researchers involved. Literacy experts (such as the authors of the ILA paper above) tend to argue for more eclectic, teacher driven approaches.

As yet, there is no certifiably best method for teaching children who experience reading difficulty. Optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness, and for the freedom to act on the basis of that professionalism.

Researchers looking at brain-based reading disabilities from a more medical standpoint such as the authors of the IDA piece above, tend to favor a diagnosis/treatment approach that emphasizes phonological coding work.

To say that there is not broad agreement on how to teach reading to children with dyslexia is a disservice to children and families whose lives are affected by this condition...Environments that provide repeated careful opportunities to practice phonological coding will result in a decreased expression of dyslexia. 

What is a teacher to do with this conflicting advice? I will talk more about what instruction for vulnerable readers should look like in future posts, but for now, I would conclude that it is not really helpful to fight over whether a child is dyslexic or not dyslexic, but rather to look on each vulnerable reader as an individual who is ready to learn and deserves the best instruction we can deliver to meet their very particular needs.

There is one other brain-based factor I would like to consider here because I believe it has a large impact on children's ability to benefit from reading instruction: Student Self-Regulation. Blair (2002) describes a neurobiological model of self-regulation that is essential for learning.

Whether defined as regulation of emotion in appropriate social responding or the regulation of attention and selective strategy use in the execution of cognitive tasks, self-regulatory skills underlie many of the behaviors and attributes that are associated with successful school adjustment (p.112).

Blair's work along with many follow-up studies have shown that we need to expand our concept of readiness beyond the constructs of emergent literacy, to include a readiness to receive instruction. Such readiness includes impulse control, interference control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility, the ability to apply rules flexibly and to switch your thinking based on new information, seems particularly important to literacy learners. Since phonics/spelling rules only apply to about 50% of words, approaching decoding/spelling tasks flexibly would seem to be a hallmark of the skilled literacy learner.

The self-regulating child can best take advantage of all the learning opportunities presented. Blair and others suggest that self-regulation can be taught and should be a regular part of an early education program. A positive orientation toward learning may prove to be as important as the actual literacy instruction provided to the child.

Works Cited

Blair, C. (2002). School readiness: Integrating cognition and emotion in a neurobiological conceptualization of children's functioning at school entry. American Psychologist, 57(2), 111-117.

Mathes, P.G., Denton, C.A., Fletcher, J.M., Anthony, J.L., Francis, D.J., & Schatschneider, C. (2005). The effects of theoretically different instruction and student characteristics on the skills of struggling readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 148–182. doi:10.1598/ RRQ.40.2.2 

Vellutino, F.R., Scanlon, D.M., & Lyon, G.R. (2000). Differentiating between difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers: More evidence against the IQ-achievement discrepancy definition of reading disability. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(3), 223–238.

Other posts in this series;

Why Johnny Can't Read? It's Complicated, Ms. Hanford

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 2: Income Inequity

Why Johnny Can't Read? Part 3: Racism and Segregation



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